"I didn’t know a single boy I thought I’d want to spend my life with," Rosalynn Carter recalls — but then Jimmy Carter asked her on a date

By Adam Carlson
May 11, 2020 03:16 PM
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Long before she became Mrs. Carter, the 39th first lady of the United States, Rosalynn Smith thought she would grow up to “be an old maid.” Boys would call for her at her home in the tiny town of Plains, Georgia, but she ignored them.

“I’d tell my mother to answer the phone and say I wasn’t home. I didn’t know a single boy I thought I’d want to spend my life with,” she recalls in Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas’ What Makes a Marriage Last, published earlier this month. The host-and-actress duo, themselves married for 40 years, interviewed 40 prominent couples about their own love stories and enduring bonds.

The book begins with a chapter on the history-making marriage of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who spoke with Donahue and Thomas in February 2019 at The Carter Center in Atlanta.

Though former President Carter remembers his future wife as “the most timid person I’d ever met,” she says she was sure of one thing: She wasn’t interested in other boys. She was interested in Jimmy.

“I always said I fell in love with a photograph of him on her bedroom wall,” she says in the book.

“My mother said it must have been his white uniform,” she says, “but I don’t know.”

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Then as now, everyone knew everyone else in Plains. But Rosalynn was closer to the Carters than most. Jimmy’s sister Ruth Carter “was my best friend, and I spent a lot of time at their house, though he was never there,” she says. Three years his junior, “I first started noticing him when I was thirteen,” she says, “and, I mean, there’s just no relationship between a thirteen-year-old and a sixteen-year-old in that situation.”

Rosalynn was 18 when Jimmy returned to Georgia on a month-long break from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Ruth and I plotted to get me together with him. She’d call and say ‘Come over! He’s here!’ and I’d go flying over to her house, but he’d be gone again,” Rosalynn says.

Looking back, the former president says, “I had a lot of girlfriends growing up.” He dated a beauty queen while at the academy — Miss Georgia Southwestern State herself — but as fate would have it found himself without a date the last night of one of his breaks, while his then-girlfriend was at a family reunion at which he was not allowed.

“I was cruising around with my sister Ruth and her boyfriend, just looking for a date, and I picked up Rosalynn in front of the Methodist church,” he says in the book. He invited her to the movies.

“I just felt compatible with her,” he says. “She was beautiful and innocent, and there was a resonance. We rode in the rumble seat of a Ford pickup—Ruth and her boyfriend in the front—and I kissed her on that first date. I remember that vividly.”

The next morning, he told his mother that “Rosalynn was the one I wanted to marry.”

He proposed to her the following February, on President’s Day, when she joined his parents on a trip to Annapolis. Still, he notes in the book, they “disagree” on how they remember some of the particulars of his popping the question.

She turned down the proposal at first — and didn’t say yes until that May, telling Donahue and Thomas that her education was on her mind.

“I was the oldest of four, and my father, who’d never gone to high school, died when I was thirteen. I promised him on his deathbed that I’d go to a four-year college,” she said. “I graduated from junior college but never had a chance to go back.”

She and Jimmy married on July 7, 1946.

“On our first wedding anniversary, I was in the hospital in Norfolk, having our first child, Jack,” Mrs. Carter said.

From left: Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter attend a fundraiser on Valentine's Day in 1976.
| Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty

Becoming ‘Equal Partners’

Three more children followed after Jack: sons Chip and Jeff and, after a 14-year gap, daughter Amy (who spent part of her childhood in the White House).

In those early years of their marriage, the Carters traveled around the country following his military postings: in Norfolk, Virginia; San Diego and Oahu, Hawaii. He was stationed for part of his service on nuclear submarines.

“I was gone at sea most of the time,” President Carter says in What Makes a Marriage Last. “So she had full responsibility to take care of the household and whatever babies came, to shop for groceries and pay the bills. When we were first a bride and groom, I never interfered in her decision-making as far as the children were concerned or the household expenses. She had her life, and I had mine.”

"He had a 13-month cruise," Mrs. Carter once told PEOPLE, in a 1976 profile, "and I learned to be independent, to make the decisions that someone else had been making for me all my life."

It wasn’t always easy.

“I would go get groceries with the baby and get off the bus at the street corner, put the groceries down, run home with the baby, then go back and pick up the groceries,” she tells Donahue and Thomas. “It was tough.”

She had a support system of other officers’ wives, including seven in their housing complex.

“Luckily, we lived upstairs from the skipper and his wife, so anytime I needed help with the new baby, she was there for me,” Mrs. Carter says. “With so many wives being pregnant and having babies, things were easier for me. We’d all get together while the men were gone.”

From left: President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dancing at a White House congressional ball in 1977.
| Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty
From left: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on election night in 1976.

President Carter, commissioned as a low-level ensign in June 1946, left active service in October 1953 with the rank of lieutenant. His father had died of cancer that July and he, Mrs. Carter and their children were returning home to Plains to take over the farming business.

It was their partnership in business that reshaped their love story — for the better.

They told it to Donahue and Thomas this way: President Carter was initially “completely dominant” on the direction of their family.

“I wouldn’t interfere with her running the household, which was her life, but whenever there were major decisions to be made, I never consulted her—and she never questioned me,” he said. “In fact, when I decided to resign from the Navy and change our lives completely, I didn’t even ask her ahead of time.”

But, Mrs. Carter chimed in, “I rebelled.”

