Elizabeth Edwards succumbs to cancer at 61

RALEIGH, N.C. — Elizabeth Anania Edwards, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband’s political career, died Tuesday afternoon. 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, two-time presidential candidate, and Democratic nominee for vice president.

Her husband’s career propelled her into 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.

Through it all, 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 Winfrey 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.”

President Barack Obama talked to John Edwards and their daughter Cate on Tuesday afternoon, saying he admired Elizabeth Edwards’ “tenacious” advocacy for improving health care and fighting poverty.

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

Elizabeth Anania grew up on the front lines of the Cold War.

She was born July 3, 1949 in Jacksonville, Fla., at the naval air station, the first of three children.

Her father, Vincent Anania, a first generation Italian-American from western Pennsylvania, was an All-American lacrosse player at the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1959, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross after bringing home his spy plane that was hit 15 times by North Korean MiGs.

As a Navy brat, Elizabeth Edwards grew up at military installations around the world, including two tours in Japan. Her mother hired a trained geisha, a badly scarred survivor of Hiroshima, to teach her daughters Japanese dance, music and how to comport themselves with grace.

After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she spent two years in graduate school with the goal of earning a Ph.D. 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 the University of North Carolina’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 young men.

They were married a few days after they graduated and passed the bar exam. She kept 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 an automobile accident on Interstate 40 between Raleigh and the North Carolina coast.

The couple were crippled emotionally by Wade’s death. John Edwards stopped working for six months and she 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 11th grade textbook.

She would read to her son at the gravesite at Oakwood Cemetery, and lie down on his grave to be close to him.

“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 entire arc of the Edwardses’ lives. They found religion, changed careers from law to politics and began a second family.

“We asked ourselves, what gives us joy?” she recounted. “Well that was easy. Children gave us joy. Should we have more children? That would be wonderful, but I was 46. Could we?”

The Edwardses went to a round of specialists, who told the couple that she had a slim chance of conceiving. Then at age 48, Edwards had a daughter, Emma Claire, and at age 50, she had Jack. They decided to have the second child because they did not want Emma Claire to think that she was a replacement child. Edwards said she conceived with the aid of hormone shots.

She was pregnant with Emma Claire when her husband ran for the Senate in 1998, defeating Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

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 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.

“I expect to do next week all the things I did last week,” Edwards unemotionally told reporters at a Chapel Hill news conference, her husband at her side. “I do not expect my life to be significantly different.”

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

Not everyone approved of their decision. Some thought they were in denial, or wondered if they were letting their political ambition outweigh family considerations.

When CBS news anchor Katie Couric reminded her, “You’re staring at possible death,” Edwards replied: “Aren’t we all though?”

She was the most outspoken of the candidates’ wives. When conservative commentator Ann Coulter called John Edwards “a faggot” and suggested that he should have been killed by terrorists, Edwards called a TV program to confront her on the air.

She seemed to have license to speak more candidly because of her illness. Frustrated that the media attention was focused on then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, she said: “We can’t make John black. We can’t make him a woman.”

She told a women’s luncheon that her own choices in life in raising children had led her to the conclusion: “I’m more joyful than she (Hillary) is.”

Edwards also took positions her husband could not or would not take. She appeared at a Gay Pride breakfast in San Francisco, voicing support for gay marriages, a position opposed by her husband.

But in the end, the Edwardses’ seven-year quest for the White House did not succeed. With Obama and Clinton dominating the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, John Edwards could find little room. He dropped out after the South Carolina primary in January.

All the while, their marriage was unraveling.

Despite their public image as a tightly-knit couple, John Edwards had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a younger woman who had worked as a videographer on his campaign. Elizabeth Edwards later said she learned of the affair before her husband announced his candidacy. She said she believed it had been a one-time mistake and she campaigned for him even though she knew the couple held a secret that could have exploded his candidacy .

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

John Edwards went on national TV to acknowledge the affair with 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.

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 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 the 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.

Edwards made several appearances to talk about health care issues. She hinted at the strains the scandal had put on their marriage.

“There’s a lot of adjustments to make,” she told the Detroit Free Press. “When you mention trust, that’s probably the most difficult hurdle.”

Earlier this year, Edwards released her second book, “Resilience,” in which she talked about the pain of John’s infidelity.

Then, she retreated to a private life again. She opened a furniture store in Chapel Hill. Mostly, though, she spent the year doing the routine things — attending UNC basketball games or Christmas shopping with Emma Claire at Target.

She was returning to her life as just plain Elizabeth.

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Elizabeth Edwards succumbs to cancer at 61