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At Home with Elizabeth Edwards

Published: 12/7/2012
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In this photo taken Sept. 10, 2010, Elizabeth Edwards arrives at the "Stand Up To Cancer" television event at Sony Studios in Culver City, Calif.  (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

When Elizabeth Edwards died, two years ago today, Julia M. Klein reflected on meeting the author, lawyer and wife of former presidential hopeful John Edwards. Originally published December 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.

I met Elizabeth Edwards in July 2006, about three months before the publication of her first memoir, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers (Broadway Books). Already, her life had veered between good fortune and calamity, but there was as yet no hint of scandal.

I drove to the Edwards family beach house, on a private gated island near Wilmington, N.C., in a torrential rainstorm, a downpour so heavy that it was impossible to read street signs. When I finally arrived, late, I was immediately struck by the informality of the scene. The house was unpretentious, filled with pillows from Target and shore-themed paintings. Elizabeth was wearing a casual aqua pants outfit and sandals, and her two elementary school-age children, Jack and Emma Claire, were playing nearby, under the supervision of a nanny. We sat at her kitchen table, where pieces of a jigsaw puzzle were scattered. She offered to microwave popcorn. Jack, a gorgeous child who looked like a young Kennedy, commandeered the first batch, so she made another one for us.

For 2 ½ hours, Elizabeth answered – or, occasionally, skirted – every question I and my editors at AARP The Magazine had devised, on matters ranging from the side effects of chemotherapy to her husband John’s presidential ambitions. She was every bit as warm and charming as I’d been led to expect. The surprise was her steel-trap mind. She was formidable.

It was only an afternoon, but that single professional encounter made me feel as though I knew her, at least a little. I left with her e-mail address and cell phone number. Once the story was published, I didn’t pursue the relationship; reporters generally don’t. But Elizabeth’s later travails – both the metastasis of her breast cancer and the infidelity of her husband – struck me with special force. So did her death on December 7, 2010, at 61. Like many women, even those who never met her, I felt as though I had lost a friend.

Elizabeth’s candor about her problems is part of what drew people to her. During our interview, we discussed deeply personal topics: her struggles with her weight, the raw grief she had felt at the accidental death of her 16-year-old son, Wade, in 1996, and the decision she had made in her late 40s to use fertility treatments to have two more children. My editors had pressed me to quiz her, somewhat indecorously, about just how she had managed that feat. Was it egg donation? After all, the children were born when she was 48 and 50. Elizabeth wouldn’t say. She said she didn’t want to give other women false hope. She added that the women in her family had a history of late-life pregnancies.

At the time, I was disappointed John Edwards wasn’t on hand. His failed 2004 presidential and vice presidential bids had only raised his stock: He was a political rock star, a charismatic orator committed to the eradication of poverty -- not the cartoon villain he has since become. But I seized the opportunity to ask about their relationship. Here is the exchange:

Tell us more about your relationship with John. How do you keep the romance in your marriage?
I hear lots of ideas: You have a date night once a week, or you go on a honeymoon once a year. We don’t do any of that. The way to have romance in your marriage after nearly 30 years is to marry the right guy in the first place. As simple as that. I married the right guy. I couldn’t have married a better person – a sweeter person, a more compassionate person.

He became kind of a matinee idol during the campaign.
Oh, isn’t that funny? Cate [her older daughter] and I would just laugh at him. He doesn’t think of himself that way.

It’s more a family joke than anything?
Yes, it is. We don’t let him get away with any of that.

The ironies are obvious now. But I think Elizabeth believed what she told me. And I believed her. The revelation of Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter during his abortive 2008 presidential campaign felt like a betrayal of us both. I have to confess that I devoured every sordid tabloid story about his escapades -- made far more dastardly, of course, by the fact of her cancer. I wondered if the thought of losing her was somehow too much to bear, whether he sought a lover in the way another man might have turned to drink.

Among women especially, Elizabeth’s plight inspired considerable empathy. Most of us don’t have a husband who has secretly fathered a daughter with a campaign videographer. What seemed familiar was the emotional dynamic: the attempt to rationalize outrageous behavior by an intimate -- to find a balance between love and rage, between forgiveness and the instinct for self-preservation.

In her second book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities (Broadway Books, 2009), Elizabeth wrote about the impact of the affair: “I was not wounded, not afraid, not uncertain before, and now I always will be.” Despite her pain and anger, she was not yet ready to abandon the 32-year marriage. Edwards’ belated admission of his paternity of Hunter’s child (spurred this past January by a tell-all book by his former campaign aide Andrew Young) seems to have prompted their separation.

Amid all the paeans to Elizabeth’s courage, a few critics have reviled her for initially keeping the secret of Edwards’ affair to protect his campaign. But the treatment of Elizabeth in Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (Harper Collins, 2010) is uniquely harsh. Relying on Edwards’ campaign aides (though no individual sources are identified), the authors, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, describe her as “an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman.”

This much surely is true: For years a successful lawyer in her own right, Elizabeth funneled her political ambitions and passions into her husband. Somehow, he became her vessel – even though, as with the Clintons, she was at least his equal, if not his superior, in intellectual firepower. So when he fumbled, when his campaign dropped the ball, it is not surprising that she might have been furious, might have lashed out. Feminism is, in part, about the anger of women who push their own ambitions aside.

My last memories of her are serene. We walked together on the dock outside her beach house. The rainstorm had passed, and the last rays of sunset cast a pink glow on the island. The house, situated where the sound meets the ocean, was surrounded almost entirely by water. It seemed fragile, delicate – as though it might somehow float away. Elizabeth let me take a photo of her. I wanted the evidence of our time together.

There is just one more thing – one last indication of who Elizabeth Edwards really was: In her final days, we are told, John Edwards was at her bedside. Wracked with guilt and grief, he would surely have wanted to be there. But she would have had to sign off on it, to have said, “Yes. Come.” So love and forgiveness must have triumphed in the end. At least it feels better to believe that.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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