Mary Finch Hoyt, press secretary to Rosalynn Carter, dies at 89


First Lady Rosalynn Carter in her office at the White House with her press secretary Mary Finch Hoyt in May 1977. Mrs. Hoyt died Oct. 17 at 89. (Courtesy of The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)
October 24, 2013

Mary Finch Hoyt, a once-wi­dowed and twice-divorced working mother who forged a high-profile career in Washington as a Peace Corps official, speechwriter, ghostwriter, public relations executive and press secretary, most notably for first lady Rosalynn Carter, died Oct. 17 at her home in Washington. She was 89.

The cause was cancer, said her son, Thomas W. Hoyt.

Mrs. Hoyt was a native of a small California town who said she was “trained to be a wife and homemaker.” Her first husband was killed in a military training accident during World War II. She said her second spouse was an alcoholic, and she described her third marriage as a practical-minded “business deal.”

“I did not think I could raise two boys as a woman alone,” she once said, “and he didn’t think he could get ahead in the academic world without a wife.”

When the marriage ended, Mrs. Hoyt found herself in Washington with two young sons she was determined to support. She launched a freelance career writing for magazines such as Cosmopolitan and became network-savvy in a city of political operators. As she advanced, she was the object of much envy for her impeccably coiffed presence in the bruising world of presidential politics. She was described as hard-driving, acerbic and coolly efficient.

After two years as the Peace Corps’s director of radio and television, Mrs. Hoyt became press secretary to Jane Muskie, whose husband, Edmund, a senator from Maine, was Hubert Humphrey’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 1968.

When the team lost the general election to Richard M. Nixon, Mrs. Hoyt became the Washington bureau chief for Ladies’ Home Journal. In the 1972 presidential race, she served as press secretary to Eleanor McGovern, whose husband, George, a senator from South Dakota, lost in a landslide to Nixon.

Mrs. Hoyt co-authored Eleanor McGovern’s forthright and well-received 1974 memoir, “Uphill,” and became a partner in a public relations firm.

A Peace Corps colleague who was close to former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter helped lure Mrs. Hoyt back into politics during the 1976 presidential campaign. She was tapped as Rosalynn Carter’s press aide. After Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald R. Ford, Mrs. Hoyt accompanied Rosa­lynn to the White House’s East Wing, the first lady’s side of the residence.

Mrs. Hoyt, 53 at the time, declared herself “the token, Eastern Establishment geriatric female on this staff.”

The Carters arrived in Washington largely unknown to the city’s political and social elites, and they were the subject of curiosity, not least because of their disregard for formality. Mrs. Hoyt refused to call the president Jimmy, as he had requested.

Mrs. Hoyt’s job was to explain the public life of the first lady to the news media, but Rosalynn Carter’s early disregard for protocol left Mrs. Hoyt fuming at times.

On one occasion, the first lady and a friend took a commercial jetliner to New York for a shopping spree without informing her press secretary. Mrs. Hoyt was scorched by the media for her ignorance of her boss’s whereabouts, and she conveyed her displeasure to the first lady.

“When I got back, I was really in hot water,” Rosalynn Carter recalled years later. “It didn’t help very much when [White House reporter Helen Thomas] called Mary and said, ‘If you don’t even know where the first lady is, you’re not going to be very much help around here.’ ”

To Mrs. Hoyt, a complicating factor of her job was that the news media “wanted simple definitions” of a first lady who had many interests and facets. Previous first ladies had become advocates for causes such as conservation (Lady Bird Johnson), volunteerism (Pat Nixon) or the Equal Rights Amendment (Betty Ford).

Mrs. Hoyt said that when Rosalynn Carter announced her chief goal was to create a “more caring society” — which included improvements in mental-health care and the condition of the elderly — the first lady was accused by some in the Washington press corps of crafting a “fuzzy,” ill-defined public identity.

Some of the blame fell to Mrs. Hoyt.

“I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to expect this stereotype approach that she should have one project,” Mrs. Hoyt told The Washington Post at the time. “That a single project is an image. She has many interests and they all fit neatly together. But it isn’t easy. People are frustrated because they all want her to have a slogan, a title, a name for a project.

“Mrs. Carter,” she said, “defies packaging.”

Stories also proliferated that Rosalynn Carter, who attended Cabinet meetings and was the president’s personal emissary to some Latin American countries, sought to be an equal partner with her husband. Tensions reportedly escalated with presidential advisers in the West Wing, including the president’s press secretary, Jody Powell.

Meanhile, Mrs. Hoyt’s youngest son disappeared in a boating accident.

“I probably would have died without the job,” she said in an Carter White House oral history. “But on the other hand, I think my job suffered.”

During a 1979 White House reorganization, a new position of staff director was created to serve the first lady and coordinate Rosa­lynn Carter’s activities with the president’s top assistants. The job was filled by Kit Dobelle, chief of protocol for the State Department and wife of President Carter’s campaign chairman.

In a statement, Rosalynn Carter called Mrs. Hoyt “a trusted advisor and a loyal friend.” Indeed, she remained press secretary for the rest of the administration, accompanying the first lady on her trips, helping write and reviewing speeches, and generating interest in covering Mrs. Carter’s public activities.

“I’ve been a working woman for 18 years now,” Mrs. Hoyt told the Los Angeles Times at the time of the staff reorganization, “and I’ve learned that one of my assets is flexibility.”

Mary McMaster Finch was born Dec. 17, 1923, in Visalia, Calif. Her father was a produce broker. Her only sibling, a brother, was a B-17 pilot who was shot down during World War II over Europe.

She said she left the University of California at Los Angeles after three years to marry her childhood sweetheart, Robert Swanson, who died six months later during a wartime accident. Her later marriages to James M. Hoyt and George K. Tanham ended in divorce.

Survivors include a son from her second marriage, Thomas W. Hoyt of Flagstaff, Ariz. Another son from that marriage, Stephen M. Hoyt, was lost at sea in 1978 while working as a lobster fisherman off the coast of Rhode Island.

After leaving the White House in 1981, Mrs. Hoyt spent several years as public relations director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She wrote a memoir, “East Wing: Politics, the Press, and a First Lady,” published in 2001, and was recently working on a historic novel.

“Always remember your time is short in the sweep of history,” she wrote in a note to her successor at the White House, “so take time to smell the roses and nod to the portraits of those who [were] privileged also to be here.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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