Virginia Kelley, a woman of unquenchable optimism and flamboyant spirit who buried three husbands, battled breast cancer and saw her elder son elected President of the United States, died in her sleep early Thursday in Hot Springs, Ark., at age 70.
Active until the end, despite a recurrence of her cancer several months ago, Kelley had spent Christmas at the White House and New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas, where she watched Barbra Streisand perform. According to friends, she was eagerly anticipating her annual Opening Day visit to the horse races in Hot Springs later this month.
The President flew to Arkansas on Thursday afternoon to coordinate arrangements for the funeral, which will be held Saturday. An aide said Clinton would continue with a scheduled weeklong trip to Europe for a NATO summit and meetings in Moscow with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Kelley’s life contained ample doses of the stuff of tragedy--poverty, widow’s veils, cancer, the arrest of her younger son, Roger, on drug charges--along with the dramatic rises and falls of her elder son’s political career.
Yet in the darkest moments she stubbornly refused to adopt a gloomy mien, insisting to all that the secret to life was to take whatever happened and just keep going.
“I just don’t let myself dwell on troubles,” she said in an interview early in her son’s presidential campaign.
Asked, as she repeatedly was, what moment of Bill Clinton’s political career had made her proudest, Kelley offered a revealing answer that she continued to give even after he became President: “The night he lost his race for reelection” as Arkansas governor in 1980, she would say. “He gave a speech thanking everyone, and there was no bitterness. You can never give into bitterness.”
That stubborn refusal to accept setbacks as permanent was a trait she passed along to her elder son. That, and a seemingly endless capacity for work.
“Driven is the word I’d use for her,” said David Leopoulos, a friend of Clinton’s since childhood. “Ever since I’ve known her, since I was 8 years old, it was nothing but work. She’s always, just like he is, driven to get something done.”
In recent months Kelley had considered, but rejected, taking long-shot and potentially debilitating treatments for her cancer, deciding instead to enjoy what time she had left, sources close to the family said.
She had continued to appear outwardly healthy in public as recently as last week--although she had told friends that she found herself tiring more easily--and her death caught friends and family by surprise.
On Wednesday, Kelley had lunch with friends, called the White House to talk to her son and, in the evening, watched a University of Arkansas basketball game on television before going to sleep, according to family friends.
Her husband, Richard Kelley, a retired food broker, discovered her death later in the night and called the President about 2:30 a.m. EST to inform him, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said.
The Garland County coroner listed the official cause of death as complications from cancer.
Clinton stayed up late into the night, calling Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty and other old friends to inform them and reminisce, the White House said. At the morning White House senior staff meeting Thursday, McLarty eulogized her as a “remarkable woman.”
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton saw her husband off to Arkansas with a hug and kiss as he boarded a helicopter on the White House’s South Lawn. She and their daughter, Chelsea, are scheduled to join him today. Roger Clinton flew from Los Angeles on Thursday to join the rest of the family for the funeral.
It was the third time in less than 10 months that Clinton has traveled to Arkansas for memorials, having buried his friend Vince Foster and his wife’s father, Hugh Rodham, last year.
Kelley stood in sharp contrast to the demure, colorless, television-era characters who dominate modern politics--with her shock of white hair set off against a black bun, eyebrows painted into a thin, high arch and a bold horseshoe-shaped diamond ring on her finger to display her passion for betting on the ponies.
During the presidential campaign, reporters calling her for the first time would often be startled by an answering machine message informing callers that “if I’m not here, I’m probably down at the race track.”
“She was a woman who traveled through life at her own velocity, flying her own colors,” said television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, a close Clinton family friend. “She managed to wring every drop of joy she could from her life.”
The life was one in which the joy mixed often with pain.
Her first son was born four months after his father, William Jefferson Blythe, died in a car accident in 1946. The couple had barely lived together because Blythe had been drafted into the Army shortly after their marriage in 1943.
When her child was 2 years old, Kelley left him in the custody of her parents in the small town of Hope, Ark.--where her father owned a grocery store--while she traveled to New Orleans to train for a job as a nurse-anesthetist at the city’s Charity Hospital.
“Everybody who loses a husband thinks they’ll never get married again,” she said in a 1991 interview. “I thought: ‘My goodness, this child will be looking to me’ ” for support.
“It was the most difficult thing I ever did,” she said, referring to the separation from her son. “I’d be working, putting a child under (anesthesia), and tears would be streaming down my cheeks thinking about my own child.”
After completing her training, Kelley returned to Arkansas and shortly thereafter married Roger Clinton, a car dealer from Hot Springs. Clinton was the father of her second child. He beat Kelley during bouts of drunkenness, with the couple divorcing and remarrying during a union that lasted 17 years until his death from cancer.
A third husband, Jeff Dwire, a hairdresser, died of complications from diabetes after only a few years of marriage.
As for her fourth husband, whom she married in 1982, she once laughingly told a reporter: “I warned him I was probably a jinx.” The two lived in a cottage next to a small lake outside Hot Springs, along with a large dog that lived out back in a doghouse covered with old Clinton political placards.
Kelley was a constant of Clinton’s many political campaigns--walking precincts to knock on doors, stuffing envelopes, answering phones.
During the presidential campaign, she and her husband led a contingent of Arkansans to New Hampshire to canvass the state for her son, and “at every moment while we were down, she would come into campaign headquarters and pump everybody up,” said Richard Mintz, a former campaign official who is now a spokesman for the Transportation Department.
“When the times were really rough, she would help pump him up too,” he said, referring to Clinton. “She was, perhaps, the world’s greatest optimist.”