Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this obituary of lawyer and political spouse Elizabeth Edwards misstated in one instance the month in 2008 when her husband, John Edwards, ended his candidacy for U.S. president. He withdrew from the competition for the Democratic nomination in January 2008. This version has been corrected.
Lived her private pain on a public stage

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; A01

Elizabeth A. Edwards, who captured the nation's sympathy and admiration for her forthright grace in coping with her struggle with breast cancer and the infidelity of her husband, presidential candidate John Edwards, died Dec. 7 at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., after a six-year battle with cancer.

A day before her death at 61, her family announced that she had stopped treatment for her cancer because doctors had told her that further medical attention would be unproductive.

Ms. Edwards had been a lawyer and formidable force in the political rise of her husband, who went from being a one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina to the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004 to a presidential candidate in the 2008 Democratic primaries. She separated from him in January.

Describing herself as the "anti-Barbie" for her real-woman figure and her serious intellect, Ms. Edwards's public stature was greatly defined by how she coped with cancer. She talked about it, wrote about it and managed the conversation in much the same way she managed her husband's political career.

She first learned that she had breast cancer just after Election Day 2004, when her husband's running mate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), lost the presidential race to incumbent George W. Bush.

"The same day our campaign ended at Faneuil Hall, we saw Elizabeth head off to Mass General to confront this terrible disease," Kerry said Tuesday. "America came to know her in a different and even more personal way, as she fought back with enormous grace and dignity. She became an inspiration to so many."

The public rallied to her side, flooding her with nearly 65,000 messages of support. Ms. Edwards later wrote a best-selling memoir, "Saving Graces" (2006), in which she described her life and fight for survival. News coverage promoted her as one of the "100 most influential people in the world" (Time), "the most refreshing political spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt" (Oprah Winfrey's O magazine) and "shoo-in for regular person" (The Washington Post).

Political protector

Behind that persona, Ms. Edwards was a ferocious advocate who created briefing books for her husband, directed campaign staff and went after his political enemies, displaying a temper notable even in the high-pressure environment of politics. Their difference in appearance - the candidate was derided by opponents as "the Breck Girl" for his good looks, while she clearly struggled with her weight - attracted supporters as well, and John Edwards's commitment to her in her illness seemed to indicate that theirs was a marriage that mirrored many couples' ups and downs.

By the next presidential campaign cycle, when her husband was running for president, Ms. Edwards's cancer had returned, spreading to her bones. Doctors told her that it was treatable but incurable, and the couple's decision to continue seeking the Democratic presidential nomination stunned political observers.

In January 2008, when her husband publicly admitted to having repeatedly lied about carrying on an affair with campaign aide Rielle Hunter, the campaign came to an abrupt end. In January, after her husband said he had fathered a child with Hunter, the Edwardses separated.

Ms. Edwards had learned of the affair in early 2006 but stayed silent about it in public and campaigned for her husband. That annoyed some of her supporters, who noted that the Edwardses ran as a couple, telling the story of their romance and publicly renewing their vows on their 30th anniversary.

During that campaign, she publicly took on acerbic conservative commentator Ann Coulter, spoke out about her disagreement with her husband on his support for the Iraq war resolution and her support for same-sex marriage, and addressed how she coped with the death of their 16-year-old son.

When the National Enquirer exposed the affair just before the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Ms. Edwards stepped out of the limelight but made it clear that she was staying in the marriage.

"This was our private matter, and I frankly wanted it to be private because as painful as it was I did not want to have to play it out on a public stage as well," she wrote on the Daily Kos.

She did not abandon the public stage, however. A month later, she began speaking at events across the country and testifying before Congress about the need for better national health care. She also joined the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, as a senior fellow.

Heartbreaking loss

Born Mary Elizabeth Anania on July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, Fla., Ms. Edwards was the daughter of a Navy pilot and grew up in Japan, where her father was stationed twice.

