Every controversy of the last five decades, be it significant or small, has been distinguished by the the suffix ‘-gate,’ a symbol of the lasting legacy of one of the greatest scandals of our time — Watergate.
It all began 50 years ago today, on June 17, 1972, when a motley crew of five burglars, all with CIA connections, were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, then located on the sixth floor of a Watergate office building.
The attempt by the Nixon administration to cover up the politically-motivated break-in would soon drag down Richard Nixon’s presidency, and ultimately lead to him becoming the first and only American President to resign from office.
The scandal, which once transfixed a nation, remains a key part of America’s political and cultural history, however long gone are the days when it was the focus of every headline and the topic of every conversation – and with that, the white-hot scrutiny of the building in which it took place: The Watergate.
However, while Watergate has long since disappeared from newspaper front pages, the impressive swirling behemoth of a building where the crime took place still stands today – its corridors still ringing from the footsteps of the political bigwigs that once stayed there.
The six-building complex, which was designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti and sits astride the Potomac River, instantly became one of Washington’s most desirable addresses when construction completed on the first building in 1965. The ten-acre campus containing apartments, generous sized offices and even a hotel was designed to be ‘a city within a city’ — replete with upscale amenities and the finest retail stores, like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Valentino.
Indeed it’s the tales of its inhabitants that are the juiciest. The building has long attracted high-profile Beltway types as well as imported celebrities, like Nancy Reagan and her gaggle of girlfriends, who one resident referred to as ‘the Gucci coochi cost too muchi group.’
From the hotel’s glory days, Bette Davis could be spotted, drunk, in the lobby, clutching a paper bag of mini booze bottles; and Katharine Hepburn making her own breakfast with steak and eggs bought from the Watergate supermarket. There was also the time playwright, Tennessee Williams left behind the only copy of his latest manuscript, which had to be recovered by a hotel employee behind the headboard.
The Watergate is where countless political heavyweights, Georgetown hostesses, well-connected socialites and influential makers with a long string of pearls and dark money would party with either party: Democrat or Republican, it didn’t matter. The Watergate kept its secrets, except for the one great scandal that made its name a household word
Boldface residents included Monica Lewinsky, who lived cheek by jowl next to the former Republican Senators, Bob and Elizabeth Dole. Bob, once sent a dozen doughnuts to the journalists staking out Monica’s apartment after her affair with President Clinton went spectacularly public. (Monicagate, anyone?) Jacqueline Mars, heiress to the Mars candy fortune also lived there once, as did Tenor Plácido Domingo and Clare Boothe Luce, the journalist, politician and wife of the Time-Life publisher, Henry Luce.
The Watergate is where countless political heavyweights, Georgetown hostesses, well-connected socialites and influential makers with a long string of pearls and dark money would party with either party: Democrat or Republican, it didn’t matter.
Republican socialite and operator par excellence, Anna Chennault held court from her glamorous penthouse apartment where she hosted an array of glittering high profile guests including Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and J. Edgar Hoover.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hosted annual holiday festivities at her apartment, preparing meat dishes hunted by her colleague, Justice Scalia. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s owned two apartments in the towers – one that she used as a gym and guesthouse. Her soirees were always dignified with music by Rice (a ‘competent pianist’ herself) cellist Yo-Yo Ma, or sometimes Attorney Genera John Ashcroft on the keys.
The Watergate kept its secrets, except for the one great scandal that made its name a household word.
On the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, a dazzling array of images from a Life Magazine spread capture the legendary property during its glory days – before Nixon sullied its reputation.
