Rita Jenrette likes to compare her singing to Linda Ronstadt’s. No one else has yet, but she’s already broken into the fringe of showbiz as a promoter-model for Clairol hair coloring. Rita has one other entrée: Her husband is a congressman. “I don’t delude myself,” says the 28-year-old spouse of South Carolina’s Rep. John Jenrette, 41. “I realize that it’s because of John that all the doors are opening. If I were just plain Rita Carpenter, I’m sure no one would be coming around for the next five years.”
“Just plain Rita Carpenter” caused quite a ruckus in 1975 when she took up with man-about-D.C. Jenrette. As “opposition research director” for the Republican National Committee, divorcée Carpenter met the divorced Democratic representative on the steps of the House Office Building and romance bloomed. “That turned out to be a bleak period for me,” recalls Rita, who was spotted by a GOP loyalist emerging from Jenrette’s house one dawn. “The Republicans felt I was a traitor, and the Democrats felt I was some sort of spy.” Amid stories referring to her as Jenrette’s “blond bombshell,” Rita had to choose between John or the job. Adios, job.
In the midst of his ’76 reelection campaign, John and Rita slipped across the Potomac to Alexandria, Va. and were married by a JP. Jenrette’s beeper went off throughout the ceremony, and he was summoned back to South Carolina that night. “I drove him to the plane,” Rita remembers, “and didn’t see him again for three days. I went home and wrote the song.”
Titled Baby Do You Love Me? (sample lyric: “You got on that jet plane leaving me again like all the times before…”), the tune will be included in Rita’s first album. Her producer is Bob Rose, a musician with the successful Starland Vocal Band, but for Rita progress has been slow. A semipro folksinger while at the University of Texas, she had turned down recording offers “for fear of failing.” Thence followed a six-year hiatus with the Peace Corps in Micronesia and a gig as an elevator operator at the Capitol. By Rita’s own admission her guitar playing is still “terrible,” and she winces that an ill-prepared appearance on the CBS Morning News was a bomb.
But no one is more encouraging about what she calls her “almost obsessive dream” than her husband. “I like having a liberated wife,” he says. (Despite his own stormy divorce and apprehensions about her reception back home, he was reelected with an unexpectedly big 59 percent plurality.) “Rita brings unpredictable, exciting and innovative ideas to our home,” reports John, “and stimulating conversation before bed.”
In Washington, his post as regional whip requires a nightly average of four cocktail parties, but Rita never meets her old friends from the Republican National Committee (“I see them, but they dive in the bushes when they see me coming”). She also disavows any political differences with John. What research she does nowadays is for him, and she claims to be less conservative than her Democratic husband. “I don’t believe it,” he mutters, “although she is more liberal with the checkbook.”