INTO THE FIREI don't think anyone ever really knew him. He lived within himself very much.
—Robert Mitchell to the author, 1998 (1)
"Do you really want to hear about this?"
John Mitchell was, in his lawyerly way, questioning his questioner, gently needling a young reporter who came to the Department of Justice in the spring of 1970 to interview the attorney general about, of all things, his childhood. On that sunny day in May, the reporter found Mitchell—currently embroiled in searing controversies over the killings at Kent State, two failed Supreme Court nominees, and the potentially explosive desegregation of Southern school systems—utterly at ease in his dark, thickly carpeted office, absently tilting his large frame back and forth in his swivel chair, lighting and relighting his pipe, tossing the still-burning matches into his wastebasket.
Yes, replied the reporter from Long Island's Newsday
, he did indeed want to know about Mitchell's childhood; the subject would interest readers in Mitchell's hometown of Blue Point, New York, and there was, for all the attorney general's fame in those days, little known or written about Mitchell's formative years.
Reluctantly, his pale blue eyes becoming distant as his mind conjured the sights and sounds of coastal Long Island in the 1920s, the attorney general remembered a "normal" childhood spent, he said, "like Huck Finn," immersed in the twin pastimes of sports—"I played them all," he boasted, including baseball, hockey, golf, hunting, fishing, and sailing—and mischief. At one particular memory, Mitchell began to chuckle, softly at first, then uncontrollably, until he was "half-bent" in laughter and brought back into the moment only by a coughing fit.
"I'll tell you, there was one thing, there was one incident," Mitchell began. He described his old wooden school by the railroad tracks, at the intersection of Blue Point's Main Street and River Road, on which his family lived for a time. One night, he said, a fire burned the school clear down to the ground. "Whole damned school went," he said. Again now, Mitchell was laughing hard, and took a few moments to collect himself. "My brother and I were there," the attorney general continued. "We watched it. We were so damned glad to see that thing burn down. We watched it! We threw our books into the fire. We were so glad. We just threw our books in. My father gave us a good whack. I'll always remember that. Whew!"
The memory prompted Mitchell to tell the Newsday
reporter another, similar anecdote from his youth, about an equally destructive fire. "You know, I burned down the house in Blue Point," Mitchell said. "It was one Fourth of July. We had sparklers and it was daylight and, you know, we were supposed to wait until dark. Well, I was a kid who didn't want to wait, so I took some of those sparklers down under the porch and—well, it burned down the house." You didn't have anything to do with the school fire?
the reporter asked. "No," Mitchell assured him. "That was in the middle of the night. This was during the day. Of course not." (2)
With these beguiling stories, in which the stern-faced monument to law and order allowed a glimpse into a younger, more reckless self, one never permitted to emerge in his public appearances as attorney general, there was only one thing wrong: They weren't true. Mitchell's younger brother, Robert, who supposedly heaved his books into the schoolhouse fire along with Mitchell, told the first reporter ever to interview him, in 1998, that the story was complete fiction.
"Nothing happened!" Robert proclaimed. One night, he explained, he and young John Mitchell, or Jack, as his family called him, were awakened by whistles and sirens screaming past their house. "[W]e knew there was a fire somewhere, but didn't know anything about it. Next morning we went to school, and we got up there, and the school was an old frame school. They had just bought fire escapes for it, metal fire escapes. And they were laying in the yard. And we went up there, and the school-it was burnt to the ground, and the nice, new fire escapes were laying all around the edges of it, unused…But that's all…We never heard how the fire started or anything else."
It was much the same with the attorney general's sparkler story, which Robert laughingly dismissed as "another slight exaggeration." Yes, there was an Independence Day celebration at the Mitchells' home in Blue Point, where the boys, looking to escape a stiff wind, lit some sparklers under their back porch. "We went under that [porch] to try and light [the sparklers]," Robert remembered. "And I guess we-a couple of the leaves caught fire there, and we went scrambling out. And one of the adults there, I don't know who it was, took a pail of water and threw it on the leaves, and that was the end of it. The house never burned down. The porch didn't even burn down."
