Inside Former President Jimmy Carter and Wife Rosalynn Carter's 8-Decade Love Story

Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn were born in Plains, Ga., and that's where they fell in love and raised a family. The former president attributed his longevity to picking the perfect partner.

By Natalie Finn Nov 19, 2023 8:55 PMTags
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When Eleanor Rosalynn Smith first laid eyes on Jimmy Carter, he was a fascinating older boy.

She was a few days old and he was 3, and his mother was a nurse who helped deliver the infant girl in their hometown of Plains, Ga. But still, it was the start of something big.

The eventual sweethearts went on to have the longest marriage of any U.S. president and first lady in history, 77-plus years of matrimony that only ended when Rosalynn died Nov. 19 at the age of 96.

In May, the Carter Center shared that the great-grandmother of 12 was battling dementia, but continued "to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones." The humanitarian organization the former first couple founded in 1982 announced Nov. 17 that Rosalynn was receiving hospice care at home and spending time with her family.

Jimmy, 99, began home hospice care in February after a period of declining health and several hospitalizations.

"As we have looked back at their legacy, it has been really wonderful to see the outpouring of support and respect and love," grandson Jason Carter said ahead of the couple's July 6 wedding anniversary. "That word love is really the one that defines certainly their personal relationship, but also the way they approach this world."

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Minus their stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the family homestead has been the one-story ranch house at 209 Woodland Dr. that the Carters built themselves in 1961.

Not that the residence, the only one they've ever owned, is shabby by any means—the world ambassador for Habitat for Humanity and his missus knocked down a wall themselves during renovations in 2010—but the four-bedroom abode is modest by modern ex-president standards.

"I don't blame other people for doing it," Carter told the Washington Post in 2018 of his fellow former commanders-in-chief who cashed in on lucrative business opportunities after leaving the White House. "It just never had been my ambition to be rich."

And then he got up from the table to take his nightly after-dinner walk with the love of his life, hand-in-hand.

Jimmy and Rosalynn, each the eldest of four siblings, grew up a few miles away from each other in Plains (pop. 553 in 2021), he on a farm and she in a simple frame house in the middle of town. There was no movie theater, recreation center or even a library, so school and church were the center of life for study and socializing.

Rosalynn graduated from Plains High School as salutatorian while World War II was raging overseas and, when she enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College in nearby Americus, there weren't many eligible young men around. "Our social life was bleak," she wrote in her 1984 autobiography First Lady From Plains, "our adolescent fantasies about love and romance high."


But when she'd visit her longtime friend Ruth Carter, Rosalynn started to pay closer attention to a photograph on the wall of Ruth's older brother Jimmy, who was attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.

"I thought he was the most handsome young man I had ever seen," Rosalynn wrote. She'd known him "for as long as I could remember," but their three-year age gap meant they'd rarely crossed paths growing up, and he'd been away at school for four years. 

"I don't remember ever having said a word to him," she continued, "except when we bought ice cream cones from him one summer in the old bank building on the main street in town. He seemed so glamorous and out of reach."

Ruth was all for playing matchmaker, but Rosalynn had worked herself into a frenzy, worried that the real thing wouldn't match the image in her mind. At a loss for what to say to Jimmy if they did meet, she recalled in her book being almost relieved that she and the midshipman remained ships in the night.

Yet at the same time, she wrote, "I knew this was the person I would fall in love with, the person I wanted to have fall in love with me, but I never thought it would happen."

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In the summer of 1945, right before Jimmy was supposed to go back to Annapolis, Ruth was determined to get those two together. She invited Rosalynn to a picnic at the Pond House, a local gathering spot built by Jimmy's father, James Earl Carter Sr., and that's where they were first together long enough to chat. Jimmy memorably teased Rosalynn about putting salad dressing instead of mayonnaise on her sandwich.

The then-17-year-old didn't mind him poking fun at her, though, she wrote. And afterward, as they were cleaning up, "I discovered I could talk, actually talk, to him."

Still, Rosalynn didn't think Jimmy thought of her as anything other than his kid sister's friend. But later that day, she had just walked out of a youth group meeting at Plains United Methodist Church when Jimmy drove up and asked her to go on a double date to the movies with him, Ruth and her boyfriend.

