Rachel “Bunny” Mellon was buried on a rainy March morning in Virginia horse country. In the way Southern funerals often are, a lot of people were shocked that somebody dared to show his face. In this instance, it was former presidential candidate John Edwards, who dragged Mellon’s name and donations into the train wreck that was his 2008 campaign.
Even more shocking for some observers was the woman at Edwards’s side: his 32-year-old daughter, Cate.
She’s a Princeton- and Harvard Law-educated attorney, living in a Georgetown rowhouse with her husband, Trevor Upham, a surgical resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. She is also John Edwards’s oldest surviving offspring, her late mother’s “nearly perfect” child, and, to some observers that day, her father’s human shield.
The Edwardses were not seated at Trinity Episcopal in Upperville — they were met by the priest at the door, and it’s a matter of dispute whether they were refused entrance or arrived too late — but the fact is they watched the service on a closed-circuit television from an adjacent building.
“It was my thought that he was coming into hostile territory and he was chicken,” says Bryan Huffman, Mellon’s friend, who testified at Edwards’s federal trial when he was accused of misusing Mellon’s campaign contributions. “His daughter is there, and so people are not going to be unkind to her like they would be to him.”
Cate Edwards, who agreed to interviews this spring, says she doesn’t know what transpired between her dad and the priest. “We were there to honor Ms. Mellon,” she says, “whether it was in the church or next door.”
The incident is a telling example of her complicated relationship with her father. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one mystery is that she speaks to him at all.
After all, her mother, Elizabeth, had separated from her husband of more than 30 years even while she was dying. The reasons were national news, excruciatingly recounted on “Oprah” and “Nightline,” in at least four books and ad nauseam in newspaper, magazine and blog stories. John Edwards carried out an affair with a campaign videographer while his wife had cancer, lied about it, then lied about being the father of the child of that liaison, then lied about persuading a married staffer to claim paternity and, after his wife’s death, narrowly missed conviction on campaign finance violations related to the coverup. (A North Carolina jury acquitted him of one charge and hung on the rest.)
In 2012, a New York tabloid called him “the most hated man in America.”
Cate, meanwhile, became executrix of her mother’s estate and president of the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation, which she helped create, and it seemed clear she was her mother’s daughter.
But not only does she still speak to her father, she is now in business with him.
In November, she turned her two-lawyer firm in Dupont Circle into the Washington office of Edwards Kirby, the elder Edwards’s attempt to relaunch the trade that made him famous. (In his first trial after renewing his license, completed last month, he helped win a $13 million settlement in a personal injury case.)
“Cate and I are very close and talk all the time,” Edwards says in a phone call. “There’s nothing of any significance in my life that she doesn’t know about.”
Both father and daughter say the idea of working together gradually emerged after his trial ended. Each has an affinity for civil cases that champion the proletariat, and the self-description of Cate’s boutique firm might have been lifted from the early days of her father’s work: “representing regular, working people ... and give them a level playing field in the law.”
“We believe in the same causes,” she says. “He’s one of, if not the, best lawyers I’ve ever met. I couldn’t ask for a better person to learn ... from.”
Given her privileged start in life, Cate Edwards is pretty low-key. Yes, she bought her $1.3 million home while still in law school, but she doesn’t come off as upper-crust. She’s good company, doesn’t bother much with makeup and lets her long brown hair fall loose. She loves “Veronica Mars” so much she contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie and obsesses over her home-state University of North Carolina basketball team. She and Trevor have Luca, an Italian water dog, and a Vespa. At dinner at Il Canale in Georgetown, they are a fun couple.
If one wishes to understand what the future might hold for Cate Edwards, then one must consider the trials that shaped her and, thus, why her close relationship with her father endures.
Life was pretty sweet when she was a kid.
Her dad was a millionaire trial attorney in Raleigh. Her mom was a successful lawyer, too. Cate and her brother, Wade, two years her senior, went to public schools. Their parents attended PTA meetings. They all went to their beach house in the summers.
“Theirs was the house that all the kids would go to after school,” remembers Wynn Cherry, a now-retired teacher from Broughton High School, who taught the Edwards children and who is on the board of the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation. “They were just very good people. There’d be eight or 10 kids over there, playing, doing their homework.”
Cate played softball and basketball and excelled in advanced mathematics.
One spring weekend when she was 14, shortly after she and her mother returned from touring boarding schools, a state trooper knocked on the door. Wade had been killed when a gust blew his car off the road. It flipped, killing him instantly.
Cate and her parents drove to the hospital. “I remember my dad collapsing,” she says. “He fell, not just fainted. He just sort of collapsed. He was inconsolable.”
She wrote a eulogy and read it at the funeral. One line — “And I see you in each shining star” — her parents had engraved on a granite bench at Wade’s burial plot.
Plans for her to go to boarding school were scrapped. They all hewed closer. She moved into her parents’ bedroom.
