Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s Achingly Sweet Love Story

“Never in our history has a couple approached the White House so equally side by side as Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter,” Vogue noted in its January 1977 issue—and indeed, it echoed a statement made by Mr. Carter almost 50 years later, shortly after his wife’s death this month. “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” he said. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Mr. and Mrs. Carter’s love story had the patina of historical significance—wed in 1946, they were the longest-married first couple ever, closely followed by George and Barbara Bush’s 73 years—but it began humbly, in their shared hometown of Plains, Georgia. Some 18 years before they went on their first date (to a movie in 1945, the summer before Mr. Carter’s final year at the United States Naval Academy), his mother—a nurse known throughout her life as Miss Lillian—actually delivered her future daughter-in-law in 1927. (Biographer Jonathan Alter claimed that a two-year-old Jimmy first met Rosalynn mere days after she was born.) “She was a wonderful person, and the whole community had great respect for her,” Mrs. Carter wrote of Miss Lillian in her 1984 memoir, First Lady from Plains. “My parents even named my sister, Lillian Allethea, after her.”

After their wedding at the Plains Methodist Church (when he proposed, Mr. Carter gifted his soon-to-be bride a compact engraved with the letters ILYTG, standing for “I love you the goodest”), the Carters’ life together would span 77 years and produce four children. In that time they weathered Mr. Carter’s seven years of active duty in the Navy; their return home to Plains, where he took over his family’s peanut-farming business (and Mrs. Carter learned to keep the books); two terms as a state senator; a term as Georgia’s governor; a somewhat turbulent term as president, from 1977 to 1981; and then some four decades of diplomatic and philanthropic service through their nonprofit organization, the Carter Foundation.

The Carters celebrating their victory at the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary in 1976.

Photo: Getty Images

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