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  • Mike Martinez

Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Wilbur Mills and Fanne Foxe

In the wee morning hours of Monday, October 7, 1974, a black 1973 Lincoln Continental automobile barreled down a street near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. As they conducted a routine patrol, two U.S. Park Service policemen, Privates Larry Brent and Thomas Johann, noticed that the car’s headlights were off, and the vehicle was traveling at a “high rate of speed.” The officers jumped into their cruiser and pursued the Lincoln, stopping it near the Tidal Basin, a partially man-made reservoir between the Potomac River and the Washington Channel that dates from the 1880s. Directly across the basin sat the Jefferson Memorial, brightly illuminated with powerful floodlights.

Stepping from their cruiser, Officers Brent and Johann approached the car. The driver rolled down the window, apparently to greet the officers. Judging by the odor, one or more of the vehicle’s occupants—three men and two women—had been drinking alcohol. Following standard procedure, the officers asked to see identification for each person.

One occupant in the back seat was a balding, elderly man with dark-framed glasses and a bulbous nose. The man’s face was badly scratched, and his nose was bloody. An attractive curly-haired woman wearing a long evening dress sat next to the man inside the car. She was obviously much younger than he was.

When she realized that she would have to identify herself, the curly-haired woman became hysterical. To the officers’ surprise, the woman pushed the door open, climbed out of the car, and ran for the nearby Tidal Basin. She screamed as she ran, alternating between English and Spanish words. Still hysterical and out of control, she landed in the Tidal Basin. Accounts differ as to whether she hurled herself into the water or tripped and fell. Most witnesses believed it was the former.

Officers Brent and Johann were not sure why she had reacted so dramatically. It may have been a suicide attempt, but most likely she was fleeing the scene. If she hoped to skedaddle before the officers discovered her identity, however, she chose her escape route poorly. The woman might have run along the tree-lined boulevard and eluded capture by flagging down a passing motorist or disappearing into an adjacent copse. Of all her options, jumping into the Tidal Basin was the worst choice. The basin spans 107 acres and is approximately 10 feet deep in some places. Even an expert swimmer would have a difficult time fleeing in the water.

Whatever her motive, the officers were worried for her safety. The woman was obviously intoxicated and might drown, although the water where she was wading was not deep. After a few seconds, Officer Brent fished her out of the basin. He handcuffed her when she tried to break away and jump back into the water.

The strange night grew even stranger. No sooner had the woman entered the water than the bleeding man stumbled from the car and tried to follow her in. Lawrence Krebs, a television cameraman who had arrived on the scene as soon as he heard that a woman was in the Tidal Basin, witnessed most of the event. He recalled one of the officers speaking to the man. “Come on, congressman,” the officer admonished him, “you don’t need this kind of publicity.” Krebs immediately recognized the powerful Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the United States House of Representatives. In his opinion, “unless he’s got a duplicate in life, it was Wilbur Mills.” A spokesman for the congressman later denied that Mills had been on the scene, but there was little doubt of his presence.

I discuss this episode in Chapter 8 of my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.

Early eyewitness accounts had Mills throwing his weight around after he stepped from the car. “I’m a congressman,” he supposedly cried out to the officers, “and I’ll have you demoted.” Officer Brent’s official report did not mention the remark. In fact, the police report did not mention Wilbur Mills being present at the scene.

As the officers learned later, the woman inflicted the scratches on Mills’ face and bloodied his nose as soon as the officers pulled the car over. She was desperate not to be apprehended. It was little wonder that she sought to avoid the harsh spotlight. The woman, whose real name was Annabella Battistella, was a 38-year-old stripper who used the stage name Fanne Foxe, AKA the “Argentine firecracker.”

Because they could not be certain of her mental condition, the police escorted Ms. Battistella to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for observation. She was treated and released. One officer drove the Lincoln Continental, which bore Arkansas license plates and was registered in Wilbur Mills’ name, transporting the other occupants to the congressman’s apartment building in Arlington, Virginia. No one was cited for drunk driving or public intoxication. Observers later questioned whether the report that failed to mention Mills might have been an attempted coverup, but the park police denied such an intent.

If the police sought to hush up the incident, they failed. When the story appeared in the newspapers, it attracted enormous attention. Readers gleefully soaked up details of the dowdy congressman and the slinky stripper cavorting together in a late-night romp along the Potomac. Fanne Foxe quickly earned the nickname the “Tidal Basin Bombshell.”

As for the Ways and Means chairman, the incident severely eroded his moral authority. In a single evening, Congressman Mills all but destroyed the career he had painstakingly built over many decades of unrelenting labor.

