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Annabel Battistella, whose Combat Zone performance as Fanne Foxe fueled a Washington sex scandal, dies at 84

Fanne Foxe, leaving the Pilgrim Theater with Wilbur Mills.
Fanne Foxe, leaving the Pilgrim Theater with Wilbur Mills.Curtis, William C. Globe photo/The Boston Globe

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On November’s final Saturday night in 1974, Annabel Battistella was performing a burlesque dance at the Pilgrim Theater stage in Boston’s Combat Zone neighborhood when she welcomed into the spotlight a man off in the wings.

“Ladies and gentleman, I have a visitor for you, and he wants to say hello,” said the performer who used the stage name Fanne Foxe, and later went by her married name, Annabel Montgomery. “Mr. Mills, where are you?”

Joining her on stage, taking somewhat unbalanced steps, was US Representative Wilbur Mills, who as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was considered the second most powerful person in the US House. “Here I am,” he told the crowd, taking the microphone and adding rambling comments.

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Mills’s performance was the nadir of a scandal that had been unfolding since Oct. 7, when police pulled over and stopped a car that was swerving in Washington, D.C., near the Jefferson Memorial. Ms. Montgomery, one of the passengers, climbed out of the Lincoln Continental and splashed into the nearby Tidal Basin, authorities said, and Mills, an Arkansas Democrat, emerged from the car inebriated and bleeding.

Ms. Montgomery, whose relationship with Mills derailed his high-profile career and provided a memorable chapter in the history of one of Boston’s most notorious neighborhoods, died Feb. 10. She was 84.

Recounting her time with Mills in “The Stripper and the Congressman,” a book coauthored with Yvonne Dunleavy, Ms. Montgomery wrote about an affair that flourished as Mills began attending her performances at the Silver Slipper, a Washington club.

Media attention from their relationship allowed her to significantly increase her performance fees. She also appeared on talk shows, in movies, and in Playboy magazine.

Such income was helpful for Ms. Montgomery, who was a single mother after she and her first husband divorced.

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Publishing details about her life as an exotic dancer and the affair with Mills didn’t cause difficulties at home, she told People magazine in 1975.

“My children do not care what I did,” she said. “I guess they think I am a good mother and a good woman — that’s all that matters to them.”

Before meeting Mills, she had been billed as “The Argentine Firecracker” for burlesque jobs. The incident near the Jefferson Memorial inspired a new name: “The Tidal Basin Bombshell.”

At about 2 a.m. Oct. 7, 1974, US Park Police pulled over the silver-blue Lincoln Continental, which was speeding without headlights.

Wearing an evening gown, Ms. Montgomery ran from the car, climbed the stone parapet along the Tidal Basin and, acting on what she later called a frantic impulse, leaped headfirst into the frigid, inky water.

Until then, Mills had been esteemed as a pillar of Bible Belt rectitude and respectability; he had shepherded Medicare and other influential legislation through Congress.

His power on Capitol Hill was such that a colleague once told a reporter: “I never vote against God, motherhood, or Wilbur Mills.”

News of the Tidal Basin incident broke almost two months after President resigned because of the Watergate scandal.

Mills initially said that Battistella, who then lived in an Arlington, Va., luxury apartment tower where he also lived, was a family friend and a social companion of his wife, Clarine.

He was reelected to his House seat in November, but continued to see Ms. Battistella. She later said he deluged her with calls, professions of love, and promises of marriage.

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She made no secret of her affection for him. After bringing him on stage during her Combat Zone performance, Ms. Montgomery told Boston reporters that Mills was “a beautiful human being. Both my father and Wilbur were born under Gemini. He is more than one person in one.”

Congressman Wilbur Mills waited in the wings of the Pilgrim Theater and watched stripper Fanne Foxe.
Congressman Wilbur Mills waited in the wings of the Pilgrim Theater and watched stripper Fanne Foxe.none/UPI/William Manning

Backstage that Saturday night, Mills delivered one of the most excruciating news conferences ever captured on film. Slurring his words, and with barely controlled fury, he declared that all Battistella’s future performances were off, as she struggled to defuse his wrath.

Back in Washington, Mills was removed as Ways and Means chairman and sought treatment for alcohol addiction. He later said he had no memory of the entire year of 1974 and blamed his actions on mixing alcohol with “some highly addictive drugs” for back pain.

With his career in tatters, he left office in 1977 and became an advocate for recovering alcoholics until his death in 1992.

Battistella prospered for a while and wrote of her unyielding loyalty to Mills, even after he disappeared from her life.

“I remember being very upset,” she told The Washington Post in 1981, “because he went on interviews and he’d talk about how he didn’t remember what happened to him … and, you know, that we were just friends, and he kind of denied the whole thing — without putting me down, of course. The only time he put me down was when he said, ‘I learned not to drink with foreigners.’ … I thought, ‘Why doesn’t he keep quiet if he doesn’t have anything nice to say about me?’ "

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Annabel Edith Villagra was born in Nueve de Julio, a cattle-ranching village southwest of Buenos Aires, on Feb. 14, 1936. She described herself as an athletic tomboy who excelled at basketball, shooting wild game, and rigorous folk dancing.

She said she had been a pre-med student at the University of Buenos Aires, but left at 20 to marry Eduardo Battistella, a cabaret and cocktail pianist.

In “The Stripper and the Congressman,” she described Eduardo as a relentless philanderer who initiated her into partner swapping. She began dancing in club acts, appearing with him, in part, to keep her eye on him.

She said her agent changed her “sweet-sounding” name to Fanne Foxe.

Her marriage had imploded by the time she arrived in the Washington area in the late 1960s, but she allowed Eduardo to live with her at Arlington’s Crystal Towers, she told the Post, “because I don’t like him to spend money, and he is the father of my children.”

In summer 1973, she met Mills at the Silver Slipper through a mutual friend. Mills and his wife moved into the Crystal Towers, and the Battistellas reportedly played bridge with them until the Tidal Basin incident. Battistella later said she jumped into the water because she feared hurting Mills’s public image and worried that she might lose her recently acquired US citizenship.

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She gave up exotic dancing after she was arrested in December 1974 at a go-go club near Orlando and charged with public indecency; a judge cleared her of the charge.

In 1980, she married a contractor and businessman, Daniel Montgomery, and had a daughter, Melanie. Later, she settled in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area.

According to a Florida death certificate, she died at a hospital in Clearwater, Fla.

The family’s death notice in the Tampa Bay Times listed as survivors her three children, Grace, Alex, and Maria, and seven grandchildren. Her daughter Melanie died in 2017, according to the Post.

The University of Tampa told the Post that she graduated in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and the University of South Florida confirmed she received a master’s in marine science in 2001 and a master’s in business administration in 2004.

In a 2019 advance interview for the New York Times obituary on Ms. Montgomery, Alex said the children were “very proud of her accomplishments. She was a very intelligent woman. Remarkable. She also became a scuba-diving master at the University of South Florida and went to Cozumel, Mexico, to do some underwater filming.”

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.