The Watergate was one of Washington, D.C.’s most desirable places to live when it completed its first building in 1965. Designed by the Italian architect Luigi Moretti, the six-building complex contains 643 apartments, office space and one hotel. ‘It was designed to be a city within a city,’ said one real estate agent. Amenities include 24-hour receptionist, four swimming pools, room service from the connecting Watergate Hotel, a health club, a grocery and drugstore, seven restaurants, two shopping malls with more than 21 luxury stores, medical and dental offices, and its own post office. Above, American politician US Senator Jacob Javits dives into a swimming pool for LIFE Magazine in 1969. At left are the Watergate Hotel and Office buildings
Nixon’s 1968 election put the Watergate on the map. ‘Watergate came into its own as the residential seat of power, becoming in the Nixon era what Georgetown had been in the Kennedy years,’ said long-time resident and Nixon-era power broker, Anna Chennault. It was nicknamed the ‘Republican Bastille.’ Above, US Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans sits on a sofa and reads documents in his apartment at the Watergate in 1969
The Watergate was home to many pols in Nixon’s cabinet including Attorney General John Mitchell and his wife, Martha; economic advisor Herbert Stein; Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans (above); Transportation Secretary John Volpe; and Nixon’s personal secretary Rose Mary Woods – all who became household names for their roles in the reelection scandal that plagued Nixon’s presidency in 1972. Above, Stans and his wife, Kathleen look at photographs in their apartment surrounded by resplendent décor from around the world
Regulars called it the ‘Gossip Salon,’ a place where the women shouted above the noise of blow dryers and traded secrets about the coming and goings of the current administration. ‘Most of ‘em don’t even have a bottle of shampoo at home,’ said Tom Gerhart, a Watergate Salon stylist. Martha Beall Mitchel (left, facing right) talks with Kathleen Stans, as the two women wait for their appointments in a pink-theme hair salon at the Watergate. At the time, Mitchell was married to US Attorney General John Mitchell, while Stans was married to US Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans. Martha Mitchell is currently the subject of a new Starz television show, Gaslit, starring Julia Roberts
Close-up of lifeguard Linda Fox as she sits poolside at the Watergate complex, Washington, D.C., 1969. In the center rear is the Watergate East co-op apartment building. The smallest residential units originally sold for as little as $17,000 ($157,000 adjusted for inflation). The sprawling penthouse apartments sold for $200,000 ($1.9m adjusted). Today the price tag for a four bedroom apartment listed in the Watergate is $3.6m. In 1969 LIFE Magazine reported: ‘A typical resident is aged about 50 and arrives with more dogs than children. If he has a car, no problem, there is a garage underground. The annual parking charge is $3,500’
Italian construction firm, Società Generale Immobiliare, purchased the 10-acres of unwanted industrial land for $10million in 1960 with a vision of building a mixed-use development with offices, stores, residential apartments and a hotel. Partially backed by Vatican money, SGI had been responsible for building palatial apartment complexes throughout Europe and set out to do the same in America. Architect Luigi Moretti designed a set of curvilinear buildings made from reinforced concrete, this ‘living shape,’ he said, would serve as a bridge between the monuments of the Mall and the area along the Potomac. A 1969 story published in LIFE Magazine described the interiors of the lobby as ‘resplendent with fake Chou Dynasty lamps and curtains handwoven in Swaziland. The elevators are flooded with Muzak, and the bathrooms are paved with marble and equipped with bidets and golden faucets.’ It also added that, ‘Many living and dining rooms are trapezoids or obtuse-angled triangles, while a few entranceways are circles’
Anna Chennault (right) was one of the first residents to buy an apartment in the new complex, she paid $250,000 ($2.3m in today’s money) for her penthouse duplex. Chennault was the Chinese-born widow of General Claire Chennault, an American World War II hero who led the Flying Tigers squadron of volunteer pilots. A Republican fundraiser and political macher, Anna Chennault worked on Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and entertained D.C.’s intelligentsia from her lavish apartment at the Watergate. A known power player, Nixon referred to her as his ‘dragon lady.’ Above, Chennault talks to Juanita Boyd, wife of President Johnson’s Secretary of Transportation Alan Boyd, on her rooftop balcony
Hostess with the mostest Anna Chennault entertained as many as 100 guests a week from her penthouse apartment in The Watergate complex. A gossip columnist for the Washington Post at the time wrote that Chennault’s living room ‘resembles nothing so much as a set in a James Bond movie’
Maurice Stans, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, bought a $130,000 unit, which his wife decorated with tiger skins, elephant tusks, and other souvenirs from African safaris. In 1972, Stans resigned from his cabinet position to serve as the finance chairman for the infamous ‘Committee For the Re-Election of the President’ (often mocked by the acronym CREEP). After the Watergate scandal, Stans pleaded guilty to five counts of campaign fundraising fraud for financing the illegal Watergate activities
CIA officer Walter Pforzheimer sitting alone in his library in the Watergate East tower, examines photographs of the Dutch courtesan Mata Hari from his personal collection. Pforzheimer was a career spy and bibliophile with his own private library of espionage books that filled his entire apartment at the Watergate complex
