Elizabeth Edwards, a forceful political wife who became a bestselling author writing about her battle with cancer but whose marriage to Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards unraveled because of his infidelity, died Tuesday. She was 61.
Edwards died at her home in North Carolina, her family said.
Her breast cancer, which was diagnosed the day after the 2004 election, returned three years later. John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a candidate for president in 2008, said then that the cancer was “no longer curable but completely treatable.”
The family issued a statement Monday saying further treatment would be unproductive. Edwards told People magazine in June that the cancer had spread to include tumors in her skull, spine and legs.
“Many others would have turned inward; many others in the face of such adversity would have given up. But through all that she endured, Elizabeth revealed a kind of fortitude and grace that will long remain a source of inspiration,” President Obama said in a statement Tuesday.
Elizabeth Edwards was a successful lawyer who became a national figure as her husband’s political partner and the author of books that chronicled her cancer and grief over the 1996 death of the couple’s 16-year-old son, Wade, in a single-car accident.
But her life became tabloid fodder during Edwards’ bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. The National Enquirer reported that he had had an affair with Rielle Hunter, who had been hired as a videographer for the campaign, and had fathered a child with her.
John Edwards at first denied any relationship and continued his quest for the nomination.
He admitted the affair in 2008 after dropping out of the presidential race, but did not admit to being the child’s father until January 2010. That month, Elizabeth Edwards announced she was separating from her husband.
“Just as I don’t want cancer to take over my life, I don’t want this indiscretion, however long in duration, to take over my life either,” she wrote in her 2009 book, “Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities.”
“But I need to deal with both; I need to find peace with both.”
She was born Mary Elizabeth Anania on July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, Fla. Her father, Vincent, was a Navy pilot. Her mother, Mary Elizabeth Thweatt, was the daughter of a Navy pilot and had been married to another Navy pilot who died when his plane was lost in the Pacific.
“My life is measured by which air station, which town, which country I lived in. And the cast of characters changed with each move,” Edwards wrote in her 2006 book “Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength From Friends and Strangers.” Besides Florida, Edwards spent parts of her childhood in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Japan.
She started college at what was then the University of Virginia’s school for women, Mary Washington College, but transferred to the University of North Carolina in 1969, when her father was assigned to an ROTC unit there. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. She met John Edwards while attending law school at the University of North Carolina.
“In many ways John and I were different,” she wrote in “Saving Graces.” “I had traveled the world; he had never left the South.... But we had each moved from place to place, following our fathers’ jobs. We had each lived in company housing — military bases for me, mill villages for John. Neither of us had a chance to be rooted in a place, so we were rooted in family and faith, the things we took with us.”
They were married in 1977, just days after taking the bar exam. Their son Wade was born in 1979, their daughter Catharine in 1982.
The couple’s careers shifted dramatically after the death of their son in 1996. John Edwards ran for the Senate in 1998, defeating incumbent North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth.
Elizabeth Edwards became her husband’s close advisor, a role that intensified when John Edwards became the vice presidential nominee and a presidential candidate. She also became the mother of young children, with daughter Emma Claire born in 1998 and son Jack in 2000.
“I try to bring my perspective and make sure John’s viewpoint is there, if he steps out of the room to get a phone call or something and I’m still here,” she told the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., in 2004. “I feel like I’m his surrogate. I know where he comes from, I know what he cares about, so I can voice that.”
She received praise for her direct, down-to-earth style, which contrasted with her husband’s more polished image.
“I come out of real life,” she told the New York Times in 2004. “Because I’m 55, I’ve spent 20 years at PTA meetings and soccer practices, all the kind of things that regular moms do, and I think that makes people feel fairly comfortable with me, which is great.”
That positive image intensified after the breast cancer diagnosis in 2004.
In “Saving Graces,” she wrote about continuing to campaign in late October 2004, despite finding a lump in her breast. “Lump or no lump, cancer or not, I had to continue to talk to as many people as possible, debate whatever issue needed debating, and do what I could for those people, and more importantly, John had to do the same,” she wrote. “The rest we’d take care of after the election.”
The Democratic ticket of John F. Kerry and Edwards lost to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. After the cancer returned, John Edwards continued his campaign for the Democratic nomination. He bowed out of the race in January 2008, unable to overtake Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries. His political career imploded after the affair with Hunter became public.
Elizabeth Edwards received harsh treatment in “The Politician,” a 2010 book by former top campaign aide Andrew Young, who initially claimed he was the father of Hunter’s child to protect Edwards. Young painted her as controlling and vindictive.
In a June interview on the “Today” show, Edwards said she had been hurt by how her political role was perceived. And she discussed separating from Edwards.
“I think it was just that finally I realized we’d just come so far down this road that ... I wasn’t going to find a place where, and I hate to talk about myself in the third person, but where Elizabeth existed anymore,” she said. “I wanted to be present in the remainder of my life.”
In addition to her husband and children, Edwards’ survivors include a brother and sister.