He was born Wilbur Daigh Mills on May 24, 1909, in the little town of Kensett, Arkansas, population 905, about 60 miles north of Little Rock. He attended public schools and performed well. Mills was the valedictorian of his high school class and salutatorian of his class at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. During his childhood, his father was the town grocer and bank president. The elder Mills later served as superintendent of schools before becoming school board chairman and the district’s banker.

Reflecting on his life, Wilbur Mills recalled the moment when he resolved to pursue a political career. He was 10 years old when Congressman William A. Oldfield visited the town. Impressed with the reception afforded this public man, the boy saw that he, too, could earn respect if he served in high office. For almost two decades afterward, he thought about how to position himself to maximize his voter appeal. Thinking back on his decision years later, he admitted that “I’ve never regretted the decision.”

Budding politicians often practice law before running for office, so Mills chose to enter the legal profession. He wanted a head start on his contemporaries; consequently, he enrolled in Harvard Law School after graduating from college in 1930. For a small-town Arkansas boy to earn a seat at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country was no mean achievement.

He subsequently returned to Arkansas but found it difficult to open a law practice at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. After he was admitted to the Arkansas bar, he became a cashier in his father’s bank. It was not the exalted position he had hoped to find, but it introduced him to prominent people in the town. Those associations would serve him well.

After only a year, Mills felt he could compete in local politics. In 1934, the citizens of White County elected him to serve as a county judge. Four years later, he campaigned for a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the second district of Arkansas. Amazingly, he won. He served in the seat for 38 years.

Wilbur Mills was 29 years old and the second youngest House member when he set off for Washington, D.C. At five feet eight inches tall with undistinguished features, he was not a handsome man, nor was he especially flamboyant. He soon distinguished himself, however, by his keen intellect and diligent attention to detail. Impressed with the hard-working Arkansas legislator, Speaker Sam Rayburn appointed Mills to the House Banking and Currency Committee in 1939, and to the Ways and Means Committee in 1943.

Mills dutifully labored long hours as a pedestrian House member. According to all accounts, he bided his time without complaint. Because Congress operated on a seniority system, by 1957, he had served long enough to become the Ways and Means Committee chairman. In that capacity, he and his staff authored much of the federal tax code and oversaw Social Security and military spending as well as tariff legislation.

He reflected the standard state rights positions of most southern politicians of the time. Although he was not a race-baiting demagogue, Mills voted with the southern bloc, which favored segregation and resisted any federal efforts to assist people of color. “I couldn’t stay in Congress unless I voted the way I do on these highly emotional issues,” he explained late in his career.

Although his self-destruction appeared to occur during an isolated moment of absurd weakness in 1974, Mills had spent decades building up (or, rather, breaking down) to that incident. By his own admission, he started drinking in the evenings after work to relax before dinner. Gradually, he drank more alcohol and ate less dinner. “During some 54 years from when I took my first drink to when I took my last, I was not aware of any progression of my drinking at all,” he wrote in a 1979 article published in the Saturday Evening Post. “The last two years of my drinking, as I look back on them, were living hell.”

If Wilbur Mills’ background was blandly conventional for a member of Congress, his girlfriend’s origins were far more exotic. She was born on February 14, 1936—St. Valentine’s Day—in Nueve de Julio, a town 175 southwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Her father, Oswaldo Villagra, was of Indian-Spanish heritage. He worked as a male nurse and local politician.

At the age of 20, Annabella Villagra married Eduardo Battistella, a nightclub pianist. She followed him around the club circuit as he eked out a meager living. When they depleted their funds, she turned to dancing and eventually to stripping. With her curvaceous figure and increasingly uninhibited performances, she enjoyed a modicum of success.

The couple moved to the United States in the early 1970s in search of greater economic opportunities. They had four children, but their marriage was strained by their dual careers. Predictably, they divorced. Along the way, though, they befriended their neighbors, an older couple named Wilbur and Polly Mills.

It was easy to see what attracted Mills to the much-younger stripper. She was physically attractive and, with her soft Latin accent and bronze skin, exotic. She also listened to him talk about the things he had missed in his life. She encouraged him to be free and easy, tossing away his cares and inhibitions. He found the attentions of the younger woman almost as intoxicating as the alcohol he guzzled each night.

For her part, Battistella thought that Wilbur Mills was the stable father figure she had never had. “I guess it is not ridiculous that any woman would like to be married to Wilbur Mills,” she told an interviewer in December 1974. “I think he could be a perfect husband. I would like to marry somebody older than my former husband.”

Despite the humiliating episode with the police, Mills managed to eke out a victory in the November 1974 election. He should have learned his lesson and stayed away from the glamorous Fanne Foxe. He did not. He was still enthralled by her.

On December 1, 1974, as the Argentine Firecracker performed a burlesque show at the run-down Pilgrim Theater in Boston, in the heart of the “Combat Zone,” an area infamously littered with strip clubs and sex film theaters, Mills turned up backstage. Fanny saw him lurking in the wings and called him onstage. “I’d like you to meet somebody,” she told the audience. Waving him in, she called, “Mr. Mills, Mr. Mills! Where are you?”

