PINE BLUFF – Arkansians old enough to remember when Life was a popular weekly magazine may also recognize the neatly haired woman depicted on one of its covers half a century ago. The weathered issue is displayed on the dining room table of Ferguson House, Pine Bluff’s first residence listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
These older people can probably identify Martha Mitchell as the celebrity pictured. Young Arkansans may mumble, “Martha who?”
In the early 1970s, she became a talkative figure in the Watergate scandal. This debacle led President Richard M. Nixon to resign in lieu of an impeachment conviction in 1974. It also sent some of his close associates to prison. One such criminal was United States Attorney General John Mitchell, husband of the Pine Bluff native.
Shortly after Martha Mitchell’s death in 1975, Ferguson House at 902 Fourth Ave. was purchased by Bob Abbott. The octogenarian still maintains an office across the street and train tracks from the residence, now known as the Martha Mitchell Home and Museum. He has been responding to new inquiries about the location since April 24.
That’s because Pine Bluff native Mitchell is back in the public eye, half a century after Watergate. She’s played by Julia Roberts in an eight-episode Starz miniseries titled “Gaslit,” which airs Sunday nights through June 12.
“The day after the first episode aired, I had a dozen phone calls about the house,” says Abbott, who is happy to show visitors around if they call ahead at (870) 535-4973. “A caller asked, ‘Is there really a Martha Mitchell house?'”
Visitors get a quick refresher on Mitchell’s life, beginning with her birth as Martha Elizabeth Beall in Pine Bluff on September 2, 1918. She grew up as the only child of a cotton broker and of a theater teacher. His sour tongue, which later earned him the moniker “The Mouth of the South”, was reflected in doggerel verse beneath his senior year photograph in the Pine Bluff High School yearbook:
“I like his soft chirping, I like his soft flow, I like rolling my tongue, and I like letting him go.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Miami in Florida, she returned to Arkansas and worked briefly as a secretary at the Pine Bluff Arsenal before her office moved to Washington. She had a son from a failed first marriage before marrying John Mitchell in New York and returning to Washington when he was appointed United States Attorney General. They had a daughter.
Abbott points out that Mitchell became a national celebrity even before Watergate, thanks to her reputation as an outspoken DC socialite. In a 1970 Gallup poll, after her appearance on the hit TV show “Laugh-In”, 76% of Americans knew who she was. She has been on the cover of Time magazine as well as Life. In 1971, she was on Gallup’s list of America’s 10 Most Admired Women.
“She was a major fundraiser for Republicans during the 1972 campaign,” Abbott said. Then came his role in Watergate making phone calls to reporters, often in the evening after one or more stiff drinks, to reveal inside details of the scandal. At one point, she claimed Nixon agents were holding her captive in a hotel suite.
Watergate separated Mitchell from her husband, and she died of bone cancer in New York at age 57 on May 31, 1976. John Mitchell attended his funeral at First Presbyterian Church in Pine Bluff, followed by interment at Bellwood Cemetery.
“I was amazed at the amount of media covering his funeral,” Abbott said. “That’s when I decided to buy the vacant house and restore it to his memory. Over the years we’ve had thousands of visitors. Just before the pandemic hit in 2020 , I showed a busload of tourists en route from Branson to home in Mississippi.There were 38 women and 2 men.
During his visits, Abbott points out some of the restoration work he financed on the two-story house built in 1887 for Mitchell’s grandfather, CA Ferguson, a wholesale grocery store owner.
In addition to magazine covers and clippings, the house is adorned with paintings and photographs depicting Mitchell. Laid out on a bed in one of the upstairs bedrooms is the dress she wore for her first wedding. Some furniture was recovered from Washington after his death.
Abbott is unsure about the future of the Martha Mitchell Home and Museum. But whatever his fate, his name seems etched forever in his hometown. One of the thoroughfares in Pine Bluff, US Business 65, is called the Martha Mitchell Expressway. Abbott played a major role in persuading officials to assign the name.
“She deserves this honor,” he said. “You could rightly say that she was the most famous person ever born here.”