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A Story of Love and Rehabilitation: the Ex-Con in the White House

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Back in December 1970, Mary Fitzpatrick traveled to Atlanta to interview for a job at the mansion of Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. “I was thrilled,” she recalls. “All my life I had wanted to meet a governor or a President. But I was nervous, too. I wondered how the Carter family would take to me.”

Her concern was understandable. Mary Fitzpatrick was no ordinary job applicant, but a convicted murderess serving a prison term. Working in the mansion was to be part of her rehabilitation. “Mrs. Carter asked me how I would like to take care of Amy,” Mary remembers. “She was just 3, and she took to me right away. She liked me to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to her every night, and I would rub her back and lie down with her. She would even cry at night because she hated to see me leave.”

Today, reprieved after serving more than six years of her life sentence, Mary Fitzpatrick has resumed her duties as Amy’s governess, and has exchanged a halfway house for the White House. “Amy is still my sweet kid,” she says fondly. “We have just as much fun here as we did in Georgia. She still likes to tickle me and jump on me, and there’s a big yard here, so we can take her dog Grits out and chase him. Amy’s found a climbing tree, like in Georgia, and she’ll go higher than I will. She’s a big girl now.”

Almost big enough, perhaps, to understand something of her nanny’s troubled past. One of three sisters, Mary Fitzpatrick was born 31 years ago in Richland, Ga.—”a little town like Plains”—and brought up in stark rural poverty. She cannot remember her father, and her mother separated from her stepfather about the time Mary was 9 years old. “Mother raised vegetables,” she says, “but there were times when we were hungry, and a lot of the time we just had bread, butter and syrup. We stayed clean, though. We had an old tin tub on a wood stove, and mother used to scrub us down in that tub everyday.”

When Mary was 12, her older sister, Carrie Frances, died of a brain abscess. “I think she would have lived if we could have afforded the doctor bills to find out why she had headaches,” Mary recalls ruefully. “That thought just stayed and stayed in my mind.” Mary dropped out of school in seventh grade to care for her younger sister, Gloria. At 14 she married briefly and had a son, Lonnie, now 16. A year later she began working as a domestic, and by 1964 had moved to New York and become pregnant with her second son, David Jerome, now 11. (The two boys live in Atlanta with Gloria.)

Returning to Georgia in 1967, Mary worked her way up to cashier in a restaurant. She also became friendly with a cousin, Aniemaude Perry. One April night in 1970 the two women went to a bar in Lumpkin, Ga. and Aniemaude got into an argument. Later, says Mary, “I went outside and heard a shot. Aniemaude and this woman were fighting over Aniemaude’s gun. I didn’t know anything about guns, but I tried to take it away and it went off. We didn’t know it had hit anyone.” (The other woman, however, claimed that Mary seized the gun and deliberately fired it, killing the woman’s boyfriend.)

Next morning Mary and Aniemaude were arrested. “Aniemaude got out on bail,” says Mary, “but I stayed in jail four months. I got a court-appointed attorney—he was white—and I saw him twice for 10 or 15 minutes. In court, I was under the impression I was pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter, but it turned out to be murder. The whole time in court took less than an hour, and I was sentenced right there to life in prison.” (Her attorney says that he read the indictment to Mary before she made her plea.)

Taken to the women’s prison at Hardwick, Ga., Mary worked in the kitchen and sang in the choir before landing her job with the Carters. “Amy would try to help cook,” her governess recalls. “She would make little biscuits for her father. And sometimes she would crawl in the kitchen cabinets and hang upside down. We played a lot of hide-and-seek. It was hard to find Amy, because she could get in the smallest places. But when she couldn’t find me, she would say, ‘Please, Mary, answer,’ and I would.”

When Carter’s term as governor ended in January 1975, the family returned to Plains, and Mary went back to prison. “When I left,” she says, “Amy really screamed. Later Mrs. Carter would come and see me at the Fulton County Jail and the Atlanta Work Release Center, where I went as a cook in 1975. I was really excited about Governor Carter running for President. I’ve always had faith in him. I used to ask him questions about history and farming. He would tell me what different words meant in books I took from their library. When he won for President, I stayed up all night and kept everyone else up too.”

Though she was not eligible for parole until April, Mary was allowed to travel unguarded to Washington for the inauguration. The Junior League in Atlanta paid her way. She spent two nights at the White House and attended an inaugural ball in a gown she had sewn from velvet given to her by fellow inmates. “Before I left,” she says, “Mrs. Carter said, ‘How would you like to work in this big old place?’ ” A letter from the White House to Georgia prison officials followed, and Mary won her reprieve.

Now living in a third-floor White House apartment, Mary is paid $6,004 a year. She cares for Amy’s and Mrs. Carter’s clothes and expects to lend a hand with the new presidential grandchild, Chip and Caron’s son, James Earl Carter IV. Meanwhile she and Amy remain as close as ever. “The only difference is that she has homework now,” says Mary. “She watches television and does it. I understand some of the new math, but Amy’s a better reader. She puts my cigarettes out—she doesn’t like me to smoke—and I tease her about her freckles. She’s not choicy about clothes the way she used to be. And Amy and I dance a lot. We do the bump and the robot and stuff.”

Mary reports that Amy saves comic books and likes Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys best on television. She also watches Happy Days (i.e., the Fonz), Laverne & Shirley, Sesame Street, Emergency One! and reruns of Bewitched. “She’s in bed by 9:30,” says the governess. “I leave her light on and her mother comes in. Amy reads, and I guess she’s asleep by 10 or 10:15. She gets up at 7:30 without a fuss.”

Mary, a Baptist who sometimes goes to Sunday services with Amy, joined the Carter family church in Washington last week. She hopes to find an apartment in the capital for her sister and two sons. “My oldest is doing real well in school,” Mary says. “He wants to go in the service to get an education.” She hopes eventually to become a practical nurse. As for the future, Mary says, “I’ve been getting some real sweet letters. A couple are from boyfriends who want to be pen pals. I guess I plan someday to meet a nice young fellow and marry him. If I do, I’m going to ask the President to be my best man.”