Features and Columns · TV

The Real Story Behind ‘Gaslit’

Julia Roberts and Sean Penn star as Martha Mitchell and former US Attorney General John Mitchell in this lesser known story about the Watergate scandal.
Gaslit Series Julia Roberts and Sean Penn
By  · Published on March 16th, 2022

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story of Martha Mitchell, the wife of former US Attorney General and Nixon advisor John Mitchell, who was kidnapped and beaten for her knowledge of the Watergate break-in. 

A new political thriller headed by Julia Roberts and Sean Penn depicts a shocking and lesser known episode of the Watergate scandal. Gaslit, a limited television series from Starz, tells the true story of Martha Mitchell (Roberts) and ex-US Attorney General John Mitchell (Penn), who at the time of the scandal was head of President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee.

Violence, a kidnapping, and naturally, political corruption figure at the center of this tale. Here is a look at the true story behind Gaslit and some of the under-seen stories of America’s most famous political scandal.

Meet the Mitchells

Martha Mitchell was born and raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She eventually earned a degree from the University of Miami and worked as a teacher until, as Time magazine reported her saying in a short 1969 profile, “I despised it.” She eventually began working for the US Army in Arkansas and then transferred to Washington DC. While there, she met her first husband, with whom she had a child and then divorced in 1957.

That same year, she met her future husband and fellow divorcee, John, in New York. At the time, he was working as a highly-paid attorney in the city. “I was so impressed with his suaveness and intellect, she told Time, “the minute I looked at him I knew he was an extremely outstanding person.”

Heavily involved in New York politics, John became an important advisor to former Vice President Richard Nixon, who was slowly plotting to run again for the presidency in 1968 (he had lost to John F. Kennedy in 1960). John was the consummate Nixon insider.

And so, as Nixon geared up for the election, he appointed John to be his campaign manager. When Nixon won the White House, he appointed John the job of US Attorney General. And Martha, according to Time, became “the most vocal of all the Cabinet members’ wives.”

Nixon’s First Term

During Richard Nixon’s first term in the White House, John Mitchell, as head of the Justice Department, became a key figure in implementing some of the president’s most controversial initiatives. From his New York Times obituary:

“From the outset, the new Attorney General strove to suppress what many Americans saw as major threats to their safety: urban crime, black unrest, war resistance. He called for ‘no-knock’ entry and no-warrant frisking and wiretapping, preventive detention, the use of Federal troops to repress crime in the capital, a ‘restructured’ Supreme Court and a slowdown in school desegregation.”

As John got to work inside the federal government, Martha took to the press to champion the administration’s policies and offer views of her own. For example, she told Time of the marches for civil rights:

“Any time you get somebody marching in the streets, it’s catering to revolution. It started with the colored people in the South. Now other groups are taking to the streets. We could have worked out the integration battle without allowing them to march. My family worked for everything we had. We even have a deed from the King of England for property in South Carolina. Now these jerks come along and try to give it to the Communists.”

You don’t need a degree in constitutional law to see the fear-mongering and racism at work.

Martha became a newspaper and television fixture, offering her takes on politics and life in Washington. She even appeared opposite Lily Tomlin on an episode of the popular TV variety show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

Dirty Tricks

In the early 1970s, President Nixon and his operatives began to fear he would not win a second term. His poll numbers began to slip. Ed Muskie, a Democratic US Senator from Maine, began to beat the incumbent president in public polling. The Nixon team needed to act.

As Attorney General, John remained heavily involved in Nixon’s political team and re-election campaign. The potential conflicts of interest go without saying. And they became no-clearer than in John’s involvement with the so-called “dirty tricks” aimed at discrediting Muskie.

According to the New York Times, the White House’s program of “dirty tricks” included “espionage, forged letters and sabotage” aimed at Muskie and other leading candidates who might challenge Nixon. Jeb Stuart Magruder (played in the series by Hamish Linklater), another Republican political operative, eventually testified that John was “ambivalent” about the program, but that he was, in fact, the person who approved their financing from the outset.