The falsity of the attorney general's childhood tall tales might be easily written off as inconsequential, an Irishman's love of lore, were it not for his multiple perjury convictions in Watergate, and for the recurring theme of factual dispute that accompanies all accounts, and every phase, of his life. That John Newton Mitchell was born in Detroit on September 5, 1913, the fourth of five children, the first three of whom died young, are incontestable facts.3 Yet little else in Mitchell's early biography is so invulnerable to challenge.
Mitchell's paternal lineage is usually traced to Scotland, but exactly when his forefathers came to America varies in the telling. The attorney general's daughter, Jill Mitchell-Reed, believed her family got its start in the States with a stonecutter from Edinburgh who settled in Rutland, Vermont, before moving to Chicago and ending up in Rockport, Maine. (4) Perhaps the most reliable authority-Robert, sole surviving member of the attorney general's boyhood family-said their grandfather, James A. Mitchell, a stonecutter seeking proximity to New Hampshire's granite quarries, emigrated from Aberdeen, Scotland, in the mid-1800s to Rockland, Maine. (5)
After meeting and marrying Margaret Porter, an immigrant from Newfoundland "of English extraction," James A. Mitchell fathered three sons. The youngest of them, Joseph Charles, born around 1882 in Rockland, Maine, was to become the attorney general's father. (6) Skillfully exploiting his family's limited connections, Joseph, when still a young man, joined the trading stamp business owned by an uncle, Esden Porter. Itching to start his own firm, but unwilling to compete directly against his uncle, Joseph left New York for the Midwest, initially eyeing Columbus, Ohio, before settling on Detroit. There he began the People's Legal Stamp Company. (7)
But before that, on an evening in 1906 or 1907, at the East Flatbush home of an older brother, Joseph met his future wife, Margaret Agnes McMahon. (8) Margaret's family was "very well off," her granddaughter Jill Mitchell-Reed recalled. (9) Peter McMahon, Margaret's father, died in his early fifties, but left behind a considerable fortune from his stake in Peter's Chop House, a Greenwich Village steakhouse he owned. (10)
Joseph and Margaret's first two children, a boy and girl, they named after themselves—though with typical Mitchell inscrutability in the matter of names, the boy was addressed as Scranton. The couple's third child, John Newton, died at birth. (11) The name was given anew to their fourth child, the future attorney general, in 1913.
John Mitchell's mother was unusual for her time: a Hunter College graduate (12) and an indomitable presence at home. "She was quiet but her force was felt in the family, no question about that," her last child, Robert, born a little more than a year after John, remembered. (13) Countless times, her husband, Joseph, recounted for the family how he had asked Margaret, in 1907, to marry him: "I would call her up on the phone and say, 'Margaret, will you marry me?' And she said, 'Yes-who is this?' " Seventy-five years later, this line still made Robert laugh. "That's Yankee humor," he chuckled. (14)
Humor was in need in the earliest years of the twentieth century, when the Mitchell family was wracked by wild fluctuations in its financial fortunes. "[H]e was successful," Robert said of his father, "up until World War I came along." Wartime rationing of consumer goods left little need for trading stamps—goods were valuable enough without stamps as a purchasing incentive—and one day, as Robert remembered sadly, "[M]y father was without a business." (15)
By 1918, the family had moved from Detroit back to Blue Point, where Peter McMahon, Mitchell's restaurant-owning grandfather, had spent summers away from his swank Harlem apartment. Desperate for work, Joseph took a sales job with the Cudahey meatpacking firm, switching shortly thereafter to Cudahey's main competitor, Wilson. He traversed Long Island's butcher shops and groceries, peddling Wilson's meats. Though it was a big step down from owning his own business, Mitchell's "lovably stern" father had, by 1920, secured the job that would keep his family afloat throughout the Great Depression. (16)
A resort town, Blue Point came alive in the summertime, but winters were often severe. The water would freeze over and the town became, as Robert recalled, "a dead place."17 To wring excitement from the deadness, the brothers rode ice floes down the Great South Bay, refusing to return home until wet clothing and freezing temperatures left them no alternative. As the seasons changed, they hunted ducks, rabbit, and geese with shotguns, and caught and ate snapper. An undated photograph, circa 1925, captures two skinny boys seated on a decaying wooden pier, bamboo fishing poles in hand, alone together on a deserted marshy inlet along the bay. Robert smiled rakishly at the camera; his older brother, Jack, the future attorney general, stared into the water below. (18)
The oldest and handsomest of the children, Scranton led his brothers in their outdoors exploits, and, like many an older brother, occasionally grew domineering in dealing with his siblings. Mitchell's older sister, Margaret, was a good-looking, athletic woman who inherited her mother's strong-willed nature. By the time she turned seventeen, a modeling dream led her to abandon high school for Manhattan, touching off a furious row with her father, Joseph. "I guess my father was probably too strict on her hours," Robert remembered. "And she was a little headstrong, and she just took off on her own." A persistent illness, later diagnosed as pneumonia, landed her in a Manhattan hospital. Within a few weeks, Margaret was gone, dead at twenty-three.19 In another ten years, Scranton, too, would be gone, victim of a heart attack he suffered when, during World War II, he responded to an air raid alert in his Long Island community.
