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Husband's political adviser, with strong voice of her own

RALEIGH, N.C. - Elizabeth Anania Edwards, 61, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband's political career, died Tuesday at her North Carolina home.

Elizabeth Edwards in 2007. She spoke candidly of cancer, husband's infidelity.
Elizabeth Edwards in 2007. She spoke candidly of cancer, husband's infidelity.Read moreROBERT WILLETT / Raleigh News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. - Elizabeth Anania Edwards, 61, who became a national figure in her fight against cancer and as a partner in her husband's political career, died Tuesday at her North Carolina home.

Her family said she died surrounded by her three children, siblings, friends, and estranged husband, John.

Ms. Edwards spent much of her life as a little-known Raleigh lawyer and mother. But that all changed when John Edwards entered politics in 1998 as a senator and later became a two-time presidential candidate and the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president.

Her husband's career propelled the smart, plainspoken Ms. Edwards, a key adviser to him, into the spotlight.

She later became a figure of sympathy as she battled breast cancer and dealt with her husband's infidelity. Her public image shifted again as the scorned woman whose husband fathered a child with another woman.

She and John Edwards separated at the beginning of 2010 but remained close.

Through it all, Ms. Edwards helped change the way political wives were viewed. She was the self-proclaimed "anti-Barbie" who was comfortable sitting in on campaign-strategy meetings, chatting with Oprah Winfrey on TV, or going head-to-head with conservative columnist Ann Coulter.

She brought a similar self-possession to the media attacks that circulated around her in the wake of news about her husband's infidelity.

"I'm 5-feet-2, dark-haired, and could hardly be further from the Barbie figure," she once said. "I think of myself as a fairly serious person."

Her family said Tuesday in a statement: "Today we have lost the comfort of Elizabeth's presence, but she remains the heart of this family. We love her and will never know anyone more inspiring or full of life."

President Obama said he spoke to John Edwards and to the couple's daughter Cate on Tuesday afternoon to offer condolences. Her "fortitude and grace . . . will long remain a source of inspiration," he said.

Ms. Edwards was born July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, Fla., at the naval air station, the first of three children. Her father, Vincent Anania, was a first-generation Italian American from Western Pennsylvania.

As a Navy brat, Ms. Edwards grew up at military installations around the world, including two tours in Japan. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she spent two years in graduate school with the goal of earning a doctorate in English literature and pursuing teaching. But job prospects for English graduates were poor, and she entered law school, which her mother had always wanted her to do.

It was at UNC's law school that she met Johnny Edwards, three years her junior.

He was the pseudo-redneck who had been out of the South only once. He had few intellectual interests. She was a devotee of Henry James and a politically active liberal Democrat. They were married a few days after they graduated and passed the bar exam.

Although John Edwards had the high-powered legal career, their marriage was one of intellectual equals. She became his most trusted adviser.

Ms. Edwards could have had a high-profile law career like her husband's, but she did what many women do: She balanced her career with the demands of rearing children - Wade, born in 1979, and Cate, born in 1982.

She still practiced law, working for a private firm, in the state Attorney General's Office, and as an instructor at the UNC law school. She was also a soccer mom.

The family's life took a dark turn in 1996 when Wade, 16, was killed in an auto accident. The couple were crippled emotionally by his death. John Edwards stopped working for six months, and Ms. Edwards quit practicing law for good.

They left their son's room unchanged for years. She would lie down on Wade's grave to be close to him. "The intensity of that pain is greater than any emotion I ever had," she would write in her memoirs.

Wade's death changed the arc of the Edwardses' lives. They found religion, changed careers to politics, and began a second family. At age 48, Ms. Edwards gave birth to a daughter, Emma Claire, and at age 50, she had Jack.

Ms. Edwards served as a sounding board for nearly a decade as her husband climbed the political ladder, culminating with his selection as Sen. John Kerry's running mate in 2004.

She became popular on the campaign trail in 2004, seen as approachable, less glamorous, and more down to earth than her husband. She would make fun of herself as someone without perfectly coiffed hair or a stylish outfit, who struggled with her weight.

A few weeks before the 2004 election, Ms. Edwards noticed a lump in her breast. Tests indicated cancer, but she and her husband kept it a secret until after the voting.

The day after the election, Ms. Edwards went to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for a biopsy and to begin treatment. She spent much of 2005 undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment after surgery. She received 65,000 messages of support.

Her 2006 autobiography, Saving Graces, focused on her health struggles and sold nearly 180,000 copies.

When John Edwards entered the 2008 presidential race, she said her cancer was in remission. But in March 2007, the couple announced that her cancer had spread to her bones and was incurable.

Doctors said most patients in her position had five years to live, but she urged her husband to continue the campaign. When CBS News anchor Katie Couric reminded her, "You're staring at possible death," Ms. Edwards replied, "Aren't we all, though?"

She seemed to have license to speak more candidly because of her illness. Frustrated that the media attention in the primary campaign was focused on Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, she said: "We can't make John black. We can't make him a woman."

But in the end, the Edwardses' seven-year quest for the White House did not succeed. John Edwards dropped out of the race in January 2008.

All the while, their marriage was unraveling. Despite their public image as a tightly knit couple, her husband had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer on his campaign.

Seven months after dropping out of the race, he went on national TV to acknowledge the affair but denied paternity of Hunter's baby. He said he had told his wife about the affair in late 2006 and had broken off with Hunter.

Ms. Edwards stood by him, saying in a statement that "John made a terrible mistake in 2006." In July 2007, they celebrated their 30th anniversary by renewing their vows.

In 2009, a federal investigation into John Edwards' campaign finances pulled them back into media reports. And in January, another bombshell: He admitted paternity of Hunter's daughter, Frances Quinn. The Edwardses acknowledged they had separated.

Ms. Edwards made several appearances to discuss health-care issues. Earlier this year, she released her second book, Resilience, in which she talked of the pain of her husband's infidelity. Then, she retreated into private life again.