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Sleekly coiffed, teased and sprayed, she glittered in the drab Nixonian setting, where to glow was considered a nono. She had an unbridled tongue and an addiction to nocturnal phone calls that converted her into a national celebrity. When she died last week, abandoned and alone, Martha Mitchell strangely seemed more of a figure from the distant past than one on whom the spotlights shone a scant two years ago.

Up from Pine Bluff, Ark., blonde, dimpled Martha made the scene first in New York. Her first marriage failed but her second, to Manhattan Bond Attorney John Mitchell, was a good one. Mitchell's $250,000 annual income provided a luxurious suburban home and still left enough to pay the hairdresser. When Daughter Marty was ready, she went to the best schools.

But the 1969 move to Washington proved fateful. In the toned-down Nixon years, wives of high officials were expected to observe the proprieties and, except for Martha, they did. Being the wife of the Attorney General did not prohibit her, she believed, from expressing opinions of her own, even though they often resulted in embarrassing headlines. Anti-Viet Nam War demonstrators were "very liberal Communists" in Martha's lexicon. In a series of late-night phone calls, she demanded that the Arkansas Gazette "crucify" then Senator J. William Fulbright for his opposition to a Nixon Supreme Court Nominee, G. Harrold Carswell.

As long as she remained ardently pro-Nixon, Martha's peccadilloes were tolerated. But after the 1972 Watergate breakin, Martha gave evidence of an intuitive common sense that her wackiness had masked. When she called a reporter to describe politics as "dirty business" and to announce that she had told Mitchell to choose between their marriage and continued service to Nixon, a campaign security agent assigned to look after her ripped out the phone, had her sedated, and confined her to a hotel room. Mitchell soon after resigned as Nixon's campaign manager and moved with Martha to a 14-room Manhattan apartment. But she was not pacified for long. She publicly accused "Mr. President" of deep involvement in Watergate, condemned him for letting Mitchell and others take the blame, and demanded that he resign. By then her impulsiveness and heavy drinking were so celebrated that few took her often slurred words seriously.

As Watergate unraveled, Martha's world fell apart. Mitchell left her, and after being sentenced to up to eight years for Watergate crimes, qualified for an award in ungallantry by remarking that it could have been worse: "They could have sentenced me to spend the rest of my life with Martha Mitchell." A court awarded custody of Marty to Mitchell and ordered him to pay Martha $1,000 a week. But the disbarred Mitchell fell $36,000 behind. Only two weeks ago, a judge ordered him to pay up after Martha's attorney described her as desperately ill from bone-marrow cancer and "without funds and without friends." It was in such circumstances that the once flamboyant Martha died a few days later at 57. At her funeral in Pine Bluff, a floral offering bore the words "Martha was right," and of course she was. She had paid a high price for being so.