Like Richard Nixon, then, John Mitchell had, by his early thirties, experienced the agony of seeing two
siblings die young. Whether Nixon realized this is unknown, but it is unlikely that Mitchell, as Nixon's campaign manager, somehow remained ignorant of so potent and widely disseminated an element of his candidate's personal biography as the deaths of Harold and Arthur Nixon.
As a student at the Blue Point School from 1919 to 1921, Mitchell, "smaller and slighter than most boys his age," demonstrated both native intelligence and uncommon discipline, amassing, according to one assessment, "a handsome sprinkling of As and Bs." (20) As he went further in school, he developed a winning, if somewhat withheld, personality as well. At Jamaica High School, the future attorney general launched his only campaign for elective office, a successful bid for the presidency of his senior class. A B+ student and popular athlete, Mitchell was the handpicked candidate of a group of students already running the student organization. It was Mitchell's first involvement with machine politics. (21)
Mitchell rapidly developed into a formidable athlete, excelling at several different sports. Unlike the young Richard Nixon—who persisted at football, a sport for which his diminutive frame left him ill-suited, and who accordingly absorbed "a vast amount of brutal punishment"—the young John Mitchell played to his strengths. In hockey, for example, he became adept at skating around bigger players and avoiding their brutal body checks. Ken Agnew, who practiced with Mitchell on Long Island's ponds and played with him on the Jamaica High School team, later remembered Mitchell as intensely competitive. "He had a lot of drive and incentive," Agnew told the New York Post
in 1970. "He wanted to win. He played the game the way it should be played." (22)
The Jamaica team won the city hockey championship thirteen years in a row, and the 1927 squad, on which Mitchell played, was rewarded with a visit the following February to the White House-Mitchell's first-and an audience with President Calvin Coolidge. (23) Mitchell was so skilled that he played (for "blade sharpening money," he said, twenty-five dollars a Saturday) for the Jamaica Hawks in the Metropolitan League. Some league games were played at Madison Square Garden, giving rise to a myth-persisting even into Mitchell's Associated Press obituary-that he skated for the New York Rangers.
At golf, too, Mitchell excelled, becoming captain of his high school team and tying for New York's coveted Police School Athletic League title. When Mitchell went on to Fordham University, his captain was Malcolm Wilson-later the governor of New York-who remembered Mitchell giving golf lessons on the side for money. (24) During a joint appearance with Mitchell on The Dick Cavett Show
in 1970, White House communications director Herb Klein told the host, "John was once a professional golfer." "Is that so?" Cavett asked. "Yes," replied Mitchell, "but that was a long time ago. You can't imagine what happens to your handicap when you're in the Justice Department. You have other handicaps," Mitchell said, to the audience's laughter. (25)
As a young man, Mitchell showed no interest in two vices that later became his trademarks: alcohol and tobacco. Tales of Mitchell's love affair with Dewar's Scotch abound in the literature of the Nixon presidency; and so ever-present in Mitchell's hands and mouth did tobacco pipes become that the Watergate conspirators, speaking in cryptic terms over the telephone, adopted "The Pipe" as their code name for Mitchell ("What a great cover name," he snapped sarcastically, six months before his death). (26)
Excerpted from The Strong Man by James Rosen. Copyright © 2008 by James Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.