The assassin who cut short Bhutto's life on Thursday brought to a close a remarkable biography encompassing a privileged childhood, degrees from Harvard and Oxford, stints in jail as a political prisoner, and mass adulation and contempt alike for her two terms as Pakistan's prime minister. After eight years of self-imposed exile, Bhutto, 54, had returned to her native land in October to try for a third term.
Bhutto's triumphal return was marred from the start by violence, when a suicide bomber struck her motorcade and killed more than 140 people in the southern port city of Karachi.
"I have many enemies -- I'm a security target," Bhutto told The Times in June. "But this is a most critical time for the country."
A defiant and strong-willed figure, instantly recognizable in her trademark white scarf, Bhutto never flagged in her belief that she was the best person to lead her nation to democracy and prosperity. That confidence led her to declare herself "chairperson for life" of her Pakistan People's Party and to an imperious style that rewarded loyalists but alienated many others.
Her charisma and skillful political maneuvering were undeniable -- and sometimes masked the fact that her double stint as prime minister was at best a mixed bag, dragged down by allegations of massive corruption and criticism of her lavish lifestyle.
But Bhutto made an indelible mark not just on her home country but on the international political scene, both for her gender and her outspoken insistence on the need for Pakistan to remake itself into a secular, liberal state.
Despite her shortcomings, "what will remain is a commitment to democracy -- to moderate, centrist values, tolerance, a role for women and an accommodation with India," Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday. "She helped create a new identity for Pakistan as a place where women could be prime minister."
Anil Kalhan, a visiting professor at Fordham University School of Law, agreed. "Certainly for women leaders she played an inspiring role, even though she ascended to that role in a dynastic way," he said. "She was always a very charismatic person who had a tremendous following because of her father's legacy as a populist but also in her own right. . . . She had people who adored her and detractors who couldn't stand her."
Her death leaves a huge void at the top of her party, one that will be difficult to fill in a region where personality cults reign. Bhutto's three children, all in their teens, are too young to continue the dynasty begun by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as president and prime minister before being deposed and hanged by dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.
Benazir Bhutto was born on June 21, 1953, the eldest of four children in a well-to-do landowning family in the southern province of Sindh. In what remains a largely feudal society, Bhutto grew up in a mansion in Karachi with the trappings and perks of Pakistan's postcolonial, English-speaking elite. She was attended to by an English governess, called by her nickname, "Pinkie," and enrolled in elite Roman Catholic schools.
From a young age, she was witness to her father's political career, which included Cabinet posts and stints as the head of Pakistan's delegation to the United Nations. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delighted his children with stories about famous historical figures such as Napoleon and Alexander the Great, as well as with gifts of chocolates and clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, which bred a taste for luxury in his eldest daughter that persisted throughout adulthood.
So sheltered was Bhutto's life that at 16, she was completely unprepared for life at Radcliffe College, Harvard University.
"I cried and cried and cried because I had never walked to classes in my life before," she once told an interviewer. "I'd always been driven to school in a car and picked up in a car, and here I had to walk and walk and walk. It was cold, bitterly cold, and I hated it . . . but it forced me to grow up. There was this huge hall and you had to serve yourself and sit down somewhere next to someone, which meant I had to talk to people, and Americans are very talkative."
From Harvard, she went on to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics, an arena where she honed her skills by becoming the first Asian woman to be elected president of the prestigious Oxford Union debating society.
Her sights were still set on a possible career as a diplomat rather than a politician. But soon after her return, in 1977, her father was ousted as prime minister in a military coup and imprisoned, and martial law was declared. Two years later, he was executed, and his death became the defining moment in Bhutto's life, launching her full-bore into politics.
"I told him on my oath in his death cell, I would carry on his work," Bhutto later said.
She paid a price for her promise. Over the next five years, with the Pakistan People's Party outlawed, Bhutto was in and out of detention, sometimes under house arrest, or in prison, under harrowing conditions. In her autobiography, "Daughter of Destiny," she recounted her experience in solitary confinement in a desert cell in 1981, where the heat was almost unbearable.
"My skin split and peeled, coming off my hands in sheets. Boils erupted on my face. My hair, which had always been thick, began to come out by the handful. Insects crept into the cell like invading armies," she wrote. "I tried pulling the sheet over my head at night to hide from their bites, pushing it back when it got too hot to breathe."