The Sad Tale of the Bad Peanut, Jimmy Carter’s Wayward Nephew
It was just before dawn when Francisco Noyola saw the thin man staggering up Market Street. Despite the chill, he was trying to sell his leather jacket for $5. He said he’d been drinking all night, and he wanted to keep going.
They pooled their change, split half a pint of cheap vodka and decided to go to Noyola’s place. The thin man was tired. He had AIDS--dirty needles, he said.
“I felt comfortable with him,” Noyola recalls. “He said that his name was William.”
He did not say that his middle name was Carter, that he was raised in Plains, Ga., or that his uncle was the 39th president of the United States.
The thin man was William Carter Spann, a tragicomic footnote to Jimmy Carter’s presidency. By the time he was 30, he’d been arrested so often his mother stopped counting; he spent two-thirds of the next 20 years in prison for everything from armed robbery to drunk driving.
He called himself the Bad Peanut.
“My uncle’s in the White House,” he said on Inauguration Day 1977, “and I’m in the big house.”
He made the most of it, selling articles to Hustler and Good Housekeeping and firing off pithy jailhouse observations on the American scene.
When he got married in prison, the Washington Post wrote a big story. When he got out, a limousine picked him up at the gate.
In prison or out, Willie Spann was perpetually turning over a new leaf. He seemed to believe his vows until he broke them; incredibly, given his record, others did too, including his Uncle Jimmy.
The nephew always had hope: If he could just get into this detox facility, or that training program. . . .
Or just lie down. That’s what he wanted now, Feb. 2, on his way home with Francisco Noyola. He tried to stretch out on a bus stop bench, but his companion would not let him. He had the feeling William might not get up.
It took them almost an hour to walk the half a mile from the subway to Francisco’s house, an old bungalow sagging around its stout stone chimney.
Noyola mixed them some cocktails--vodka and 7-Up--and steered his guest to a hammock strung between two trees in front. William smiled, as if he’d met something familiar. He snuggled into the hammock.
His skin was pale and his eyes seemed to be clouding over. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m just tired. Tomorrow, I’ll get my check, and we’ll keep the party going.’ ” Then he closed his eyes. He was still smiling.
“There was nothing about me,” William Carter Spann once said of Plains’ first family, “that was like them.”
He was born in 1946 on an Air Force base in Texas. His father was “Soapy” Hardy, a former soda jerk who looked good in the uniform he wore home from the war; his mother was Gloria Carter, whose affluent, prominent family did not approve of their impulsive union.
It did not survive Soapy’s drinking. Gloria and her son, whom she called Toady, retreated to Plains in 1949. Four years later she married a local farmer, Walter Spann.
By the time he was 11, Toady was smoking and drinking and running away. He got drunk and stole his uncle Billy’s car. He broke into a store. He was expelled in the seventh grade.
Toady created almost unbearable embarrassment for a mother who had had enough already. Neither she nor the psychiatrists could do anything, so one night Gloria prayed: “Dear God, if you’re there, take my son for 10 seconds and let me have some peace.” Suddenly, “I looked around and the whole world seemed different. For the first time in two years, beauty came into my mind.”
But Toady got worse. Finally, his Uncle Jimmy, who had taught him in Sunday school and persuaded him to get baptized, took him in.
“When Jimmy says grace, he gives a sermon,” his nephew recalled. “I’d sit there and be hungry. . . . When there were prayer meetings, I’d go out behind the house and smoke cigarettes.” Jimmy just didn’t understand.
But he gave Toady a job in the family peanut warehouse. It was, he later said, “the nicest thing Jimmy ever did for me. He had faith that I would straighten up.”
But, he added, “He shouldn’t have, ‘cause all I wanted to be was different from anybody in that family.” He liked his uncle, he said, but living with him was “a lesson in being square.”
When Toady was 14, Gloria sent him to a school for troubled boys. She went to work as a secretary just to pay the bills. When he left four years later, Gloria wrote, “His life became more complex. . . . My job ended then.”
