Catherine Edwards stood by her mother’s coffin to deliver the eulogy.
This was the same church where she, years earlier, had given the eulogy for her brother.
Her voice, cracking at first, became more assured as she spoke, growing steadier as she recalled the things that she loved about her mother.
“I am who I am today, and I will become whoever it is that I will become, in large part because she was my mom,” she said, with the poise of someone much older than her 28 years.
The daughter of Elizabeth Edwards, who friends know as Cate, even drew laughs from the mourners at the Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, when recounting her mother’s lessons of life—be it fashion advice or tips about dating. (Among them: “Never marry the first boy you date without dating someone else because you would never buy the first pair of shoes you try on.”)
She read from the letter her mother had written before she died, and shared the loss of a parent as the cameras rolled.
Other children of fame and accomplishment have had their private grief exposed to the public. Who can forget the picture of 3-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s coffin as he stood next to his mother, and his sister Caroline (who was wearing a matching pale blue peacoat)? Even day-to-day living in the klieg lights of public attention can be hard enough for children who didn’t choose their parents’ career. From Chelsea Clinton to Jenna Bush, each child reacts differently to the spotlight.
“I am who I am today, and I will become whoever it is that I will become, in large part because she was my mom.”
Friends and acquaintances say that Cate isn’t naturally drawn to the role she has ended up playing—the public face of her family, speaking publicly during times of celebration as well as crisis and loss.
In a short span of time, Cate has seen her family’s heartaches refracted in the media, from her brother’s death to her mother’s cancer; her father’s infidelity and just last week, her mother’s death.
“I don’t think she imagined herself to have superhuman strength, but look at all she’s been through—first with her brother; her mom got sick, and all the unpleasantness with her dad,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a former press secretary for John Edwards, who spent some of the last days in Elizabeth’s life with the family in the Edwards home. “She’s not a stoic—she’s human—but she had a good mentor in dealing with adversity in her mom,“ Palmieri said. She added that, as Cate was saying her final goodbyes, her mother told her: ‘You’re stronger than you know.’” According to Palmieri, Cate made all of the funeral arrangements with her dad.
Cate was only 14 when she first spoke at Edenton Church, at the funeral for her brother Wade.
“It's very, very hard to imagine how you would cope when you haven't faced tragedy,” she told Harper’s Bazaar years after her 16-year-old brother was killed in a car crash. “But the strength exists, and you do get through it. Having been through Wade's death is the only way I know I can move on from this kind of emotional hardship,” she said referring to her mom’s cancer that had returned.
The pretty brunette, who has her dad’s bright smile and a slight North Carolina accent, had her debut on the national stage in 2004, when she introduced her mother at the Democratic National Convention in Boston with these words: “They say a ship in a harbor is safe. That is not what ships are built for. They are built for exploring new possibilities. And to quote from my mom's favorite poem, they are built for allowing us to ‘believe that a further shore is reachable from here.’”
Karen Finney, the former communications director for Elizabeth Edwards, described the moment between mother and daughter after both had delivered their speeches to thousands of delegates, and millions of television viewers.
“It didn’t matter that it was a convention speech, in front of a major television audience, in a huge hall in front of thousands of people. Her mom was just proud of her, and Cate was just proud of her mom,” Finney said. “One of the things about Elizabeth is she found joy in and goodness in a lot of little things that a lot of us take for granted. They were just happy for each other.”
Campaign staffers who saw them together, describe a warm, affectionate relationship. The two often joked with each other during grueling hours on the trail. John Edwards, for his part, was “proud of the way she carried herself on the national stage,” said a campaign staffer, adding that Cate put “a lot of time, blood, sweat, and tears into the campaign.”
After graduating from Princeton and working on her father’s 2004 campaign (where she even turned down marriage proposals), Cate worked as an editorial assistant at Vanity Fair. Deputy Editor Aimee Bell described her as a “very strong, capable, impressive person.” In 2006, she enrolled at Harvard Law School, working for two years at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau that provides free legal services to low-income people.
After her first year at law school, she sought an internship at NPR. Reporter Nina Totenberg received the resume from a Catherine Edwards at Harvard Law School, not knowing this was the daughter of Sen. John Edwards—Cate had pulled no strings to get ahead.
“She has no sense of entitlement, zero. She never said, ‘I’m Sen. Edwards daughter,’” Totenberg said, describing her as “enormously competent and calm” even during times of stress. While she interned at NPR, her father had already begun his presidential campaign, and Totenberg told Cate she couldn’t go to any of the events, lest she should be seen as partial. “She completely understood, and lived by the rules,” Totenberg said.
At home, she was a “rock for the rest of the family” and “a role model for the younger kids,” says a family friend. Totenberg described her as “the next-in-line mom” to siblings Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10. It was clear, Totenberg said, “she wasn’t just a big sister who flew in and out on occasion. It was much more.”
The family friend, who wished to remain anonymous, said that, despite the revelations about John’s infidelity, Cate remains close with her father, and that Cate wants him to live in the family home to raise the younger children, as Elizabeth also wanted.
A former campaign aide said Cate has always been the person to comfort others, and she is “taking that leadership role now to bring her family through this.”
Cate herself has long dated Trevor Upham, her boyfriend from their days at Princeton, and over the Thanksgiving weekend, the two became engaged. The family friend said that, although Elizabeth was dying, she was “aware and very, very happy” at the news of their engagement. On Saturday, Upham served as a pallbearer.
Cate now works at the law firm Sanford Wittels & Heisler as a civil-rights attorney, having previously clerked for a federal judge in eastern Virginia. The family friend says helping the disenfranchised is in the “genetics of that family.”
But unlike her father, Cate seems to harbor no political ambition. Says Finney, “I think she’s too smart to go into politics.”
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Daily Beast Washington Bureau Chief Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.