The First Mother-in-Law Is No Joke; 'Miss Allie' Is Jimmy's Latest Ambassador-at-Large

As the huge Pan Am 747 circled the airport at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, the pilot’s voice sounded over the intercom, beseeching his partying passengers to get rid of their drinks. The runway wasn’t made for a jumbo jet, he explained, and he was going to have to “stand on” the brakes. Once safely on the ground, 380 jet-lagged Georgians clambered groggily down the ramp, only to be besieged by a brigade from Fleet Street and the telly. Their quarry was a quiet, 71-year-old great-grandmother who had flown economy class, carried a beat-up vinyl suitcase, wore a small gold peanut in her lapel and had worried the whole way over about a litter of newborn puppies she’d left behind in Plains. “Rosalynn never advised me on how to handle the press,” sighed First Mother-in-Law Mrs. Allethea Smith as she surveyed tumultuous Albion. “I want to be nice if I can, but I’ll never even get to see a castle if I have to meet with all of them.”

So began an informal Bicentennial-plus-one mission by the newest of the First Family’s homegrown supply of goodwill ambassadors—”Miss Allie,” mother of Rosalynn Carter. The idea germinated on the President’s recent European tour, during which he proposed a people-to-people exchange program to be known as the “Friendship Force.” In Newcastle, a grubby industrial burg that gave the President his warmest reception, he also promised to put a genuine Carter on the first flight over. Local hopes centered on beer-guzzling brother Billy, whose thirst seemed matched in heaven with the local brown ale, but the First Family did not opt for flamboyance (and possibly couldn’t afford his fee). “Rosalynn called and said, ‘Mama, how would you like to go to England for us?’ ” Miss Allie recalls. “I’d never been out of America before, but I said yes.” (Also in the party: her divorced son Murray, 45, a high school math teacher.)

Most of Miss Allie’s 10 days in England were spent rubbernecking. At Washington, ancestral home of the first American President, she discovered, sadly, that a ceremonial tree planted in May by her son-in-law had withered and died. More cheering was her introduction to Queen Elizabeth while on a visit to Durham Cathedral. “They put a cross mark on the floor and told me to stand there,” Miss Allie remembers. “Then the Queen came over and said they enjoyed having Jimmy in England. I just remember how pretty she was and what a nice complexion she has. I didn’t curtsy. We just shook hands.” Later Miss Allie turned down a crawl through Newcastle’s workingmen’s pubs (“I don’t think Rosalynn would like pictures of me in there”), but did drop by the local post office to compare it with the Plains branch where she worked until last year.

Work has indeed been the order of Miss Allie’s lifetime. Left with four young children when her husband, Edgar, a mechanic, died of leukemia in 1940, she found a job at the school cafeteria, sewed for townspeople and clerked at a grocery store before eventually moving on to the post office. Though she’s still employed part-time at a flower shop and at the Plains railroad depot—now a souvenir shop—she admits to feeling a little lost since Rosalynn and Jimmy went to the White House. “It was different when they were in Atlanta,” she says. “I could go up and spend a day. It’s not the same now, but I keep busy.”

Quiet and unobtrusive, she has always been upstaged by the more loquacious Miss Lillian (her husband’s nurse during his fatal illness). She rarely ventured out on the campaign trail last year, preferring to stay home with Amy and mind her flower garden. But her first foray abroad may have changed all that. “I’m still kind of shy,” she says softly, “but I’m getting used to the attention. I won’t ever get up and make speeches like Rosalynn does, but I’m getting more comfortable in public.”

That much was clear toward the end of her trip, when Miss Allie said goodbye to her Newcastle hosts, a brewing association exec, once the city’s Lord Mayor, and his wife, and headed for the airport, where she obliged photographers by waving again and again from the ramp. “We don’t say ‘cheese’ anymore in Plains,” she joked. “We say ‘peanuts’ instead. You get a picture with a real good smile that way. Sure worked for Jimmy, didn’t it?” she observed with a wink. “Bye, y’all!”

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