By 1969, he had washed up in Los Angeles, where he imprisoned for stealing a car. When his uncle was elected governor of Georgia, he recalled, “I was in the hole.”
Next, he headed to San Francisco, where people called him Willie. “I was a 24-hour-a-day speed freak, heroin addict, armed robber, burglar, pimp, dealer--and escort to old people, so they could leave their hotel rooms without being mugged. Life was like nothing else I can explain.”
In 1976, as his uncle was winning Democratic primaries, he was pleading guilty to robbing two rooming-house employees. Gloria got an anonymous phone call in Plains: “If you don’t send money, I will let the world know that Jimmy Carter’s nephew is in jail.”
The story broke during the convention. Reporters found Willie in protective custody at Soledad Prison.
He complained that his family had turned its back on him, that he was so broke he had to borrow stamps from cult murderer Charles Manson. “Charlie’s crazy,” he allowed, “but he’s got a sense of humor that can’t be beat.”
Jimmy Carter said his nephew had been “in constant trouble all his adult life.” He didn’t denounce him, however, or seem embarrassed. “You are part of our family,” he assured him in a note.
Willie cashed in on his celebrity, and settled some scores in the process. In an article for Hustler, he described Gloria as a neurotic, indifferent parent; he said his adoptive father had threatened to kill him; he called his uncle Billy Carter “a red-necked bigot and bona fide fool.”
Uncle Jimmy, who had tried to help him, was “a phony” whose “Christianity has never extended to his pocketbook.”
Even before the piece appeared, Willie wrote Carter to apologize: “There is no excuse for my part in the article. At the time, I was confused, angry, broke and frustrated.”
Today, Carter says he wasn’t hurt: “We always liked Willie. He would go through cycles; there were times when he was a charming and attractive young man, and times when he was fearsome. But he always hoped to do better.”
As Willie wrote in Good Housekeeping: “My mother says God lives in us all. I agree that God is love and we all have some in us. Whether we learn to use it or not is the question. I learned to use mine too late to save myself, and others, a lot of trouble. But not too late to save myself.”
The pen seemed his salvation. He made dozens of pen pals and wrote furiously to newspapers. He complained about inmates’ Christmas gifts (“bags of peanuts . . . . You can imagine what that reminded me of.”) He demanded that if his uncle pardoned Patty Hearst, he pardon him too. He apologized to the nation for Billy Carter’s antics.
He traded shamelessly on his White House connection, seeking prison transfers and privileges. The guards, he said, “are happy to have at least one aristocrat in their midst.”
In 1979 he married Jane Frey, a San Francisco businesswoman who helped him place an article. It was his third marriage--his first in prison--and came only a year after he acknowledged having a homosexual lover at Soledad.
Today, Jane says she was won over by his Southern charm, his wit and warmth. He seemed vulnerable and needy, and “I had this Florence Nightingale attitude.”
With parole six months away, Willie wrote to his uncle: “I have said many things that I wish I hadn’t. All I can do is offer an apology, and admit I was wrong and ignorant. Given an opportunity, I could be an asset to you . . . . I will serve you because I love you.”
Carter wrote back to offer best wishes “for the productive and satisfying new life ahead of you.”
Willie had 30 solid job offers, and there was talk of him accompanying the First Lady on a national tour of schools. The National Enquirer had bought the rights to his first interview as a free man. He was booked to appear on “Donahue.”
“If ever there was a chance for him to go straight,” Jane says, “that was it.”
He was paroled Christmas Eve. Jane and an Enquirer reporter were waiting in a limousine with a bar in back. He poured himself a double Wild Turkey, then a triple.
“I realized this was going to be trouble,” Jane remembers.
They flew to Key West, where Willie kept drinking and got too wild to interview. Jane flew home alone and called the president. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help,” Carter said. “Willie will have to work this out for himself.”
