Elizabeth Edwards, 61, dies of cancer

Staff writersDecember 6, 2010 

Elizabeth Anania Edwards, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband John's political career, died today. She was 61.

Edwards spent much of her life as a little-known Raleigh lawyer and mother. But that all changed when her husband, John Edwards, entered politics as a U.S. senator and became a two-time presidential candidate and the Democratic nominee for vice president.

Her husband's career put her in the spotlight as a smart, plain-spoken wife who was a key adviser to her husband.

She later became a figure of sympathy as she battled breast cancer and dealt with her husband's infidelity. And, in the last few years, her public image shifted again: the scorned woman whose husband fathered a child with another woman.

She and John Edwards separated at the beginning of 2010 but remained close.

Still, Elizabeth Edwards helped change the way political wives were viewed. She was the self-proclaimed "anti-Barbie" who was comfortable sitting in on campaign strategy meetings, chatting with Oprah on TV, or even going head-to-head with conservative columnist Ann Coulter.

She brought a similar self-possession to the media attacks that circulated around her in the wake of news about her husband's infidelity.

"I'm 5 feet 2, dark-haired and could hardly be further from the Barbie figure," Edwards once said. "I think of myself as a fairly serious person."

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she spent two years in graduate school with the goal of earning a doctorate in English literature and pursuing a teaching career. But job prospects for English graduates were poor, and she entered law school, something her mother had always wanted her to do.

It was at UNC's law school that Elizabeth Anania met Johnny Edwards, three years her junior.

He was the pseudo-redneck who had been out of the South only once -- on a trip to Washington. He had few intellectual interests. She was a devotee of Henry James and a politically active liberal Democrat.

He was the soft-spoken, get-along guy. She was an outspoken, hot-tempered Italian-American who dominated every social situation. She was also regarded as more of a catch, drawing the attention of many of the boys.

They were married a few days after they graduated and passed the bar exam. She kept Anania as her last name until her husband prepared to run for the Senate.

Although John Edwards had the high-powered legal career, their marriage was one of intellectual equals. She became his most trusted adviser in both law and politics. She was a major influence on his life, just as Hillary Clinton was for Bill Clinton.

Edwards could have had a high-profile law career like her husband's, but she did what many women do: She balanced her career with the demands of rearing two children -- Wade, born in 1979, and Cate, born in 1982.

She still practiced law, working as a bankruptcy lawyer for the firm of Merriman, Nicholls & Crampton, in the state Attorney General's Office, and as an instructor at the UNC law school.

During big trials, John Edwards often talked to her by phone, asking her to critique the day's events.

Living in the fashionable Country Club Hills section of Raleigh, she was also a soccer mom, hauling coolers of soft drinks to her children's soccer games. One Halloween, she dressed Wade and eight other children as a nine-hole golf course, growing grass on sandwich boards they wore over their shoulders.

The family's life took a dark turn in 1996 when Wade, 16, was killed in a freak automobile accident on Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the coast.

The couple were crippled emotionally by Wade's death. John Edwards stopped working for six months, and Elizabeth quit practicing law for good.

They left their son's room unchanged for years, a capped, half-finished bottle of Gatorade left on the bedside table along with his papers and an 11th-grade textbook.

Elizabeth Edwards would read to her son at the gravesite at Oakwood Cemetery and lie down on his grave to be close to him. The couple continued to invite their son's friends over for dinner every Tuesday night.

"The intensity of that pain is greater than any emotion I ever had," she would write in her memoirs. "Not love, not fear, not wonder. The greatest of all is pain."

Wade's death changed the arc of the Edwardses' lives. They found religion, began a second family in midlife and changed careers from law to politics.

Edwards was an active participant in her husband's political career, serving as a sounding board for nearly a decade as he climbed the ladder, which culminated with his selection as the Democratic vice presidential running mate of Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

She became a popular figure on the presidential campaign trail in 2004, seen as someone approachable, less glamorous and more down to earth than her husband. She would make fun of herself as someone without perfectly coiffed hair or a stylish outfit, as someone who struggled with her weight.

It was during a campaign trip in Wisconsin a few weeks before the 2004 election that Edwards noticed a lump in her breast. Tests indicated that she had cancer, but she and her husband kept it a secret until after the election.

The day after the election, when Kerry and John Edwards made their concession speeches in Boston, Edwards went to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for a biopsy and to begin treatment. She spent much of 2005 undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment after surgery.

She received 65,000 messages of support.

The Edwardses returned to North Carolina, moving to a 28,200-square-foot home they built just outside Chapel Hill. To critics, the size of the home was jarring, given John Edwards' emphasis on helping the poor. But the Edwardses had become multimillionaires and had lived in a Georgetown mansion when he was in the Senate.

In 2006, Edwards wrote her best-selling autobiography, "Saving Graces." The book focused on her health struggles and sold nearly 180,000 copies.

When John Edwards entered the 2008 presidential campaign, she said her cancer was in remission. But in March 2007, she and her husband stunned the political world by announcing that her cancer had spread to her bones and that while it was treatable, it was not curable.

Doctors said most patients in her position had five years to live, but she urged her husband to continue the campaign.

All the while, the Edwards' marriage was unraveling. The unraveling was a secret to the world, and also to Elizabeth.

John Edwards began an extramarital affair with Reille Hunter, a part-time videographer who met him outside a New York City hotel.

Seven months after Edwards dropped out of the race for president, he dropped his bombshell.

John Edwards went on national TV to acknowledge an affair with Rielle Hunter, but denied that he was the father of her baby. He said he had told his wife about the affair in late 2006 and had broken off with Hunter.

Elizabeth Edwards did not appear on TV with her husband when he admitted the affair. But she put out a statement saying she stood by him.

"John made a terrible mistake in 2006," she said. "The fact that it is a mistake that many others have made before him did not make it any easier for me to hear when he told me what he had done. But he did tell me. And we began a long and painful process in 2006, a process oddly made somewhat easier with my diagnosis in March of 2007."

Friends described the situation as anguishing, but Elizabeth Edwards chose to continue in her marriage, in part for the sake of the children.

In July 2007, the couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary by renewing their wedding vows in a backyard ceremony.

After the revelation about the affair, the Edwardses largely disappeared from public view.

But in 2009, a federal investigation into John Edwards' campaign finances pulled them back into media reports. Edwards' associates and his mistress were called to testify before a grand jury in Raleigh.

In January, another bombshell: John Edwards admitted paternity of Hunter's daughter, Frances Quinn. In those same stories, the Edwardses acknowledged they had separated.

The couple, friends say, remained close. Elizabeth Edwards went with John to spend time with Frances Quinn after their separation.

Elizabeth Edwards spent most of the year doing the routine things -- attending UNC basketball games or Christmas shopping with her youngest daughter, Emma Claire, at Target. She also opened a furniture store in Chapel Hill.

She was returning to her life as just plain Elizabeth.

robc@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532