“There was not enough room for another bed,” John says, “so we pushed these two chairs together. She was there, taking care of us. She was young, and hurting herself. She was there for Elizabeth and me.”
Cate slept on the chairs for the better part of 18 months. “My parents were a mess,” she says.
Her mother, writing in “Resilience”: “We were held together by an extraordinary fourteen-year-old girl, our daughter Cate. ... She placed her own dreams in a box and put them away for a time.”
Friends say there is no understanding the dynamic between father and daughter without understanding this crucible.
“For them, the worst had already happened,” says Sunjung Kim, Cate’s roommate for four years at Princeton. “Everything that came after was just something to be dealt with.”
Her dad returned to work, and her mom set up and managed the Wade Edwards Foundation and Learning Lab, a nonprofit group to help struggling students.
Cate went from being the Baby of the Family to the Only and Oldest Child.
Her parents came to involve her in all of the grown-up decisions. Should he run for the U.S. Senate? Should they have more children? Should he run for president?
In this way, the family members pulled themselves from the ash heap of grief. In 1998, two years after Wade’s death, John won the Senate seat and almost instantly became a national figure.
Elizabeth, at 48, had Emma Claire that year. Jack was born in 2000.
Cate, after a road trip to 17 universities with her mom, settled on attending Princeton. She showed up the first day in Birkenstocks and corduroys, hair down to her waist.
“She had this quirky, alternative, flaky vibe,” Kim remembers. “It’s a side that the public hasn’t seen. There was a softer side to her. ... She had a poetic taste in music and clothes and literature.”
Cate met Trevor, a medical student from Santa Clarita, Calif., at Princeton in 2002. They bonded over a love of math.
In 2004, eight years after Wade’s death, her father became the Democratic nominee for the vice presidency of the United States.
Taken together, these individual and familial achievements were remarkable. Large swaths of the American public loved the Edwardses: the handsome dad fighting for the poor and dispossessed; the lawyer mom devoted to her children; their smart, attractive and accomplished oldest child.
They had, it appeared, endured and prevailed. America loves that kind of story.
Then it began to fall apart.
Her dad’s ticket lost the election. Within days, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On Feb. 21, 2006, an out-of-work “spiritual adviser” named Rielle Hunter walked into the bar at Loews Regency Hotel in New York and saw John Edwards. “You’re so hot!” she told him. So began a disastrous affair.
Nine months later, in December — the same month John announced his second campaign for the presidency — his wife learned of the relationship, she wrote in “Resilience.” She wrote that he falsely characterized it as a one-night stand.
The campaign careened ahead. Cate stumped. Her mother’s cancer worsened in March the following year, and then the marriage began to collapse in ways that couldn’t be kept secret. In “Game Change,” authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin called the cognitive dissonance between the public “Saint Elizabeth” image and the campaign-trail reality “disturbing.”
“She called her spouse a ‘hick’ in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. ... She was forever letting John know she regarded him as her intellectual inferior.”
This viciousness did not land well with their daughter, who describes it as “nonsense.”
“Obviously, I disagree with the ‘Game Change’ characterization.”
During this period, Cate was in Harvard Law school. She was interviewed for a Harper’s Bazaar profile, with a now painfully ironic headline: “The Truth About My Mom & Dad.” It’s a glowing profile of the family. Cate calls her dad “kind of dorky” and says he used to make pancakes in the shape of animals for breakast.
In summer 2007, she was an intern for Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent, and was politely distant.
“She was a very good intern, very efficient, a lovely girl. And I never got past the curtain. Usually I get past the curtain,” Totenberg says, explaining that her interns sit a few feet away and go everywhere with her. “When they have trouble with momma, I know about it. When they break up with their boy- or girlfriend, I know about it. I didn’t with Cate. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know her better.”
In October, the National Enquirer reported the affair. Elizabeth and John were to fly to different campaign stops. From “Game Change”:
“At the terminal, the couple fought in the passenger waiting area. They fought outside in the private parking lot. Elizabeth was sobbing, out of control, incoherent. As their aides tried to look away, she tore off her blouse, exposing herself. ‘Look at me!’ she wailed at John and then staggered, nearly falling to the ground.”
Cate can’t remember exactly when her father told her. Summer of 2007? 2008?
In any event, it was “the summer before everything blew up.” With the Enquirer pursuing the Hunter affair, John summoned Cate to the family’s new cathedral of a home, a 20,000-square-foot, two-building complex that included a full-size basketball court. He sat her down in the library.
“It was important from my dad’s perspective to be honest with me,” she says, talking in her office. “He was very emotional in telling me. ... We hugged and I said, ‘I love you.’ ... That’s generally how it went. He was, he was upset.”
She then went to see her mom, who was elsewhere in the house.
In August 2008, the tabloid published pictures of Edwards holding the child, Frances Quinn, prompting him to acknowledge the affair on television — though he denied paternity. The campaign died in scandal and outrage and, the next year, just after Christmas, so did the marriage.
