The ‘Mouth of the South’: saving Martha Mitchell’s story
Port Chester thespian writes, stars in play about the forgotten whistleblower of Watergate
August 30, 2023 at 11:23 p.m.
After writing and self-producing the one-act play “Shut Up Martha,” a showcase about the legacy of the Richard Nixon-era conservative icon Martha Mitchell, Port Chester resident Jake Lipman (starring as Martha Mitchell) took her work to the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. in July for its premiere.
Photo by Carl Bindman
(Courtesy photo of Photo by Carl Bindman)
There was something that felt intimidating to Jake Lipman about taking on the role of a conservative icon.
Though she wrote the part for herself, Lipman saw the process of embodying Martha Mitchell as a prime challenge of acting—the famed socialite was everything she’s not.
“I got this sense of I totally don’t get her, and I totally get her,” Lipman described in the Rye Ridge Shopping Center Starbucks on a late-July Monday afternoon, a week or so after she premiered her play about Mitchell in Washington, D.C.
But it was a task she wanted to conquer, ultimately, out of admiration.
Last summer, Lipman developed a mild obsession with the character after watching the documentary, “The Martha Mitchell Effect,” on Netflix—a film that made her ponder how the public facing wife of President Richard Nixon’s attorney general played a monumental role in both pop culture and the Watergate scandal, only to be largely forgotten in history due to what many critics identify as blatant misogyny.
Lipman felt a gravitating warmth toward Martha, initially because she reminded her of her grandmother—the vibrant make up, high-heeled shoes and tactful use of bouffant and chignon hairstyles.
“Martha is so colorful and very different from me. Like, I’m from the Northeast, I grew up liberal,” Lipman described. But upon embracing the story and essence of Martha, Lipman realized that despite their differences in ideology and character, there’s a legacy that deserves to be told.
Lipman, one of Port Chester’s newer residents who moved into her home in the neighborhood of Port Chester High School in May 2022, premiered her one-act play “Shut Up Martha” at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C., in mid-July. With a positive reception there, she’s hoping to flesh it out more and bring it to a New York venue within the next year.
“The pandemic, I think was clarifying,” Lipman said of her decision to leave New York City, where she had lived for over 20 years, and establish roots in Port Chester. The City was getting darker, and she and her husband found they were craving a little more space.
Though her day job has consisted of corporate gigs—she’s currently a director of administrative services at Advance Publications—Lipman is a thespian. She initially moved to New York from the suburbs of Boston to attend the Actors Studio Drama School at the New School in 2000.
While the Actors Studio emphasizes the art of method acting, “I realized very early on I’m not actually a method actor, I kind of like the outside-in (tactic),” she said. “I think both are really useful, and I think I use a combination if I’m being honest. I’m a character actor; I make my own opportunities.”
And soon after finishing her master’s, she started creating opportunities with the founding of her own production company, “Tongue in Cheek Productions”—a passion project that she writes and performs with that has been on hiatus since the March 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.
In Port Chester, Lipman used her time off the stage to focus her theatric energy toward playwrighting. She had been working on a script about Girl Scouts when she saw the Martha Mitchell documentary and quickly tabled it—finding a deeper connection with the conservative icon particularly after discovering she spent many years of her life nearby in Rye.
Who was Martha Mitchell?
A Southern Belle born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in 1918, Martha eventually married John Mitchell, a Manhattan-based attorney who within a few years would become colleagues with Nixon. When the former president was elected in 1968, he brought John Mitchell to Washington, D.C., with him as his attorney general, who would ultimately transition into the head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President during Nixon’s campaign for a second term.
Throughout the Nixon era, Martha had developed and maintained a gendered status-quo defying reputation.
As “the most talked about woman in Washington,” per newspaper reports of the time, she was well known as the “Mouth of the South” with an outspoken, flamboyant and abrasive persona. Sometimes, she was a spokesperson of sorts advocating for the Nixon administration, making regular appearances on talk shows and news stations. And other times, she was engaging with a drink in hand in late night phone calls to reporters—being particularly fond of female journalists—gossiping with heavily opinionated rhetoric about her husband’s conversations that she’d eavesdrop on.
