Lawyer and author confronted with the infidelities of her cheating husband, presidential candidate John Edwards
Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00
Elizabeth Edwards, who died last week aged 61, was a lawyer, author and campaigner on health care issues. She will be most widely remembered, however, as the epitome of the "wronged woman", following the exposure of sexual infidelity by her husband, the US presidential candidate John Edwards.
It was a perception that was reinforced by the fact that she had already suffered more than enough misfortune, having lost her 16-year-old son in a car accident and having been herself diagnosed with cancer.
Her courage was never in question. Even after becoming ill -- and after discovering her husband's cheating (which she initially kept secret) -- Elizabeth Edwards remained a committed supporter of his political ambitions. She contributed to his speeches and television advertisements, helped select (and dismiss) his staff, and advised on policy and strategy.
It was a commitment, however, that was not universally admired. While many viewed her as a heroine, there were some who suspected her of using her illness to political effect. A book published earlier this year claimed that, according to campaign aides, "there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing".
Elizabeth Edwards first came to public notice in 2004, when her husband was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee alongside John Kerry. The Kerry/Edwards ticket lost to George W Bush and Dick Cheney, and on November 3 that year -- the day Kerry conceded defeat -- she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After intensive treatment, it appeared that she had beaten the disease. In 2007, however, with her husband seeking the Democratic presidential nomination against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, she disclosed that the cancer had returned. Insisting that this would have no effect on her husband's campaign for the presidency, she continued to act as one of his closest advisers. Edwards adopted a populist stance, with health care -- a matter on which his wife had become a high-profile campaigner -- a favourite issue. After losing the primary in South Carolina, however, he withdrew and later endorsed Obama; Elizabeth Edwards subsequently became an adviser to Obama on health care.
In August 2008, Edwards admitted on television that he had had an affair in 2006 with Rielle Hunter, a 42-year-old woman who had been hired to make videos for his campaign. Offering to undergo a paternity test, he denied being the father of Rielle Hunter's baby daughter, and claimed that the affair had happened when his wife's cancer was in remission; he further claimed that the relationship had ceased before he announced his intention to run for the White House.
Elizabeth Edwards publicly supported her husband ("He has his family waiting for him"), but the next year, in her book Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, she wrote that on learning of his affair she had urged him to withdraw from his presidential campaign, "to protect our family from this woman, from his act". He refused.
Earlier this year, Edwards finally confessed that he was the father of Rielle Hunter's child. He and Elizabeth Edwards separated, and she resolved to divorce him.
She was born Mary Elizabeth Anania on July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, Florida, the daughter of a US Navy pilot, and she was educated at Francis C Hammond high school in Alexandria, Virginia, and the University of North Carolina, where she read English and Law. John Edwards, the son of a textile worker, was a fellow law student at the university, and they married in 1977.
While her husband embarked on a career in which he would make a fortune from medical malpractice cases, Elizabeth Edwards began as a clerk for a federal judge, and in 1978 moved to a law firm in Nashville. Three years later, she and Edwards went to live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where Elizabeth worked for the Attorney General.
After the death, in 1996, of her 16-year-old son Wade in a car accident, Elizabeth Edwards's grief was intense. For months she would visit his grave, where she would read aloud his school textbooks. She gave up the law to devote herself to a charitable foundation established in her son's memory. In 2006 she published Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, about the death of her son and her illness.
Last Monday, after her doctors had decided that further treatment was useless, Elizabeth Edwards posted a message on Facebook: "I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."
Elizabeth Edwards is survived by her husband and by their second son and two daughters.