Cindy McCain: Painful secrets

She would rather be known as a philanthropist than as a wealthy heiress. But the wife of the Republican candidate could not avoid having other aspects of her life come under the media spotlight

As John McCain dashes around the country revving up the Republican attack machine and announcing his vice-presidential running mate, the platinum blond woman at his side seems a throwback to the era when political wives were supportive and looked demure. Cindy McCain is also delicate. Her arm was wrenched so badly by an enthusiastic supporter shaking her hand that she ended up in hospital getting X-rays and a sling for a sprained wrist.

Americans don't know a lot about the prospective Republican First Lady, apart from the crucial fact that she is a fabulously wealthy heiress to the Hensley beer fortune in Arizona. Recently they learned that she owns more homes than she or John McCain can enumerate. By the last count, Cindy McCain owns 10 homes. There is an apartment near Washington DC; two condominiums in Coronado, near San Diego as well as the one her father left her in La Jolla. She lives in a $4.7m pad on top of one of Phoenix's fanciest new luxury towers. She also owns holiday homes in the countryside near Sedona, Arizona.

Her vast wealth and many homes make it difficult for researchers to pin down certain aspects of her personal life and a Washington Post team of investigative reporters has so far turned up little of substance to embarrass the candidate before the November elections. The Hensleys have long been members of the Phoenix elite. They lived in a rambling low-slung house with a fibreglass Clydesdale horse – Anheuser Busch's trademark – plonked in the front garden. The only child of her parents' second marriages, Cindy's mother, Marguerite "Smitty" Hensley, kept a tight rein on her daughter while her father lavished her with gifts.

She won the title of junior rodeo queen in Arizona at age 14 and, in interviews, describes her father Jim as a real "cowboy" who loved the outdoors and took her camping on long wilderness trips. But her friends report that Cindy's big love is spending. "She loved to go shopping. If she would buy one thing, she would buy five," a friend recalled. Another said Cindy "was always impeccably dressed and such a lady. I remember sitting in these metal chairs in a circle in Sunday school and just staring at her, going, 'God, she's gorgeous'". In school she had "perfect" grades, rode horses and studied ballet.

These days she prefers to stress her history as a philanthropist from her days at the University of Southern California and after, when she worked with severely disabled children. As well as continuing to work now as a volunteer for needy children, she is also a board member of Care and Operation Smile, which funds cleft-palate surgery for children. But secrets are always being spilled about Cindy McCain. The latest is that she has a secret half-sister. At her father's funeral, when Cindy McCain said in her eulogy that she was "his only child", her disinherited half-sister sitting nearby was dumbfounded.

Then there was the period after she had spinal surgery and became addicted to painkillers, hiding it from her husband for years. By 1992 she was gulping 10 to 15 pills a day, claiming they were vitamins. John McCain never noticed. "I only saw him on the weekends, and I didn't want him to come home to this woman who couldn't do anything," she revealed only in April. "I completely masked it and completely kept myself somewhat pain-free and [with] the ability to function and do everything he wanted."

A friend, Betsey Bayless, noticed nothing wrong with her at the time. "She told me many times that she wanted to be the perfect wife and mother, and she wanted to be everything that John McCain wanted her to be," Bayless said. "And she pretty much was the perfect wife and mother, but, you know, she had to come to the realisation that everything isn't perfect."

She was eventually caught stealing drugs from the charity she had established to distribute medicines to developing countries. After sacking the whistleblower who had revealed her actions, she disbanded the group. Then she told her husband about her addiction and checked herself into a clinic.

The profits of the beer business have been put to good use in her husband's career, as the alcohol industry funds him more generously than any other politician in the Senate. Even Cindy McCain's high-profile charitable work for children has to play second fiddle. When Phoenix Children's Hospital suggested raising money for hospital beds by taxing alcohol sales, the Hensley company fought it and is now trying to change the laws so that a tax increase on alcohol is unlikely to pass.

The way conservatives tell it, John McCain's story is a straight-line narrative of the admiral's son turned Vietnam war hero and maverick senator who is the Republican's champion for the White House. McCain's YouTube biopic focuses on his years of hell in a Hanoi cell. There is also his miraculous escape from the deck of the aircraft carrier where a loose bomb blew up his plane as he sat in it, and killed 134 sailors.