The Mitchells were campaigning for Nixon’s re-election in Newport Beach, Calif., when John got word of the Watergate burglary and arrests made in the aftermath—the infamous scandal that he would later be heavily associated with. While he returned to Washington, D.C., in light of the events, Martha was told to stay behind in California, where she claimed to have been essentially kidnapped so she wouldn’t find out about the incident, nor talk to the press.
The cast of “Shup Up Martha” pose for an official production photo before premiering the show at the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C. From the left: Matt Gibson, William Douglas Turner, Jake Lipman, Jaya Tripathi and Loralee Tyson.
Photo by Carl Bindman
Reportedly under the watchful eye of security, Martha would eventually find newspaper articles about the break-in and put together the nefarious political involvement. She famously called her favorite reporter, Helen Thomas, to divulge her suspicions, only to have the phone ripped away mid-conversation.
Martha, considered a whistleblower, would later go public with her story—the abduction and physical abuse she experienced along with the connections she had put together between the break-in and the Committee to Re-Elect the President—and was quickly, and successfully, disparaged by the administration. Her marriage fell apart as she slipped into the darkness, with perception believing her to be a hysterical, deranged drunk.
A few years later, her story would be validated by others affiliated with the incident, but the vindication was not thoroughly reflected in her legacy. She died at 57 years old just a few years after Nixon’s resignation, in 1976, succumbing to bone marrow cancer.
Different acts of feminism
Lipman views the real, unrecognized story of Martha as a narrative of empowerment. “I think she was a feminist, though I doubt she would have used that term,” she laughed. “It’s just not the kind of thing a woman who was conservative in the 60s and 70s would have done.”
But stories about feminism are right up Lipman’s alley.
She has produced over 40 productions through “Tongue in Cheek,” which have mostly been showcased in black box theaters around New York City. “I like it because it’s a little more interactive in that way,” she said. “I can look right into your eyes when you’re in the audience and deliver a line and get a laugh. In some shows, you can hear their commentary.”
And over the decades, the production company had solidified its style.
“I like things that are thought-provoking but also comedic,” she said. “I don’t usually do these big epic stories; I like to do a small character study, or something about a family. But I want there to be something a little deeper to it.”
Of the previous shows Lipman has crafted, she’s described the most pride in the showcases that in a light-hearted, yet profound way bring women’s issues to light. Specifically, she pointed to her 2018 piece “Relentlessly Pleasant,” a show about women at work that brings into question: what does it mean to be a feminist in the workplace?
A play about Martha Mitchell, Lipman said, intrigued her because it presented yet another platform to combine humor and stories about women.
“Shut Up Martha” doesn’t intend to serve as a biography, but rather a snippet featuring some creative liberties of her life, between roughly 1969 and 1974. As a story, it heavily focuses on the close, mutually beneficial relationship between Martha and Helen Thomas—a friendship that catapulted both women in their careers.
“Some of the best lines that got laughs in my show are directly from Martha’s mouth. She’s very comical; such a pistol,” Lipman said, while noting the show does take a darker tone once Martha is abducted.
Though it initially scared her, Lipman wrote “Shut Up Martha” with the intention of starring as the protagonist because the more she got to know Martha from afar, the more she realized it’s a character study worth internalizing.
“She’s very genuine, but she’s kind of tough, too. And I think that’s what I got excited about. She’s very different from me, ideologically, but she’s genuine,” Lipman said. “Beyond the surface stuff, it’s that she was very confident about how she went through the world, and she wasn’t apologizing for it. And I like that. She dared to go into rooms where she wasn’t necessarily invited, and had this willingness to say what she saw, say what she thought and not be overly apologetic about it.”
She hopes audience members also recognize the relevance of the story—that Martha, regardless of party affiliation—was an advocate for honest politics.
“There’s a lot of talk now about people speaking truth to power. I think we can agree as a country that we want things to get better, not worse. That we want things to be more transparent, not less,” Lipman said. “Don’t we want our country to be a leader of democracy, a beacon of hope for people?”
That’s what Martha wanted then, and it’s what Lipman wants now. And it’s a message that she thinks crosses ideological bounds.