January 28, 2021

Martha Mitchell and Senator Strom Thurmond
Early 1970’s probably


This photo was in a box of newspaper photos sold at a flea market in Columbia, South Carolina.  Photographer Vic Tutte had a caption on the back—“Of course I’m Rhett Butler. Why do you ask?”  Martha and Strom certainly seemed like a couple from Gone With the Wind.

Nicknamed the ”Mouth of the South,” Martha was a Southern belle married to the powerful Republican politician John Mitchell during the Nixon era.  Much like George Conway spoke out against his wife Kellyanne’s boss Donald Trump, Martha didn’t hesitate to speak her mind and tipped journalist friends off to Nixon’s dirty politics.  When Mitchell moved from being Attorney General to reelection campaign manager, Martha’s outbursts became a threat to the Nixon campaign and she was held hostage, tranquilized and pressured to keep quiet. Viewed as unstable and hysterical, she was vindicated when Nixon resigned. This photo was from a happier time.

Strom represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 1954 to 2003 and was Governor before that.  A Southern Democrat violented opposed to civil rights and segregation, he bolted from the party in 1948 and ran for President from the States’ Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrats), and later was a Republican.  His first wife died in 1960 and in 1966, he married former Miss South Carolina Nancy Moore.  He was 66 and she was 22.  About 1970, we were eating lunch at the downtown Columbia Morrison’s Cafeteria and the Thurmonds were at a nearby table.  They were with Nancy’s parents, who were much younger than her husband Strom!  They had two sons and two daughters, Nancy wrote books about parenting, and like all South Carolinians, we got a color photo Christmas card from the family each year. 

Strom hung on in the Senate until he was 100 years old, the only person to do so.  Only Robert Byrd served longer in the Senate than Thurmond.

There was one more surprise after Thurmond’s death, when we learned that when he was 22, he had fathered a child by a 16 -year- old African American maid who worked for his parents.  That daughter, Essie Mae Washington, eventually learned who her father was, they developed something of a relationship and he provided for her, but kept the secret.  His children from the marriage to Nancy publicly acknowledged her as a family member.  A memorial to Thurmond at the South Carolina Capitol lists his five children, the first being Essie Mae.

Dance on—full circle.

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