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 wasn’t interested.
“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.
“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.”
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