Elizabeth Edwards: Lawyer who acted as political adviser to her husband John before revelations of his infidelity

In a world which increasingly sees things in black and white, the life of Elizabeth Edwards was a reminder that politics, like life itself, exists in shades of grey. In the early stages of her husband John's political career she was his greatest asset, the exemplary political wife.

She was his key adviser, unafraid to publicly voice differing opinions to his on issues like the Iraq War and gay marriage, helping to reduce the impact his own stands might have had. She was already a public figure of inspirational sympathy; a successful lawyer and a mother who had survived the tragic loss of a teenage son to start a second family even as her husband embarked on his political career.

Then, on 3 November 2004, immediately after her husband and the presidential candidate, John Kerry, conceded defeat to the incumbent Republican ticket of George Bush and Dick Cheney, she was at Massachusetts General Hospital for the first treatment of her just-diagnosed breast cancer. Her 2006 book, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, detailed her battles against tragedy and disease. Her status as an American icon of survival was only intensified when her cancer returned, yet she continued to work on her husband's run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards withdrew after finishing behind both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the first four contests, including South Carolina, which he had been expected to win.

Then, in August 2008, came the revelation of her husband's affair – which produced a child – with Rielle Hunter, the woman hired to produce his campaign videos.

There were intriguing parallels between 2008's three Democratic contenders. Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Edwardses met in law school; and as with Michelle Obama, who met Barack when he interned at her law firm, she was slightly older than her husband. Edwards often called herself "the anti-Barbie", a reference to her husband's characterisation as a good-looking but empty "Ken doll". A White House official went further and dubbed him "the Breck girl", after the glossy model in the US shampoo ads.

When, in March 2007, her cancer returned, and spread, her decision to continue campaigning saw some accuse her and her husband of cynically playing on her illness, particularly in her strong support of a national health care plan. After the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter wished for John Edwards to be killed by terrorists, Elizabeth ambushed her on a television call-in programme; her calm insistence that she be allowed to preserve her dignity reduced Coulter to a caricature of indignation.

Yet by this time, Edwards was already hiding the secret of her husband's affair. Two recent books have presented warts-and-all pictures of the Edwards' marriage. The Politician, by Andrew Young, the aide John Edwards originally arranged to claim paternity of Hunter's child, highlights the cynicism of her silence about the affair, while Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, claimed with disingenuous hyperbole that aides felt that "there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing." It portrays her as demanding, controlling, and derisive of her husband's "redneck" background and lack of intellect.

Mary Elizabeth Anania was born in 1949 in Jacksonville, Florida. Her father was a US Navy pilot, her mother the daughter of a Navy pilot and the widow of another. The family moved often throughout her childhood, which included a stay in Japan; she trans-ferred from Mary Washington College in Virginia to the University of North Carolina when her father was assigned to teach there. She graduated with a degree in English, but while in graduate studies switched, and met John Edwards while getting her law degree. The couple married the day after taking the North Carolina bar exam, and while he established a hugely profitable career as a tort lawyer, she worked for the states' attorney's office, and then in bankruptcy law, using her maiden name.

They lived a comfortable life in the state capital, Raleigh, until 1996, when their 16-year-old son, Wade, was killed in a car accident, three weeks after he had received an award as a finalist in a national essay contest at the White House from Hillary Clinton. In her book, Edwards detailed her grief, which included daily visits and conversations at her son's grave, and how it changed their lives. The couple started a foundation in their son's name.

Edwards took fertility treatments that led to two more children, and as she formally adopted her husband's surname he began a campaign that ended in his winning a US Senate seat in a huge upset over the right-wing Republican Jesse Helms's protégé, Lauch Faircloth. Rather than seek re-election in 2004, Edwards ran for the Democratic nomination, and was taken on by the eventual winner Kerry as his running mate.

His affair with Hunter began in 2006, as he started his campaign for the 2008 nomination. In her 2009 book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities, Elizabeth was unstinting in detailing the progress of her husband's gradual confession. She wrote: "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." But when Edwards confessed paternity just before the publication of The Politician in January, they parted. A year's separation is a requirement for divorce in North Carolina. She died at home, having recently ceased treatment after the cancer had spread to her liver.

Mary Elizabeth Anania, lawyer and political adviser: born Jacksonville, Florida 3 July 1949; married 1977 John Edwards (two daughters, one son, one son deceased); died Chapel Hill, North Carolina 7 December 2010.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Life and Style
Duchess of Cambridge standswith officials outside of the former wartime spy centre in Bletchley Park
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'