A few excerpts of the book Front Row At The White House - My Life And Times by Helen Thomas
from pages 203-204
In December 1971 a wire story ran about Vice President Spiro Agnew's gag Christmas gift list. Included on the list were: "For Martha Mitchell, a brand-new Princess phone. For John Mitchell, a padlock for a brand-new Princess phone."
"Why did Martha Mitchell call you?" someone asked me after I filed my first story based on one of her many telephone calls in which she expressed her outraged a few days after the Watergate break-in.
I wasn't the only reporter she called, but I did take her seriously and I wrote about what she told me. Sometimes the stories made it to the wire and sometimes they go spiked. But Martha perhaps put the answer best herself when she told an interviewer, "Helen knows me well enough to know I'm not going to give her a line of bull. We just kind of fell into each other's arms. Several other reporters had been recommended to me, but when I talked to them they were cold fish. They were calculating, and, I thought, unwilling to stick their necks out. Helen Thomas, I knew would print the truth no matter what it cost her personally, and I wanted the truth to be known."(1)
I don't think the dust will ever entirely settle on the Watergate scandal, but I do think Martha deserves more than a footnote in its history. She should be remembered as the woman who tried to blow the whistle on what was going on, but sometimes her stories seemed so out there, it was close to impossible to get anyone to listen. However, I listened and I wrote and I'll let history decide.
I do remember her telling me early on in her time in Washington, "Politics is a dirty business," and I remember equally well a memorable remark her husband made shortly after they arrived: "Watch what we do, not what we say."
from pages 210 - 211
On Thursday at about 9:00 P.M., Doug and I were at home, just finishing dinner, when the phone rang. It was Martha. She sounded calm, sad and uncharacteristically subdued. We chatted for a little while and I asked her about Watergate.
"That's it," she said. "I've given John an ultimatum. I'm going to leave him unless he gets out of the campaign. I'm sick and tired of politics. Politics is a dirty business."
Then suddenly, her voice became more agitated and she yelled, "You get away. Just get away," and the line went dead.
I tried to call back several times without success and then called the switchboard operator. I was told that "Mrs. Mitchell is indisposed and cannot talk."
I then called Mitchell, who had returned to Washington, at their Watergate apartment and told him what had happened during my conversation with Martha and that I was a little concerned. He sounded rather blasé but tried to ease my fears. "That little sweetheart," he said. "I love her so much. She gets a little upset about politics but she loves me and I love her and that's what counts. I'll tell you a secret: I've promised Martha I'll give up politics after this campaign."
The more we talked, the more bizarre his attitude struck me, but he kept assuring me that Martha wasn't in any danger. I telephoned UPI's desk and dictated a story to Bob Taylor, who decided it was credible and ran it. Later I heard that along with Mitchell, White House counsel John Dean and a few others were in the apartment at the time of my "distress call" to him at home and they had quite a laugh over it.
The story got a fair amount of playmostly on the women's pages. Maybe editors thought it was just another case of Martha being Martha and newsworthy only because it revealed a rift in a very public marriage. Back in Washington, administration aids began hinting that Martha was hallucinating, that she was deranged or that she was just drunk.
In an interview later, Martha told me, "I want to be sure my side is revealed and that people know I'm not sitting here a mental case or an alcoholic."
What happened in that villa? She later told me a hair-raising story: "They threw me down on the bedfive persons did ita doctor, a nurse, Lea Jablonsky . . . pulled my pants down and stuck a needle in my behind, the longest needle you ever saw. I've never been treated like this before." She had a gash in her hand that she said required eleven stitches.
from pages 218 - 219
After Nixon resigned in August 1974, Martha found herself in demand for talk shows and interviews and "the voice that launched a thousand quips" was back in action. She traveled, visited friends, and began writing a book and making plans to host a television show.
She came back to Washington in the summer of 1975 for a visit and over Labor Day weekend, at a friend's house, she fell when opening the refrigerator door. Unable to cope with the severe pain in her neck and back, she was taken to Northern Virginia Doctors' Hospital. X-rays showed she had two broken ribs and a broken neck vertebra. But other tests revealed something worse. Martha had multiple myeloma, a painful bone marrow cancer that leaves the victim's bones brittle and full of holes.
She called me from the hospital and I sat by her bedside that day while doctors explained the illness to her, drawing diagrams and using words like malignancy instead of cancer. She listened quietly, her eyes round and wide, but it was as if she were listening to them describe someone else's condition. I went back to my office and, sadly, began to write the first news story of her illness. The next morning, Martha watched the news on the "Today" show. Shocked and tearful, she spoke to her friend Diane Auger. "They say I have cancer." As far as I know, she never used that word again. Friends and strangers alike flooded the hospital with get-well cards. Her son, Jay, who was working as a congressional aide, and his Mississippi-born wife, Janice, visited her often.
By early October, she was anxious to leave the hospital. "Get me out of here," she'd tell everyone who came to see her. Jay brought her to an apartment leased by Diane and her husband, Tom Beury, near the Shoreham Hotel. Martha saw other doctors who confirmed the diagnosis.
She tried to keep her spirits high and her outlook positive. However, of the hundreds of letters she received, she could not bear to read those from people who also suffered from the same disease, even though many of those letters went on to offer encouragement, telling her she could live a long life.
In mid-November, Martha went home to New York. She spent one night in the apartment and then entered Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital and was put under the care of Dr. Klaus Mayer, the stocky, graying chief of hematology.
"When I first saw her, she was so ill, I thought she wasn't going to last a week," Mayer said later. "But she responded beautifully."
He confirmed she had a "very progressive myeloma" and her bones were eroding rapidly. Her skull, he said, looked like Swiss cheese in places. He began an aggressive chemotherapy series during which Martha's personality seemed to undergo a transformation.
I spoke to Dr. Mayer periodically to check on her progress and he told me something astounding: "At first she was difficult to handle," he said. "She was paranoid. She accused me of working for Nixon. Once she suspected her disease was brought on by the injection she had forcibly received in Californiaa highly inaccurate supposition.
"But then her attitude changed rapidly and we became good friends. I think it was mainly that she learned to trust me. But she never gave up the lingering idea that 'those guys' had induced her illness."(14)
(1) Helen Thomas, Dateline: White House (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 218.
(14) Helen Thomas, interview with Dr. Meyer, taken from story notes, date unknown.