In the aftermath, Cate and Elizabeth took “girl” trips to Europe and New England. On Dec. 7, 2010, just days after Cate and Trevor were engaged, Elizabeth Edwards died.
The family had been reduced after Wade’s death. Now it was reduced again.
Cate took a year off to set up the foundation in her mother’s name, to get married, to help out with her younger siblings, to stand by her father during his 2012 trial on charges of violating campaign finance laws. It was not pleasant. She left the courtroom in tears one day, when the airport incident was recounted, her father quietly calling after her, “Cate, Cate.”
When the trial ended, Cate stood beside him on the courthouse steps when he spoke to reporters.
“Here’s hoping the world becomes upright again,” she posted on Twitter the night of the verdict.
She returned to Washington, set up her law firm with Sharon Eubanks, who had been one of the lead attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department against Big Tobacco. In November last year, six months after Cate’s father reactivated his law license, they decided to combine offices.
“I knew of the reputation John had, and there was no downside to working with that kind of talent,” Eubanks says. Plus, she says, coming under the umbrella of a larger firm allows her and Cate more latitude in pursuing their public interest cases: individual civil rights, whistleblower and sexual-orientation matters.
In considering this period after her mother’s death, when public sentiment was so high against her father, Cate stammers when pressed about her emotions. Wasn’t she angry? Didn’t she feel that life had treated her harshly?
“I had my moments of self-pity,” she begins. “I’ve never reacted with anger exactly. I mean, you know I was angry at my dad for a while. We worked on, we worked very hard to repair our relationship. That’s always a secondary emotion for me; it’s never my primary emotion. ... I’ve gotten a great education and had wonderful friends and blessed with parents who love me and great siblings, and it’s hard to ignore those blessings. Bad things can happen to you, but it’s not that they overwhelm you when you recognize the blessings you have and the people you have, because that’s always what gets you through that sadness and those difficult times. And I had Trevor, too.”
But your parents weren’t really getting along —
“I’m really not going to get into their relationship. In terms of my relationship with the two of them, when you’ve been through the things we’ve been through together, this wasn’t like losing Wade. It was not as bad. It was hard in its own way. It had its own beats. It was difficult. We had been through a lot together and over a long period of time. So there was repairing that needed to happen, but it’s not like I felt like it was a relationship that was lost.”
Nesbitt v. Holder, the case that consumed most of Cate’s legal work this April, was straightforward.
Joshua Nesbitt is a career attorney in the Justice Department. He is African American. He sought a promotion, was turned down in favor of a white colleague whom, Nesbitt alleged, was allowed to skimp on some of the posted requirements.
The case, scheduled before U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, was to be Cate’s first jury trial. On the eve of the proceedings, the two sides settled for $225,000 (the maximum cap on the claim was $300,000).
She went on vacations to the Caribbean — once, with her younger sister and friends, once with Trevor. She sees Frances Quinn, her half-sister, far less often than she does her mother’s children but says she’d like to cultivate the relationship.
“I saw her at Christmas,” she says, a little uncomfortable. “She’s down there in Charlotte. It’s not as easy.”
Do you have a relationship, of any kind, with Rielle Hunter?
The firm’s D.C. offices are unpretentious. Plain carpet, a conference room 15 feet from the front door, two lawyers and two staffers. All are women. Edwards’s office is sparsely decorated with a desk, chair and a couch. Her Harvard Law degree is not on the wall.
Things like the Nesbitt case get her legal motor running — the same cases that motivated her dad 30-something years ago when he was starting out. In the phone call, John Edwards grows animated, talking about a wrongful death case in Washington state they might work on together.
“If you watch what Cate is doing in her legal work, it reflects what she is as a human being,” he says. “She loves her work advocating for cancer survivors, being a lawyer for people being discriminated against. She stands up for people not being treated fairly. That’s who she is, not just as a lawyer, but as a human being.”
Sometimes the best way to understand the future is to look at the past.
Let’s look at a final case from a long time ago, one that helped make her dad’s name.
It was 1996, several months after Wade died. John Edwards was concluding a civil case against a swimming pool drain manufacturer whose product had left a little girl grievously injured. He was, he writes in “Four Trials,” channeling his emotions about the loss of his son into the injuries suffered by the girl.
As he was making his closing argument, he looked up and was astonished. Writing in 2004, when his wife was still alive and he was the golden boy of American politics, he recalled of that day:
“My daughter Cate walked into the packed courtroom. ... I had not known she was coming. She had never heard me speak to a jury before. My family knew that the people I represented needed every bit of my attention, and so they had always left me at the courtroom door. Even Elizabeth never came to my trials. I regretted that Wade had never come. And now for the first time, for the one time I needed a child of my own there, without my asking, Cate had come. ... My daughter pushed her way through the railing, and we held each other.”
Perhaps in family, as in love, as it was, so it remains.
Neely Tucker is a Magazine staff writer.
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