Newport Beach hotel was site of bizarre Watergate kidnapping

When concert-goers gather under the stars at the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach outdoor amphitheater this summer, as they do every year to watch retro performers like Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs, most of them will have no idea that they are steps away from where one of the weirdest episodes of the entire Watergate scandal took place.

The drama started 3,000 miles away at another famous hotel, the Watergate in Washington, DC. There in the wee hours of the morning on June 17, 1972 five men were arrested for breaking into and attempting to bug the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters.

The Watergate Hotel and Complex, Washington, DC

The news of the break-in merely raised eyebrows over the next few days, because no one yet knew the full significance of what had just happened — or that the burglary would eventually be traced directly back to the White House and to Nixon himself, and lead to his eventual resignation.

Later that June evening out here on the West Coast, former U.S. Attorney John Mitchell, who was now in charge of Nixon’s campaign for re-election, was with his wife Martha partying in the beachside city of Corona del Mar among prominent Republican donors and Hollywood celebrities, including John Wayne.

Martha Mitchell

But as things began to spin out of control back in Washington, an antsy John Mitchell wanted to leave the party early. Martha wanted to stay, however, and, according to veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas, the couple got into an embarrassing fight over the matter.

Thomas wrote that “Mitchell told guests he had ‘a very important meeting’ to attend. Finally he grabbed his wife and they departed.”

These were the days before people checked the news every five minutes on their smart phones, so Martha was clueless as to why her husband was so agitated.

Keeping mum about the reason for his urgent departure, John Mitchell flew back to Washington, leaving the still oblivious Martha to stay at one of the villas at the Newporter Inn, which has since been purchased by Hyatt and rebranded as the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach.

Newporter Inn, circa 1964

Before he left for DC, Mitchell sternly charged his handlers to keep the news of the Watergate arrests from Martha, especially because she knew James McCord, one of the five men who was busted, was a campaign employee. Not to mention, she had a tendency to be overly chatty, and would likely be eager to freely share with the media everything she knew about this direct connection to the Nixon campaign if given the opportunity.

The reason Martha knew McCord, a former CIA employee, is because he oversaw — of all things — providing bodyguards for her and her husband.

Taking seriously Mitchell’s directive to keep Martha from hearing or seeing any news about Watergate, the Nixon goon squad held her hostage in her hotel room. When Martha managed to get to the phone to call reporter Helen Thomas, she said a Nixon campaign official ripped the phone cord out of the wall.

After a struggle in which Martha reportedly was badly bruised and put her hand through a window, she was forcibly drugged.

By the end of that month, Martha announced that she was leaving her husband until he got out of the Nixon campaign. “I love my husband very much. But I’m not going to stand for all these dirty things that go on,” she told Thomas.

The following year, in a phone call to the New York Times, Martha said that she was still frightened, but she wouldn’t say of whom. The March 1973 story in the Times gives this account:

“If you hear that I’m sick or can’t talk, please, please, get your reporters out to find me,” she said. “Somebody might try to shut me up.”

She said that she felt yesterday just as she did last June when she was thrown to the floor and stuck with a hypodermic needle in Newport Beach, Calif., during what had been a telephone conversation with a reporter. Mr. Mitchell was in California for campaign activities.

Mrs. Mitchell has accused Steve King, a security official, of throwing her to the floor, kicking her, and jerking the telephone cord from the wall.

John Mitchell eventually became the first U.S. Attorney General to go behind bars, serving 19 months in prison after his conviction in 1975 for his part in the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He never was charged in connection with Martha’s kidnapping.

James McCord, left, was among the five men arrested in the Watergate break-in.

Oddly enough, it was James McCord who confirmed three years later that Martha’s story was true. Helen Thomas gives this account:

James W. McCord Jr., a convicted Watergate conspirator, said today that Mrs. John N. Mitchell was “basically” kidnapped in 1972 to keep her ignorant of Watergate.

Mr. McCord said Mrs. Mitchell had not lied when she said she had been manhandled and drugged to keep her from learning the truth about the Watergate break‐in.

“Martha’s story is true — basically the woman was kidnapped,” Mr. McCord said in an interview.

After Watergate, because of her outspokenness and her provocative opinions, Martha Mitchell became a much sought after talk show guest. She died of cancer in 1976 the at the age of 57.

After his release from prison, John Mitchell kept active and traveled frequently, visiting friends around the country, according to his obituary in the Washington Post. He died of a heart attack in 1988. He was 75.

James McCord retired from his own security business and died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 93.

Steve King currently serves as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic for the Trump Administration.

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  • Sources:
  • “Martha: ‘I’m leaving John,’” UPI, June 26, 1972.
  • “Martha Mitchell’s ‘prisoner’ story gaining credence,” United Press International, April 22, 1973
  • “Mrs. Mitchell Fears Plot to Tie Watergate to Husband,” New York Times, March 28, 1973.
  • “McCord Declares That Mrs. Mitchell Was Forcibly Held,” Washington Post, Feb. 19, 1975.
  • “John N. Mitchell, Principal in Watergate, Dies at 75,” Washington Post, Nov. 10, 1988.
  • “How Martha Mitchell, the outspoken wife of Nixon’s attorney general, brought southern candor to Washington,” Daily News, Aug. 17, 2017.
  • “Trump Ambassador Beat and ‘Kidnapped’ Woman in Watergate Cover-Up: Reports,” Newsweek, Dec. 11, 2017.

This is where I write to amuse myself.