Rosalynn couldn't remember what they saw, she wrote in her book more than 35 years later, but the date "couldn't have been more wonderful." Jimmy kissed her goodnight on the way home—the first time she'd ever let a guy sneak a smooch on the first date—and she was "in love with a real person, not just a photograph."

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And vice versa. Carter famously told his mother, Bessie "Miss Lillian" Carter, the very next morning that he was going to marry Rosalynn.

"I didn't know that for years," Rosalynn told the Post in 2018. 

She did know back in 1945, however, that Jimmy had a date with someone else the night after he went out with her, and then he was scheduled to catch a train back to Annapolis at midnight. So Rosalynn initially resisted Ruth's insistence that she join the Carter family at the train station to see Jimmy off.

But, she went. On the platform, Jimmy took Rosalynn aside, apologized and told her he would have much rather spent the evening with her. And he asked her to write. (The other gal, Annelle Gray, married a medical student and moved to Macon, Jimmy noted in his 2015 memoir Jimmy Carter: A Full Life. The book's dedication: "To Rosalynn, who has kept my life full of love.")

Initially Jimmy encouraged Rosalynn to go out and have fun, not to wait around for him—which just made her mad. So, she started writing to him about all the boys she was spending time with (as friends, but an admittedly "distressed" Jimmy didn't need to know that) until, finally, he insisted they be exclusive.

Which is what she wanted all along.

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And yet, Carter recalled during a Habitat for Humanity press conference in 2019, "When I asked Rosalynn to marry me for the first time, she said no."

That was during his Christmas break in 1945, the first time he'd been home since their one date, and Rosalynn was too shocked to say yes. And, she admitted in First Lady From Plains, not yet confident enough "for such an eligible bachelor." She had also promised her late father that she'd finish college.

But during their second separation, she realized she totally wanted to marry Jimmy and accepted when he proposed again that February over President's Day weekend. He bought her a compact engraved with "ILYTG"—"I love you the goodest"—beating instant messaging lingo by about 50 years.

During their engagement, Jimmy sent Rosalynn a copy of The Navy Wives' Handbook, and she read every word, excited to join him... basically anywhere but Plains.

They married in a small ceremony at Plains Methodist Church on July 7, 1946, after both had graduated from their respective schools. They didn't send out invitations, but word got around that friends and family who wanted to attend were welcome.

The bride was 18 and the groom 20, and pretty much everyone thought they were too young, Rosalynn recalled. But her mother, Frances, seemed happy that her daughter was so happy.

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The Carters spent their earliest days as husband and wife at the Naval base in Norfolk, Va., where Jimmy was gone most of the week on assignments and Rosalynn enjoyed a crash course in homemaking. 

Their first child, son John William "Jack" Carter, was born July 3, 1947, so the couple celebrated their first anniversary at the hospital as a family of three. The following year, Jimmy was selected for submarine school in New London, Conn., and finally had regular hours so he could be home each night with his wife and child.

They welcomed son James Earl "Chip" Carter III on April 12, 1950, while they were living in Hawaii. Then it was onto San Diego, Calif., then back to New London—where son Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" Carter was born Aug. 18, 1952—and then they moved to Schenectady, N.Y., so Jimmy could study nuclear power at Union College.

Rosalynn has said that she planned on being a Navy wife, moving from city to city and seeing the world with her husband. Which she ultimately did, but not in the way she ever would have imagined. 

Jimmy was working toward a post on a nuclear submarine, but when his father died in 1953, he took leave and went back to Plains with his wife and sons to look after his family's peanut farm. Rosalynn hadn't intended on ending up right back where she started (She was "astounded and furious," Jimmy wrote in A Full Life), but eventually the Carters' partnership extended to running the farm, too.

"I knew more on paper about the business than he did," Rosalynn told the Associated Press in 2021 ahead of their 75th wedding anniversary. "He would take my advice about things."

By the early 1960s they had acquired 3,200 acres of land and their supply business, Carter's Warehouse, was a one-stop shop for local farmers. 