And when he settled on mounting a bid for a state Senate seat, he simply announced it to her.

“We talk about that now. We say, ‘How that could possibly have happened?’ “ Mrs. Carter says in the book.

“I wouldn’t dream of doing that during the last forty-five years of our marriage,” her husband adds. “Once we began working together in business, we became equal partners in almost everything. It was a transformation in our marriage.”

When it came to running the family’s farm and supply business, Mrs. Carter was in charge of the bookkeeping.

“So it wasn’t long before I knew on paper more about the work than he did. So he’d come to ask me my advice,” she says.

“That’s true. We began to work together as equals in our business. I would defer to Rosalynn, or consult with her, before I made any major decisions,” President Carter says. “We learned how to work together.”

President Jimmy Carter (center) carries his grandson Jason on his shoulders as he mingles on the South Lawn of the White House during the annual Easter Egg Roll. With them are Amy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty
First Lady Rosalynn Carter (left) helps her daughter, Amy, prepare for President Jimmy Carter's inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1977.
| Credit: Mikki Ansin/Getty

'My Secret Weapon'

On the political stage and on the campaign trail, Mrs. Carter distinguished herself — not just as a candidate’s spouse, a reflection of her husband, but as an exacting and influential figure in her own right.

“If Rosalynn okays you, you're in," a source told PEOPLE in 1976, after the Carters were swept by victory into the Oval Office. "If she doesn't, you're dead."

“Jimmy has always thought I could do anything. Always. And so I’ve done everything,” the former first lady says in What Makes a Marriage Last, after Donahue says that she is a feminist. “I campaigned all over the country. I’ve done things I never dreamed I could do.”

"It doesn't come naturally to her to be doing all this,” a source told PEOPLE in ’76. “She's painfully shy, but she has very strong ambition."

Mrs. Carter seemed to reflect on that while speaking with Donahue and Thomas.

“Jimmy gave me the confidence to do things I was afraid of,” she told them. “I remember when we were in the Georgia governor’s mansion, I used to greet tourists and talk to everybody who came through. One day, Jimmy told me I was going to have to make a speech. I was so nervous, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just do what you do at the governor’s mansion when you’re talking to the tourists?” So I made the speech with no problem, ran to the telephone and called Jimmy to say, ‘I did it!’ I did it because I had to do it.”

While on the presidential trial in the ‘70s, her husband would say, “Rosalynn's my secret weapon,” and she took his overwhelming loss to Ronald Reagan, in 1980, particularly hard.

“I searched for good things about not being reelected, to ease her pain,” he tells Donahue and Thomas. “I was just fifty-six years old, I told her, and she was just fifty-three, so we had at least twenty-five years of life ahead of us. That’s when the Carter Center was born. It has been a wonderful challenge.”

From left: former First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former President Jimmy Carter arrive on the west front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, DC., for President Donald Trump's inauguration.
| Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

Making Love Stay

There is no union this long that has not survived a few — or more — disagreements. The Carters haven’t been immune to butting heads either, but they’ve long since figured out how to overcome those conflicts.

“We found out a long time ago that disagreements are inevitable between two strong-willed people,” Jimmy says in Donahue and Thomas’ book. “But we decided early on to give each other plenty of space. If Rosalynn is interested in something, she does it her own way, accepting my help when she needs it. And she gives me plenty of space to work on my own projects but helps me when I need it. We also look for things to do together.”

That has included tennis and fly-fishing and, yes, downhill skiing. (“Jimmy doesn’t want to just learn about things, he wants to do them,” Mrs. Carter says.)

“Sometimes we get in a huff—Rosalynn or I might pout for a little while, but then we’ll try to reconcile. Most of the time I take the initiative, because I realize that there are two sides to every issue or that I was wrong,” President Carter says.

And every night, still, they read the Bible together.

“Well, right now we’re going through the New Testament in the Spanish-English version, so one night Rosalynn will read, and the next night I’ll read,” the former president said in their interview last February. “And when I’m overseas, or when Rosalynn is traveling, we still read the same chapter, even though we might be five thousand miles apart. We share the same text, and it keeps us connected.”

Their “biggest challenge,” they said, was writing 1987’s memoir Everything to Gain together.

From left: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter in 2015
From left: former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter walk toward their home in Plains, Georgia, following dinner at a friend's home on Aug. 4, 2018.
| Credit: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty

“He’d quickly write a chapter in an afternoon, so I knew that it had to be a draft,” Mrs. Carter says. “But I’d work and work on my chapters until they were perfect. I didn’t want him to touch them.”

Says her husband: “The thing is, we would agree on 97 percent of what we wrote, but then there was 3 percent we didn’t agree on. Or I might have found something humorous that she thought was very serious.” (“And I found out very quickly—this is my version of it—that Rosa’s memory was very faulty,” the former president tells Donahue and Thomas, though she rebuts, “I don’t remember my memory being faulty back then.”)

The book-writing got so bitter, with “ugly letters back and forth on the word processor,” that “we couldn’t talk about it,” Mrs. Carter says.  “It was breaking up our marriage,” President Carter agreed.

Then the wisdom of a quick-thinking book editor salved the project and their bond.

In October, the Carters became the longest-ever married presidential couple days after his birthday. “It’s hard to live until you’re 95 years old,” he told PEOPLE then, while helping build homes with Habitat for Humanity in Tennessee.

“I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse,” President Carter said of Mrs. Carter, now 92, “someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life.”