Martha Mitchell plays piano for her stepdaughter, Marty Mitchell (born Martha Mitchell, later Savidge), and husband, Attorney General John Mitchell in the living room of their apartment in the Watergate complex. Mitchell paid $325,000 for their three-bedroom duplex in 1968, it was thought to be the most paid by a Nixon aide. Martha became infamous in 1972 as a whistleblower during the Watergate scandal. She was allegedly held hostage by FBI agents, and drugged with tranquilizers in order to prevent her from speaking to the press. The fallout led to Nixon resigning from the presidency in 1974. He later blamed Martha for the controversy: ‘I’m convinced if it hadn’t been for Martha—and God rest her soul, because she in her heart was a good person,’ said the disgraced president. ‘She just had a mental and emotional problem that nobody knew about. If it hadn’t been for Martha, there’d have been no Watergate’
Nixon’s Chief of Protocol, Emil Mosbacher and his wife, Patricia Ryan Mosbacher, are formally dressed for a White House dinner, as they stand beside the open for of a car in the driveway of the Watergate Hotel where they rented a suite for $1,600 a month. Mosbacher was a two-time America’s Cup-winning yachtsman before working in President Nixon’s White House
Watergate pools became the place to see celebrities and be seen. ‘Everybody went down to the pool–and everybody dressed up for the pool,’ said Rhonda Crane to the Washingtonian. Crane was a teenager when her parents moved to Watergate East in 1966. Waiters carried Champagne, drinks, and meals poolside. Elizabeth Taylor almost moved into the Watergate during her brief marriage to Senator John Warner, who wanted to be near his friend and Watergate resident, Bob Dole. But Taylor refused when the Watergate restricted the number of pets they allowed. Once while staying as a guest at the Watergate Hotel, Lauren Bacall was outraged by the plastic hangers and demanded wooden replacements. The concierge recalled bringing in hangers from her house and Bacall took them with her when she checked out
Martha Mitchell (center, in blue) and other guests gather around a piano during a party at their apartment in the Watergate apartment. Nicknamed the ‘Mouth of the South’ for her larger-than-life personality and outspokenness with the press, Martha was a controversial but generally well-liked figure until, in 1972, she suspected that Nixon and his re-election committee were responsible for the Watergate break-in. Not one to keep quiet, she repeatedly complained to the press, resulting in her getting painted as crazy and a drunk by White House officials — and, in one horrific weekend, being held as a ‘political’ prisoner in a hotel room, where she was reportedly beaten and drugged
The Watergate was unmatched by its amenities. The hotel opened in 1967 with a health club, indoor pool, sauna, gym, solarium, and masseurs. Each residential building had its own outdoor pool (which was an unheard of luxury at the time). In addition to a post office, supermarket, drug store, and medical offices, the complex also boasted the only neighborhood liquor store at the time, ‘that sells crystal and china,’ reported the Washington Post. Above, residents use exercise equipment in the gym of one of the residential buildings at the Watergate
Among some of the other Nixon heavyweights that lived at the Watergate was Herbert Stein, economic advisor to the president. His son, Ben Stein, 77, inherited the apartment and keeps it as a shrine to the Nixon era. Ben Stein started his career as a speechwriter for Nixon before he became famous playing the principal in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.’ Ben recalls watching the presidential scandal unfold with his father, ‘We did not think of it as a scandal, but as a media lynch mob,’ said the Nixon loyalist. ‘We often talked about that with great sorrow.’ Above, residents and guests gathering on the balcony of an apartment in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. during a party in 1969
President Johnson’s Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe works at his desk in the Watergate South co-op apartment building. Visible through his window is the then-under construction John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The late Senator Bob Dole spent 41 years of married life at the Watergate. ‘What we really love about living at the Watergate is that it’s very dog-friendly’ he once said. The couple, who lived next door to Monica Lewinsky briefly, combined the two flats when she vacated the adjacent unit. The former senator recalled to the Washington Post how he found a photograph ‘of a man’ (which he refused to identify) left behind in Lewinsky’s empty apartment, the image was inscribed with a ‘vulgar word’ as the caption. ‘We probably should have kept the picture and showed it off,’ he said
Chinese-born American journalist and political operator Anna Chennault (left) talks with various unidentified guests on her rooftop balcony at the Watergate. Years later, the complex enjoyed a second run as the ‘White House West’ during Ronald Reagan’s administration as it became a headquarters for a collection of California businessmen, and insiders who were pals of the Reagans. Nancy Reagan and her girlfriends referred to themselves as ‘the Group’ and they regularly dined at the Michelin two-star Jean-Louis Palladin restaurant in the Watergate complex. One resident named Victor Lasky (a former speechwriter for Nixon) said: ‘They’re the Gucci coochi cost too muchi group’
Reflected in a mirror, Martha Mitchell and her husband, Attorney General John Mitchell talk together in the dining room of their apartment in the Watergate complex