Horace Cort/AP/Shutterstock

When Jimmy decided to enter politics, Rosalynn was forever an asset as the more natural politician of the two—which Jimmy readily admitted. Though she could be shy at cocktail parties, her husband wrote, she was warm, charming and savvy, and he "soon realized that people were more inclined to express their beliefs or concerns to her" than to him.

"I love it," Rosalynn told the AP for their diamond anniversary story. "I love campaigning. I had the best time. I was in all the states in the United States. I campaigned solid every day the last time we ran."

It all started with a successful run for Georgia State Senate in 1962—that Rosalynn first found out about when she asked her dark suit-wearing husband if he was going to a funeral. In A Full Life, Jimmy called it "inconceivable" to think he'd decided to run for public office without first consulting his wife, but luckily for him, she was "pleased and excited."

After two terms in the state senate, Jimmy threw his hat into the Democratic race for governor in 1966 to oppose the party's presumed candidate, segregationist Lester Maddox—who still ended up getting the nomination. Running against a Republican and an independent, Maddox didn't get a majority of votes, but—as the state constitution allowed—was installed as governor by the Democratic-majority state legislature. The whole process left Jimmy "deeply disappointed and disillusioned with politics and with life in general," he wrote.

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He used the time away from politics to recommit to the Christian faith that remained at his core for the rest of his life. And, he wrote, after 14 years of an "off-and-on argument" with Rosalynn that the aspiring girl dad "finally won," daughter Amy Lynn Carter was born on Oct. 19, 1967.

Jimmy was elected governor in November 1970 but still had his eye on even higher office. He became chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1974 and declared he was running for president that December.

In First Lady From Plains, Rosalynn remembered looking at her husband on the morning of his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1977, and being so proud. And a little taken aback that this was "the same person who spent yesterday morning with me, mopping up the garage in Plains after the hot-water pipes burst from the cold, the same son who had called Miss Lillian later to admit the motorcade had forgotten to pick her up on the way to the airport." That issue was resolved and Jimmy's mother arrived in time to see her son sworn in as the 39th president of the United States.  

Afterward, the president and first lady walked the mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House, hand-in-hand.

Here's a look at the road that Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter traveled together for three-quarters of a century: 

Young Love

A photo from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's earliest days together as a young naval officer and his bride stands out at the Plains High School Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in their Georgia hometown.

PDA at the DNC

The Carters could share a private moment anywhere, even in front of thousands of people at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.

Three Generations

Along with his mother, Jimmy and Rosalynn were joined at the DNC here by daughter Amy Lynn Carter, their eldest son, John William "Jack" Carter, and third son Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" Carter with his wife Annette Davis.


President and First Lady-Elect

The couple, watching the returns with family in Atlanta, embraced on Election Night in 1976 upon finding out that Carter was going to be the 39th president of the United States.

Dancing the Night Away

The president and first lady put their best feet forward at a series of inaugural balls following Jimmy's swearing-in on Jan. 20, 1977. Rosalynn raised some eyebrows by recycling the same Mary Matise for Jimmae gown she wore to her husband's 1971 gubernatorial inauguration balls, but she had her husband's full support, Jimmy writing in A Full Life that he was "very proud of her beauty and grace."

First Daughter

Daughter Amy Lynn Carter was 9 when she and her Siamese cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang and dog Grits moved into the White House in January 1977.

Jimmy was the first sitting president since Theodore Roosevelt (and no president has done it since) to send his child to public school, enrolling Amy at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

But if there had been an Internet, this would have been a meme: During his one debate with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in October 1980, President Carter invoked his then-13-year-old when he said, "I had a discussion the other day with my daughter Amy before I came here to ask me what the important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms."

Let's just say, the other side had a little fun with that, with Reagan supporters in Milwaukee chanting "Amy! Amy!" two days later when the candidate delivered a speech. "I remember when Patti and Ron were tiny kids," the future 36th president quipped. "We used to talk about nuclear power."

"Ask Amy" bumper stickers became a quick moneymaker for Republican groups, and she even made The Tonight Show, host Johnny Carson joking, "This will be a significant monologue because I asked Amy Carter what she thought were the most important issues to make jokes about."