When Willie arrived in San Francisco, the couple settled into her apartment in a bay-windowed townhouse at the foot of Pacific Heights. He spent his nights buying rounds in bars, putting it on a tab he could not cover.
One night, he came home in a fury; the bartender had cut him off. He and Jane argued, and he slammed her into the wall.
“He said I rejected him, just like his mother did,” she recalls.
The police came. Seven weeks after his release, Willie was back in jail.
Jane never saw him again. She remembers him not with malice but pity. “Willie was born on the wrong day,” she said. “Nothing was of value to him, including his own life. He would have been better off if he had just floated off the face of the Earth.”
He moved north of the city and married again. Life followed a chaotic rhythm. He was arrested for drunk driving, and urinalysis showed amphetamines; he went back to jail, where he was caught using Valium; he escaped from jail, calling in hours later to explain he wanted to visit his pregnant wife.
When his son Drew was born a few months later, Willie was in jail.
In 1990, Gloria Carter Spann died of cancer. She was remembered as the president’s sister who rode motorcycles. It was a hobby she took up after losing Toady, whom she had not seen since he left Plains 21 years earlier.
“Everything happens for a purpose,” she used to say. Toady’s troubles led her to God, and God, she wrote, “lives in my son.” When Willie was arrested, she’d say, “God has my son in his hands. That is God’s business, and he is working on it.”
Willie turned more and more to the relative who never gave up on him, the uncle he’d once called “too square and too cold.”
Jimmy Carter sent his nephew clothes, helped him find places to stay, paid for his methadone. When Carter was in the Bay Area, he’d track Willie down through a parole officer and arrange a visit. He also reached out to Drew, who lived with his mother. Carter always remembered his birthday.
The Spann-Carter correspondence fills a file drawer in Carter’s office. After an arrest, “I’d get a long, eloquent letter saying he’d been tempted by others,” Carter recalls. “But what struck me was that he was constantly trying to correct himself.”
Even AIDS didn’t reform him. In October 1994, he wrote Carter to say he was “clean and sober,” and off to join Drew for his 10th birthday. The next month, he was caught with a hunting knife in his pocket. So when Carter visited the Bay Area three months later, his nephew was in San Quentin for violating parole.
By the beginning of last year, Willie had wasted from 172 to 125 pounds. When he was released from prison in March, he discovered the San Francisco Cannabis Club, where AIDS patients with medical permission could buy marijuana.
Willie would smoke cheap Mexican pot in the club’s cafe, saying how it had helped him kick heroin and booze. He had joined a program to help other AIDS patients. But Dennis Peron, the club’s founder, remembers the man’s loneliness: “When he hugged you, he didn’t want to let go.”
In December, Jimmy Carter came to San Francisco and found Willie in the hospital, his face cut and bruised. He said he’d been beaten up while walking past a bar.
“He had all the nurses charmed,” Carter recalls. Carter asked if he needed money, and Willie took $20 for cab fare home.
On Dec. 16, after a record nine months of no violations, the California Department of Corrections finally discharged William Carter Spann from parole. He was 50.
Six weeks later, he stood in the predawn chill, trying to turn his jacket into a drink.
Francisco Noyola had gone inside the house for something to eat when he heard screaming outside.
“That man is dead!”
Noyola found a woman standing on the sidewalk, pointing at William through the chain-link fence. “He’s turning blue!”
Noyola’s head was pounding. “He’s just drunk,” he assured her. But when he went over and grabbed William’s wrist, he felt no pulse.
“He could have died on the street, but I didn’t let him lay down,” Noyola would say a few weeks later. “He had his last cigarette, his last drink. At least he died in somebody’s yard.”
The coroner notified Jimmy Carter. Since leaving office, he had negotiated peace in Haiti, brokered fair elections in Nicaragua, fought to eradicate the guinea worm from Africa. But he could not save his nephew from himself.
The autopsy found a toxic level of alcohol but no drugs. Drew’s mother had the body cremated and collected the ashes; even in death, the Bad Peanut did not go back to Plains.