Eventually, Muskie dropped out of the race. In 1972, Nixon beat the Democratic nominee, Senator George McGovern, in an electoral landslide. His fears of losing were unwarranted, but his problems were only just beginning.


In March of 1972, John Mitchell, ever the loyalist, resigned from the Justice Department to head Nixon’s re-election campaign. The so-called “Committee to Re-elect the President” had two nicknames: first CRP, which eventually turned into the fitting CREEP.

Later that year, on June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, housed in Washington DC’s Watergate Office Building. The events of the scandal are well-known. The break-in, subsequent reporting by journalists like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Nixon’s eventual resignation have been immortalized by countless books, movies, and TV shows.

The Mitchells first learned about the break-in while at a campaign event in California, according to the Washington Post. On the night of the break-in, John received a phone call about the arrests. Martha knew one of the men arrested, CREEP’s security director, James McCord (played by Chris Bauer). John and other Nixon operatives feared that if she learned who had been arrested, she would begin talking to the press. He flew back to Washington and “instructed security guards working for the campaign to keep his wife in the dark.”

But his efforts failed. She found out about the break-in and called a reporter, Helen Thomas. According to the Post:

“I’m sick and tired of the whole operation,” she said, before telling Thomas she was giving her husband an “ultimatum” — her or Nixon.

The Kidnapping

After the call, things took a horrific turn. According to Martha Mitchell, and reported by the Washington Post, one of her guards learned of the phone call and ripped the phone from the wall. They kept her in the hotel room for days. One held her down while “a doctor injected her with sedatives, her young daughter watching the whole time.” According to the Post:

“I’m black and blue,” she told Thomas days later. “I’m a political prisoner.”

Following the kidnapping and violence, the identify of the man who held and beat Martha became public: a security guard by the name of Steve King. After Martha was released from the hotel, she demanded that her husband resign from CREEP and that King be fired. Only the former would happen. In fact, King was later promoted.

In 1972, as news of the incident became public, Martha wrote a letter to Parade magazine, in which she said King “not only dealt me the most horrible experience I have ever had, but inflicted bodily harm upon me.” Details of the incident began to resurface again in 2017, when then-President Donald Trump appointed King as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. King told Newsweek in 2017: “I do not wish to comment further on this old story.”

The Fallout

Following the break-in, Martha Mitchell began to take her story public, but few believed her. When she began to talk about Watergate, her stories and thoughts were often not treated as serious news. The Nixon administration began to try and discredit her, “spreading rumors that she was an alcoholic suffering from mental illness,” the Washington Post reported.

John Mitchell resigned as the head of CREEP and said at the time (via the Post):

“I have found that I can no longer [carry out the job] and still meet the one obligation which must come first: the happiness and welfare of my wife and daughter.”

Martha took to the press to try and defend her husband. According to her Times obituary:

“In one such call to the New York Times in March 1973, she said that she thought somebody was trying to make her husband ‘the goat’ for the Watergate scandal and that she was ‘not going to let that happen.'”

That same year, John left Martha. He remained publicly loyal to Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned in disgrace. The following year, John was convicted of several felonies for his involvement in the Watergate scandal and served 19 months in prison.

In 1976, Martha, estranged from most of her family after speaking out, died of cancer at 57. According to the Post, her attorney described her as “desperately ill, without friends, and without funds.”

Later Years

Before her death, in 1975, others slowly started to validate her version of events. As James McCord, then a convicted felon, told the New York Times, “Martha’s story is true — basically the woman was kidnapped.”

In the years that followed, the kind of gaslighting Martha experienced would come to be known as the “Martha Mitchell effect.” This refers to when a patient is misdiagnosed as delusional even though they are describing events that are true. A documentary on Martha and the events, The Martha Mitchell Effect, debuted last year at Sundance.

One who could perhaps be described as delusional, or perhaps just a plain liar, is Nixon. As the Post reports, Nixon, in his famous interviews with journalist David Frost, tried to blame Martha for the whole affair. Nixon said Martha had distracted John, who otherwise could have handled the crisis with her involvement. Nixon said:

“If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate.”

Gaslit premieres on April 24, 2022 on Starz

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.