Family Portrait

The Carters may have had a young daughter but they also had three daughters-in-law by the time Jimmy became president, and most of the family moved to Washington. 

Jack and wife Juliette "Judy" Langford stayed in Georgia, where they had welcomed son Jason James Carter on Aug. 7, 1975, and where daughter Sarah Rosemary would be born Dec. 19, 1978. (After their divorce, Jack married mother of two Elizabeth Brasfield on May 15, 1992.)

The Carters' second son, James Earl "Chip" Carter III, worked for the Democratic National Committee in Washington while his dad was in office and moved into the White House with wife Caron Griffin, who was eight months pregnant on Inauguration Day. Still, she strolled along the parade route with the rest of the family for a few blocks when the president and first lady made the unprecedented move to walk the whole mile and a half from the Capitol to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"People along the parade route, when they saw that we were walking, began to cheer and weep," Jimmy later wrote, "and it was an emotional experience for us as well."

Baby on Board

Chip and Caron's son, James Earl Carter IV, was born Feb. 25, 1977. That August it was announced that Chip was returning to Plains but his wife and child would be staying with the first family, and he and Caron confirmed their separation in 1978. Chip later married Ginger Hodges, with whom he welcomed daughter Margaret Alicia Carter on Sept. 23, 1987.

Chip's been married to third wife Becky Payne since 2001.

Happy Family

The Carters' third son, Jeff, married his college sweetheart Annette Davis on April 6, 1975, and they moved into the White House, too, while he was attending George Washington University.

Jeff and Annette eventually had three sons, Joshua Jeffrey (b. 1984), Jeremy Davis (1987-2015) and James Carlton (b. 1991), and were together until her death on Sept. 19, 2021.

Close-Knit Couple

Rosalynn was her husband's number-one confidante when he was president—and forever after.

"It's a full partnership," Carter told the AP in 2021 of his then-75-year marriage.

The Beat of Their Own Drum

Jimmy and Rosalyn remain in sync at the White House in January 1979.

First Daughter

Amy, here with her dad in 1995, is mom to son Hugo, born in 1999, with first husband James Gregory Wentzel, and son Errol Carter Kelly with her spouse since 2007, John Joseph "Jay" Kelly.

Merry Christmas From Plains

The house Jimmy and Rosalynn built in 1961 and have lived in ever since remained the gathering spot for the whole family.

The Carters are also great-grandparents to Jason's sons, Henry and Thomas, with his wife Kate; Sarah's daughter, Josephine, with husband Brendan Keith Murphy; Margaret's daughter, Alicia, with husband Harold Edward Carter; Joshua's sons, Charles and Jonathan, with wife Sarah; and James' daughter, Rayna Rose, with wife Anna.

Here's Looking at You

It's no wonder they earned the nickname "first lovebirds."

Sealed With a Kiss

Jimmy knew a thing or two about keeping the peace.

"Every day there needs to be reconciliation and communication between the two spouses," the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize told the AP. "We don't go to sleep with some remaining differences between us." 

Through Thick and Thin

"Jimmy and I are always looking for things to do together," Rosalynn said, but "each [spouse] should have some space. That's really important."


National Treasures

"It's hard to live until you're 95 years old," Carter told People in 2019. "I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse: someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life."

Habit for Longevity

"One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others," Jimmy told People in 2019, discussing the nearly four decades he and his wife had spent volunteering and advocating for Habitat for Humanity. "That's what Rosa and I have both tried to do."

Though their physical involvement in construction grew more limited with time, the Carters became synonymous with the organization, which builds affordable housing and offers no-interest mortgages to buyers who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a home.

"I think both mine and Rosa's minds are almost as good as they used to be, we just have limited capability on stamina and strength," Jimmy said. "But we still try to stay busy and do a good job at what we do."

They got so adept at wielding tools over the years, they knocked down their own bedroom wall during a later-in-life home renovation in Plains.

"By that time," Rosalynn told the Washington Post in 2018, "we had worked with Habitat so much that it was just second-nature."

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