Congressmen, Strippers and Drunks? Oh, My!
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes living a boring life is A-OK.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Strip clubs are strange places. Mostly men go to underlit bars with overpriced drinks to watch partially naked people who are not remarkably dissimilar to every other partially naked person they’ve ever seen. And they drop hundreds of dollars to watch these people dance to cheeseball tunes.
Fun, right? Feh. But that’s middle-aged me talking. In the 1970s, possibly because Tom Waits sang about them, Gypsy Rose Lee had danced in them and hormones, teenage me was routinely sneaking into them to just as quickly get thrown out when I couldn’t pony up for the too-pricey drinks. And still I came. To places mostly populated with guys in business suits and soldiers just back from Vietnam.
But like having martinis for lunch and a lot of other Mad Men tropes from different decades, there was no woke-ishness here. Not only would it not have been strange to find business leaders here but also politicians, entertainers and others whose presence was premised on “boys being boys.”
In addition to being drunk, Mills was also bleeding from his nose, and from cheeks that sported fresh gashes inflicted by fingernails.
And so it was that on Oct. 7, 1974, one of those boys was being a boy with a little too much brio. At two in the morning. In a limo going 80 miles per hour. With its lights off. Right past the National Mall.
Cops pulled the limo over between the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, near the Tidal Basin. In the driver’s seat? A drunken driver. And in the passenger hold, more drunks. Specifically, a Democratic congressman from Arkansas named Wilbur Mills tuned up — to the gills.
“Without context, in 2018, it’s hard to remember that back then there was nothing unusual about this,” says Allan MacDonell, a journalist whose investigative chops would later bring down Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. “I mean, if you were wearing a suit and didn’t have long hair, you could have probably gotten away with murder.”
But that Monday, Mills, who was also chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, in the midst of trying to bulldog his way past the two cops whose jobs he had threatened, couldn’t have counted on what happened next: One of the scantily clad women bolted from the limo, ran to the edge of the Tidal Basin, teetered on the edge — and then threw herself in, heels and all.
While one cop fished her out, the other noted that Mills, in addition to being drunk, was also bleeding from his nose, and from cheeks that sported fresh gashes from fingernails. But, with all of that boys-being-boys crap, the cops commandeered the limo to drive the drunken passengers wherever they were going.
[Mills] had no choice but to escort their close family friend, Annabelle Battistella, to a public place, which happened to be a strip club called the Silver Slipper.
But for a lurking member of the Fourth Estate, there it would have ended. Lawrence Krebs, a journalist, happened to wander onto the scene. Later, while digging out a police report for details, Krebs smelled something rotten in the Tidal Basin — the incident had been listed as an attempted suicide.
Then, in response to a basic query, Mills, the 65-year-old married father of two and grandfather of six, denied having been anywhere near the incident. When newshounds pounced, Mills admitted that he had been there, but only because his wife had a broken foot, so he had no choice but to escort their close family friend, Annabelle Battistella, to a public place, which happened to be a strip club called the Silver Slipper.
This explanation, as risible as it was untrue, did accomplish something significant. It introduced us to Battistella, stage name Fanne Foxe, “the Argentine Firecracker.” At the end of her $500-a-week tenure at the Silver Slipper, Fox quit the gig to swan around an apartment in a luxury building where, yes, Mills lived.
“After a few refreshments, Mrs. Battistella became ill and I enlisted the help of others in our group to assist me in seeing her safely home. As we proceeded home, she attempted to leave the car and I attempted to prevent it. In the ensuing struggle, her elbow hit my glasses and broke them, resulting in a number of small cuts around my nose.” This was Mills’ public statement on the event. Presented here in all of its comedic glory.
None of this was enough to unseat him. At first. A few Hail Marys, Our Fathers and an acknowledgment that alcohol was the real problem was enough for him to hold on in the short term, but two years later, he was done.
And the now 82-year-old Fanne? She rode her 15 minutes of fame hard, more than quintupling her fees and writing books before retiring in Argentina. “I’m going to score that as a win for the Tidal Basin Bombshell,” says porn reviewer Judge Roy Bean, laughing. “I mean, more people have jumped into dirty water for a lot less and come out smelling a lot worse than she did.”