An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Lillian Carter worked as the housekeeper to the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Auburn University. She was the fraternity's housemother. This version has been corrected.
Many Americans remember “Miss Lillian,” as she was widely known, as the most outspoken First Mother in history. When her son campaigned for president in 1976 by promising never to lie, “I told him to quit that stuff about he never lies and being Christian,” she told Newsweek. “There are some things you don’t have to go around saying.”
Did she ever lie? “Oh, yes, I couldn’t live without it,” she told Redbook magazine.
“All I’m going to say about abortion — because it’s pro and con — is that I think a woman’s body should be hers,” she told the Women’s News Service, after her son said in 1976 that he believed abortions were “wrong,” though he supported Roe v. Wade. “I believe in women having equal rights, and I think that’s one of them.”
“I try to be tolerant of everyone, even people from Alabama,” she told U.S. News and World Report.
She was a churchgoing Christian. “But I do a lot of things the ladies of the church think I shouldn’t do,” she said in her 1977 book “Miss Lillian and Friends,” as told to Beth Tartan and Rudy Hayes. “I smoke when I want to. I take a drink late in the evening.” Bourbon was her favorite.
Bessie Lillian Gordy was born in 1898 in Richland, Ga. She was a distant relative of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. In 1921, the family moved to the tiny town of Plains, Ga., where Lillian became a registered nurse. In 1923, she married James Earl Carter, a successful farmer, who maintained a farm at their home in Archery, Ga., and a peanut farm in Plains three miles away. In racially segregated Georgia, Lillian supported integration, unlike just about every other White person in her community, including her husband. “She was the only person in Plains who would take up for Abraham Lincoln if he was ever brought up,” said former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who grew up in Plains.
Lillian became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in 1947 when the team fielded the first Black player in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson of Cairo, Ga., and stayed a lifelong fan after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. “My mother watched or listened to every Dodgers game possible,” Jimmy Carter wrote in his 2008 book “A Remarkable Mother.” “She would call Tommy Lasorda to complain about managerial decisions he had made.”
While working as a nurse, Lillian raised her four children: James Jr. (Jimmy), Gloria, Ruth and Billy. When James Sr. died in 1953, Jimmy resigned as a Navy nuclear submarine officer and moved to Plains to take over the family farming business. In 1956, Lillian became housemother at the Kappa Alpha fraternity at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where she was known as “Miss Lilly.” At the 1964 Democratic convention, she was a delegate for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Jimmy, meanwhile, followed his father’s footsteps into state politics, winning election to the state Senate in 1962. (James Sr., a conservative Democrat and segregationist, had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives a year before his death.)
In late 1966, it was Lillian who made headlines. “Mrs. Lillian Carter, the 68-year-old mother of State Sen. Jimmy Carter, leaves Tuesday for a two-year tour of duty with the Peace Corps in India,” United Press International reported.
Lillian said she got the idea while watching “The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar” and saw a Peace Corps promotion with the words: “Age Is No Barrier.” In India, she worked in a one-room clinic providing family planning for poor couples and treating people with leprosy.
Later, after her son became Georgia governor, Lillian recalled that while staying in the governor’s mansion one night, “Jimmy came in and said, ‘Mama, I’m going to run for president.’ I was so startled I said president of what?”
Carter was a dark-horse Democratic candidate in the 1976 presidential race. “Miss Lillian” sat in a rocking chair in Plains and greeted visiting journalists, Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley recounted in the PBS film “Jimmy Carter.”
“Welcome to Plains! It’s so nice to see you! Would you like some lemonade?” she would say. When a New York reporter pressed her about her son’s claim of never telling a lie, Lillian conceded he tells “white lies.” When the reporter pushed her to define “white lies,” Miss Lillian said, “Remember when I said, ‘Welcome to Plains, and how good it is to see you’? That’s a white lie.”
She had a hard time telling even white lies. That summer, actor Robert Redford came to Plains for dinner with the Carter family. As reporters waited outside the house, “Lillian Carter stuck her head out the door,” the Atlanta Constitution reported. “‘I wish it was Paul Newman,’ she called.”
After Carter defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford, Lillian soon was charming the press in Washington. She became a diplomatic asset. In 1977, she made an emotional return to India to represent the United States at the funeral of India’s president and visited the clinic outside Bombay where she had worked in the Peace Corps. She was “mobbed” by 4,000 residents who sang a song about “Nurse Lillian,” the Associated Press reported.
In 1978, columnist Jack Anderson revealed a confidential State Department report on her visit to Italy’s new president Alessandro Pertini, a critic of U.S. foreign policy. “It is clear that Pertini was completely won over by Mrs. Carter’s personal manner and by the purpose of her trip,” Anderson wrote.
She became a celebrity in her own right. She often appeared on Walter Cronkite’s news show. She was a guest on late-night TV shows with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. She traveled to Las Vegas as the personal guest of singers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and played blackjack in casinos where they had financial interests.
She stood by her son when the president came under fire in late 1979 and 1980 as an energy crisis hiked gasoline prices, inflation rose above 14 percent and Iran took 52 Americans hostage. “He’s the only one who has the patience to handle the nation’s problems,” she said at a campaign rally in Philadelphia, the AP reported. But Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the next year the Carter family returned to Plains.
Lillian Carter died of breast cancer on Oct. 30, 1983, at age 85. In 1986, the Peace Corps established the Lillian Carter Award, recognizing exceptional volunteers who served at age 50 or older. In 2001, Jimmy Carter dedicated a nursing center in her honor in Plains.
He told NPR’s Michel Martin in 2008: “I think my mother’s life personifies, better than anybody I know, what America ought to be. She believed in peace, humility, service of others, human rights, forgiveness … she was strong-willed but still adhering to the basic moral values that make America a great nation.”
Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis articles.
Jimmy Carter: The life of the 39th president
The latest: As Jimmy Carter chose to spend his final days in hospice care at home in Plains, Ga., his tiny hometown is bracing to say goodbye. As tributes celebrate his legacy, here’s a look at the life of former president Jimmy Carter.
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