The Deep Throat Controversy: A Real Person or an Editor’s Literary Invention?

The Washington Post ran a long piece this week revisiting Deep Throat, the secret Watergate source for Bob Woodward in the book All the President’s Men and the Robert Redford-Dustin Hoffman movie. The hook for the Post reviving Deep Throat was the current search for the anonymous writer of the New York Times op-ed that had “bombshell disclosures about a scandal that encircled the president”—this time Donald Trump.

After reading the Post story, I wrote a piece pointing out that the first accurate story on the identity of Deep Throat was not, as the Post said, in the Wall Street Journal 0n June 25, 1974 but a month earlier in the Washingtonian, which named FBI man Mark Felt as the most plausible Deep Throat candidate.

What this week’s Post piece also didn’t touch on was the never resolved controversy over whether Deep Throat was a real person or mostly a literary character created by Alice Mayhew, the book’s editor at Simon & Schuster, to add some drama to Woodward and Bernstein’s manuscript.

Where did Deep Throat come from? The character is introduced in All the President’s Men this way:

Woodward had a source in the Executive Branch who had access to information at CRP [Committee to Re-elect the President] as well as at the White House. His identity was unknown to anyone else. He could be contacted only on very important occasions. Woodward had promised he would never identify him or his position to anyone. Further, he had agreed never to quote the man, even as an anonymous source. Their discussions would be only to confirm information that had been obtained elsewhere and to add some perspective.

In newspaper terminology, this meant the discussions were on “deep background.” Woodward explained the arrangement to managing editor Howard Simons one day. He had taken to call the source “my friend,” but Simons dubbed him “Deep Throat,” the title of a celebrated pornographic novel. The name stuck.

After All the President’s Men was published, the was-he-real controversy about Deep Throat continued.

From a 1993 piece in Entertainment Weekly:

After Bob and Carl won a Pulitzer Prize for the Post and when Watergate started to unravel in the spring of 1973, Dick Snyder (who, as head of Simon & Schuster, had bought All the President’s Men) began to suspect that his $55,000 investment might pay off….A powerful editor, Alice Mayhew, was freed up to work with the two reporters ”day and night.” Mayhew, who helped Bob and Carl write the book, kept urging them to ”build up the Deep Throat character and make him interesting.” Thus, with Mayhew goading the two on one side and Robert Redford standing in the wings on the other, with nearly half a million dollars and a piece of the profits waiting for the two reporters whose combined income was less than $30,000 per year, what Bob and Carl produced was a sort of Hardy Boys in the White House. Part of it—the impossible and lunatic Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger derring-do—was dreamed up. Those parts were a hoax, a relatively harmless hoax designed to sell books and make a movie.

In 1998 the New York Times published a story, “An author questions the existence of Deep Throat, Watergate’s man in the shadows.” The story, by Felicity Barringer, said that David Obst, the Woodward-Bernstein literary agent who handled the sale of All the President’s Men to Simon & Schuster, says the Deep Throat character was not mentioned in the original book proposal from Woodward and Bernstein.

Timothy Noah, writing as Chattebox in a 2002 piece for Slate, also considered whether Deep Throat was real or a literary invention. His conclusion:

Woodward and Bernstein obviously deserve a mild scolding. But such an offense would be nowhere near as great as inventing Deep Throat out of whole cloth, which Chatterbox feels fairly certain they did not do.

In his own book, To Good to Be Forgotten, David Obst says of the Deep Throat character: “The basic concern regarding Deep Throat is best stated by Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned us that there those who fight monsters should see to it that in the process they do not become monsters themselves.”

Finally, why did Post managing editor Howard Simon come up with the name Deep Throat for Woodward’s secret source? Deep Throat is described in the porno movie this way:

A sexually frustrated woman, Linda Lovelace (Linda Boreman), asks her friend Helen (Dolly Sharp) for advice on how to achieve an orgasm. After a  sex party provides no help, Helen recommends that Linda visit a psychiatrist, Dr. Young (Harry Reems). The doctor discovers that Linda’s clitoris is located in her throat, and after he helps her to develop her oral sex skills, the infatuated Linda asks him to marry her. He informs her that she can settle for a job as his therapist, performing her particular oral technique—thereafter known as “deep throat”—on various men, until she finds the one to marry.

What that has to do with the Post’s Watergate investigation is still a mystery.

Comments

  1. Richard Mattersdorff says:

    Jack, for better or worse you do not mention Woodward’s THE SECRET MAN — which, by the way, credits Washingtonian (but alas not you by name):

    p. 116: “In June [1974], WASHINGTONIAN magazine published a story saying Felt was the most likely candidate to be Deep Throat, reasoning that he had motive, opportunity, access, knew the methods for clandestine meetings and was offended by Nixon and his men.”

    p. 119:  “Ostrow [LA Times reporter] interviewed Felt and quoted him as saying that the investigation was probably a result of the WASHINGTONIAN article which had fingered him as the leading Deep Throat suspect.”

    You also don’t mention Jeff Himmelman’s Bradlee biography, YOURS IN TRUTH:

    Speaking about Woodward’s most-secret source, the shadowy Deep Throat, Bradlee said of Woodward’s version of events, “No, I can say this to you, there’s a residual fear in my soul that that isn’t quite straight.”

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/7-scoops-from-new-bio-of-ben-bradlee-yours-in-truth

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