She received a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also went to law school. She married John Edwards, a fellow student, shortly after their graduation in 1977.

She clerked for U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. in Norfolk, then worked in the North Carolina attorney general's office and later at the firm of Merriman, Nicholls and Crampton in Raleigh, remaining there until 1996.

A mother of two, she had a full and lucrative life as a lawyer and homemaker. But when son Wade was killed after his car, buffeted by a strong wind, slid and rolled, she quit her job and stayed home to care for then-14-year-old daughter Cate. She and her husband set up a foundation in Wade's honor.

For many months, she visited Wade's grave site every day. She took his SAT score when it arrived after his death. She read him books from his classmates' school reading list, she said in her memoir. It was after his death that she, who had always used her own family name professionally, became Elizabeth Edwards.

"I took my son's name," she told Ms. magazine in 2004. "I didn't take my husband's name."

Within a couple of years, she underwent fertility treatments so that at age 48 and 50 she could give birth to her two youngest children, Emma Claire and Jack.

She also began visiting Web sites where other bereaved parents shared their pain and insight. In doing so, she came to understand the power of the Web to create communities and its use as an organizing tool.

His chief adviser

In her memoir, Ms. Edwards wrote that she decided she would not be a caricature of a campaign spouse. "There were a lot of ways to have this experience, but I only knew one, the one I had learned growing up - open up, let them in, and find out what we share," she wrote. "You didn't have to be perfect; you had to be open."

Throughout the campaign, she was her husband's chief policy adviser, usually agreeing with him but occasionally pushing him to the left, urging a more fundamental change, such as creating an individual-based system to achieve universal health-care coverage, rather than the employer-based system.

After her cancer was diagnosed, she went through an aggressive series of treatments, and the cancer disappeared. In March 2007, in the midst of her husband's second presidential campaign, the couple announced that the cancer was back and that doctors had declared it treatable but incurable. Ms. Edwards refused to let her husband withdraw from the race.

"You know, you really have two choices here. . . . Either you push forward with the things you were doing yesterday, or you start dying [and] let cancer win before it needed to," she told CBS News anchor Katie Couric. "I don't want to do that. I want to live."

The campaign decision brought a wave of media attention.

"I'm not worried about me or what's going to happen to me. The fact that [people are] thinking of me and not health-care policy, or thinking of me and not global warming, that's bad," she told The Post in 2007.

She remained a staunch advocate, defender and campaign provocateur. That summer, Coulter verbally attacked her husband and said she wished "he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot." Ms. Edwards, spotting Coulter on the MSNBC talk show "Hardball," called in and on the air insisted politely but firmly that she refrain from personal attacks. Coulter refused to apologize and attacked the Edwards campaign for raising money by using her words. But the confrontation appeared to be a tipping point, costing Coulter advertisers and clients for her opinion column.

A few weeks later, during an interview with, Ms. Edwards criticized her husband's rivals, the two leading Democratic candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, saying that her husband would be a better advocate for women than Clinton. But the Edwards campaign ended in January 2008 after coming in third to Obama and Clinton in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

No 'Saint Elizabeth'

The publication of an anonymously sourced book, "Game Change," this year shocked many, because it punctured "the lie of Saint Elizabeth," as writers John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote, repeating allegations that she berated campaign staffers and raged profanely at volunteers.

"With her husband, she could be intensely affectionate or brutally dismissive," they wrote. "At times subtly, at times blatantly, she was forever letting John know that she regarded him as her intellectual inferior. She called her spouse a 'hick' in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks."

Jennifer Palmieri, a former Edwards campaign official, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed defense of her friend: "Elizabeth would be the first to tell you that she is opinionated, unyielding, blunt and unwilling to suffer fools. Saint Elizabeth she is not. And no one laughs louder than she at that notion. But she is also one of the wisest, warmest and funniest girlfriends a woman could hope to have, truly a call-her-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-she-will-drop-everything-to-help sort."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company