Elizabeth Edwards, Political Wife Shaped by Losses, Dies at 61

Elizabeth Edwards Dies at Age 61
Elizabeth Edwards, ex-wife of former U.S. Senator John Edwards, died today at age 61. Photographer: Tim Rue/Bloomberg

Elizabeth Edwards, a popular figure in the Democratic Party whose life was shaped by loss, first of a teenage son, then of her husband’s two presidential campaigns, then of a marriage torn by his infidelity, has died. She was 61.

She died yesterday at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by friends and family including her estranged husband, former Democratic U.S. Senator John Edwards, the Associated Press reported, citing a statement from the family. Throughout a six-year battle with breast cancer, she devoted herself to raising son Jack, 10, and daughter Emma Claire, 12, her two youngest children.

“In her life, Elizabeth Edwards knew tragedy and pain,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration.”

Edwards endured cancer treatments while supporting her husband’s bid -- against Obama, among others -- for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Later, she concluded her husband shouldn’t have run, because he had had affair with a filmmaker traveling with him in 2006. She separated from her husband in January.

Her health was a sad footnote to two presidential campaigns. She was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after the 2004 general election, a Republican victory that spoiled her husband’s chance to be vice president. In March 2007, during her husband’s second campaign, doctors found the cancer had spread to her bones and was incurable.

Days ‘Numbered’

“The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered,” Edwards wrote on her Facebook page yesterday, after doctors determined her cancer had metastasized to the liver. “We know that.”

John Edwards’s affair with filmmaker Rielle Hunter produced a child, as well as an investigation, still open, of whether the candidate and others improperly used campaign money to support Hunter. The former North Carolina senator became a pariah in his party, not least because of what it might have meant to Democrats’ election chances had he won the nomination, only to be exposed as unfaithful.

Along with sympathy, the affair drew some criticism of Elizabeth as well, for permitting her husband to continue running for the 2008 nomination while they jointly held such a potentially explosive secret.

Fallout From Affair

In a 2009 book, “Resilience,” Edwards said her husband confessed to her about the affair in the final days of 2006, after returning home from a tour announcing his second run for president. She said she cried, screamed and threw up at hearing the news. She said both of them later realized “he should not have run.” Asked in a television interview if they were still in love, she replied, “You know, that’s a complicated question.”

It wasn’t until August 2008 that John Edwards acknowledged the affair publicly.

Hunter, in a 2010 interview with GQ magazine, said the Edwards marriage was troubled long before she entered the picture. She said John was “emasculated” with fear of “the wrath of Elizabeth.” Elizabeth Edwards said that wasn’t true.

Even before the infidelity issue was made public, Elizabeth Edwards faced questions about whether campaigning with cancer in 2007 was the best course for the couple’s two youngest children, then 8 and 6, who began traveling with their parents and learning from tutors.

Edwards answered the critics in a 2007 addendum to “Saving Graces,” her memoir.

Handling Hardship

“Our children learn something from our choice to live,” she wrote. “They will have struggles, I know, struggles from which I cannot protect them, struggles after I am gone. And when they come, our children will remember how their family, how we, chose to handle hardship. I want them to say, ‘We did not give into hardship.’”

Mary Elizabeth Anania was born on July 3, 1949, at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida, where her father, Vince, a Navy pilot, was based.

She and two younger siblings -- brother Jay and sister Nancy -- grew up on the move as their father’s assignments took the family to bases in Japan, Florida, Virginia and Maryland. It was an upbringing familiar to Elizabeth’s mother, Mary, also a Navy pilot’s daughter.

Edwards, known as Mary Beth, was president of her junior-year class at the Zama American High School in Japan.

At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, she studied English and aspired “to teach young people to love literature as I did.”

Turn to Law

After two years of graduate study, unimpressed with the job prospects for an English Ph.D., she changed course and applied to the university’s law school. “My mother had always wanted me to go; she said I was argumentative,” Edwards wrote.

A friend persuaded her to accept a date with a fellow law student, John Edwards. A small-town boy, he considered Elizabeth to be the classmate with “the blackest hair and fine light blue eyes” whose poised, intelligent performance in class was “further evidence that I was way out of my league in the Carolina School of Law,” he recalled in his memoir, “Four Trials.”

Their date -- dancing to a disc jockey at a Holiday Inn -- was mostly forgettable, Elizabeth later wrote. But at the door to her apartment, John kissed her on the forehead and said goodnight, a “sweet and tender gesture” that won her heart.

They married on July 30, 1977, and eventually settled in Raleigh, where they both practiced law and began raising a family.

Son’s Death

In April 1996, their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee fishtailed and flipped on a wind-swept stretch of highway. John and Elizabeth, along with their daughter, Cate, channeled their pain into creating a computer lab next to Wade’s high school in Raleigh. John, by then a wealthy plaintiff’s attorney, launched the Senate bid he had considered for a few years, defeating Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998.

The couple also decided to have more children. In 1998, at 48, Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter, Emma Claire. Two years later, in 2000, she had a son, Jack. In her memoir, she attributed her late-in-life pregnancies to hormone shots plus “medications and good fortune.”

Elizabeth Edwards became a national figure when her husband ran for president in 2004, fell short in his bid for the Democratic nomination, then was selected by John Kerry as his vice presidential running mate.

She said she came up with the scrappy phrase -- “We’ve waited this long, we can wait a little bit longer” -- that Edwards spoke in Boston’s Copley Square in the wee hours of the morning after the election, hoping that Ohio would still swing to the Democrats.

Concession Day

The Democrats conceded the election later that day. Elizabeth Edwards went from Kerry’s concession speech to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston for a biopsy of a lump she had found in her breast. Diagnosed with cancer, she underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Over the next few months she received tens of thousands of supportive letters, plus 65,000 e-mails.

The cancer reappeared in one of her ribs in March 2007. She underwent oral chemotherapy and received a monthly intravenous bone strengthener, People magazine reported in July 2007.

She remained active and visible on the campaign trail until her husband ended his campaign on Jan. 30, 2008, after losses in the first four Democratic primaries and caucuses.

Health Care

After the campaign, Edwards joined the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank, as a senior fellow on health-care policy. She testified before Congress in 2009 in favor of overhauling the health-care system to help those who can’t afford insurance.

“High deductibles and unrealistic copayment responsibilities leave people with chronic illness at perpetual risk of financial ruin,” she said. “Health insurance companies are able to deny coverage to people with health problems, exclude pre-existing conditions from coverage when they offer it and charge unmanageable premiums. They can even rescind coverage when their policyholders get sick.”

About her own resilience, Edwards told CNN’s Larry King in August 2010: “I don’t think that I’m special in any way, but I think most people do pull themselves together, do what it is they need to be done. Sometimes you’re thrown for a loop for a little while and then you start to reclaim.”

In her April 2010 afterword to “Resilience,” Edwards said she hoped to live eight more years, so that she could see her youngest, Jack, graduate from high school and perhaps have Cate, her oldest, give her a grandchild.

“And if I get there, I know I will want to live longer, that I will ask for more -- who wouldn’t? -- but right now I want to live for eight more years, to finish the one job I know I did better than any other.”

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