By 1979, the returned war hero McCain had turned up at a Honolulu cocktail party, as a US liaison officer on his way to China with a group of congressmen.John McCain was then 42, still married to his first wife Carol Shepp, who had raised their three children alone and had kept the PoW cause alive while her husband was locked away by the North Vietnamese, only to be rejected by John McCain on his return to find her recently crippled in a car accident.

Back at the cocktail party Captain McCain made a beeline for the then 24-year-old beauty Cindy Hensley, who was holidaying with her parents in Hawaii. They were soon dating, with Cindy "always deferring to John", according to the best man at their wedding. John was excited about the woman he called "Cindy Lou".

She had just graduated from the University of Southern California, which John McCain says really means the University of Spoilt Children. She was on lookout for an upwardly mobile beau, having just dumped Kerry McCluggage, a boyfriend of three years. The unfortunate McCluggage was clever and handsome, but since he was paying his own way through college, the Hensleys looked down on him. She dumped him and he went off to Harvard and eventually ran Universal television.

John McCain was something quite different. Cindy's father, a former Second World War bomber pilot, was delighted to welcome a young war hero into the family. And impressed that he came from a long line of distinguished admirals. Hensley also wanted to help to fund McCain's earliest political race.

When they married in May 1980, three months after John had obtained a divorce from Carol, they made a prenuptial agreement, with the family assets remaining in her name. He was a middle-aged divorcé with ambition but few prospects outside the stultifying bureaucracy of the US navy. He was desperate to get into politics.

The Hensley fortune was made with hard work, bootlegging and links to the Arizona mob. Jim Hensley was charged and convicted of selling alcohol on the black market. Then, despite being broke, he raised $10,000 to secure the Anheuser-Busch distributor for Arizona. The company he founded, Hensley & Co, quickly grew from a mom and pop operation in the 1950s to become the third-largest Budweiser wholesaler in the US, with sales of more than $300m a year. Today Cindy McCain is "chairman" of the company, but her role is strictly hands off. When not campaigning, she prefers tooling around Phoenix in her company Lexus, with its "MS BUD" plates, to managing beer sales. Unlike Michelle Obama, she has been reluctant to do events on her own.

When The New York Times published a story asking questions about John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist, Cindy stood resolutely by his side at a press conference. "My children and I not only trust my husband, but know that he would never do anything to not only disappoint our family, but disappoint the people of America," she said, in the time-honoured phraseology. "He's a man of great character."

There were numerous difficult episodes in Cindy McCain's life, and most she has had to endure on her own. In 2004 she had a stroke in Phoenix while she was at lunch with some friends. As she told Larry King Live, she was 49 at the time and found herself unable to talk after she had stopped taking her blood pressure medication. "I was mainly more concerned about being caught in public... without my full faculties," she told King. "So I grabbed my car keys, and fortunately my friends grabbed my car keys away from me, and said, 'No, there's something wrong with you.'"

She decided to recover from the stroke on her own, and left her family to stay in southern California for a few months. John McCain has often been absent at the hardest times of her life. She had several miscarriages before giving birth to her daughter Meghan, who is 23 and a campaign trail blogger about her dad. Their son Jack, 22, who is in the naval academy, and Jimmy, 20, is a marine who has served in Iraq. The couple adopted a Bangladeshi girl named Bridget, who is now 17. Cindy just brought her home and announced to John McCain that they had a new daughter. "John was with me the first time I lost a baby," Cindy McCain told Harper's Bazaar last year, "but not for those after, which was hard."

Theirs has been a distant marriage, separated by several thousand miles and three times zones. Cindy McCain is no Stepford Wife, however. But for her burning ambition, John McCain's assault on the pinnacle of US political power might never have been possible.

A life in brief

Born: Cindy Lou Hensley, 20 May 1954, in Phoenix, Arizona. She is an only child.

Early life: Her father founded beer wholesaler Hensley and Company. Named junior rodeo queen of Arizona in 1968, she gained a BA and MA in education and special education respectively from the University of Southern California.

Career: She taught children with special needs before marrying John McCain in 1980. In 1988, after having three children (the couple would later adopt a fourth), she founded the American Voluntary Medical Team, a charity providing emergency medical care to Third World countries. She became chair of Hensley and Co in 2000. Having recovered from prescription drug addiction, and a severe stroke, she recently suffered a wrist injury after a supporter shook her hand particularly vigorously.

She says: "I keep a long list, you know. I have a grudge list. [Husband] John's taught me to leave my grudge list behind."

They Say: "[She's] the one who everyone says, 'Why isn't she the candidate?'"

John McCain

For rolling comment on the US election visit:

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