Incredibly, Mills wandered out in front of the audience and exchanged a few words with the stripper. She kissed him on the cheek, and he headed backstage. Later, he hung around long enough to be photographed with his Tidal Basin buddy.

Democrats, especially junior members of Congress, had been critical of Mills’ ham-fisted control of the Ways and Means Committee for years. In the Watergate era, when crooked politicians who had grown too autocratic and intoxicated by their own power were ignominiously booted out of office, few elected officials were sympathetic to colleagues who failed to fulfill the public trust. No one thought that Wilbur Mills was corrupt in the same way that Richard Nixon, the disgraced and recently resigned president of the United States, was corrupt, but they acknowledged that it was time to surrender his committee chairmanship. He lost the coveted leadership post but remained in the House of Representatives until his term ended in 1977. Mills occasionally had been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, but those dreams died the moment his stripper-girlfriend entered the Tidal Basin.

Mills was humiliated, but he had brought it on himself. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, his wife, Clarine “Polly” Mills, suffered through everything expected of a political wife. She stoically appeared at public events and acted as though the sordid tales of her husband’s ribald antics bothered her not at all. Somehow, she smiled sweetly, swallowed her pain, and got through it. Whatever he private thoughts, she never voiced anything other than total commitment to her husband. The couple remained together until his death at age 82 on May 2, 1992.

If Mills’ fortunes declined after the Argentine Firecracker blew up in his face, Fanne Foxe’s career thrived. She immediately increased her appearance fees. Before the Tidal Basin episode, she commanded approximately $3,500 for a two-week engagement. Afterward, she commanded as much as $15,000 as curious tourists arrived to see what all the fuss was about. Fame had a downside as well. In December 1974, she was arrested for indecent exposure during a show in Sanford, Florida—the gig that paid $15,000—but authorities later dropped the charges. Ironically, the arrest kept her in the spotlight and increased public interest in her celebrity.

Trading on her 15 minutes of fame, she was not satisfied to confine her appearances to strip clubs. She also appeared on a popular television program, The Mike Douglas Show. Later, she also snagged a role playing herself in a low-budget western film called Posse from Heaven, released in October 1975. The plot of the film, to the extent that it had a plot, was easily summarized: “Heavenly forces send a guardian angel to assist an ex-cavalryman named Appletime [to] find love and meaning in life.” Foxe appeared as an angel’s apprentice, trying her hand at slapstick comedy along with a bit of singing and a bump-and-grind display of her other talents. Her character offered pearls of wisdom to an ex-cavalryman in need of advice from an aging stripper. Lest anyone miss Fanne’s claim to fame, film posters advertised the feature with a not-so-subtle reference to her ex-boyfriend’s former career: “She had the WAYS; he had the MEANS.”

She continued cashing in on her infamy in 1975. She published a tell-all book, the appropriately titled The Stripper and the Congressman, detailing her 17-month affair with Wilbur Mills. The 180-page ghost-written memoir regaled readers with stories, some known, others only hinted at, about her relationship with the Arkansas congressman. Yes, it was sexual. In fact, Fanne Foxe was pregnant with his child until she had an abortion. She also discussed her visits about town with Mills and how his wife sometimes joined them. Musing about the incident that ensured her notoriety, she insisted that if “it hadn’t happened, I think me and Congressman Mills would have married.”

Criticized for her rank opportunism, Foxe was unrepentant. She said in a subsequent interview that “Congressman Mills knew that I was writing the book. What may shock him is the fact that I put almost everything into it.” The book was not a flattering portrait of herself, or anyone else. She twice attempted suicide. During her tumultuous marriage to Eduardo Battistella, she tried to run him over with her car. The couple engaged in wife-swapping, and Foxe had two abortions in addition to the one she underwent while carrying Wilbur Mills’ child. As an aging stripper, she frequently underwent cosmetic surgery to turn up her nose, flatten her stomach, and firm up her sagging breasts.

Whatever else could be said about her, Fanne Foxe was a realist. She understood that fame was fleeting, especially for someone as modestly talented as she. She had to parley her reputation into paying engagements quickly. She was pushing 40, and the public would not remember her forever. “I have three children and I am not being supported by a man,” she explained. “It is hard to earn a living, and I have financial obligations to meet.”

Foxe appeared in Playboy magazine in 1976 and 1977. She also granted a lengthy interview to another men’s magazine, Cheri, in 1977. She eventually returned to Argentina, where she faded into obscurity. Today she is remembered as the floozy who brought down a sad, silly congressman in a crazy incident that still elicits guffaws and wonder at the absurdity of it all.

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