Rachel “Bunny” Mellon was buried on a March morning in Virginia horse country. In the way Southern funerals often are, a lot of people were shocked that somebody dared to show his face. In this instance, it was former presidential candidate John Edwards, who dragged Mellon’s name into the train wreck that was his 2008 campaign.
Even more shocking for some was the woman at Edwards’ side: his 32-year-old daughter, Cate.
She’s a Princeton- and Harvard Law-educated attorney, living in a Georgetown rowhouse with her husband, Trevor Upham, a surgical resident at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. She is also John Edwards’ oldest surviving offspring, her late mother’s “nearly perfect” child, and, to some observers that day, her father’s human shield.
The Edwardses were not seated at Trinity Episcopal in Upperville – they were met by the priest at the door, and it’s a matter of dispute whether they were refused entrance or arrived too late – but the fact is they watched the service on a closed-circuit television from an adjacent building.
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“It was my thought that he was coming into hostile territory and he was chicken,” says Bryan Huffman, Mellon’s friend. “His daughter is there, and so people are not going to be unkind to her like they would be to him.”
Cate Edwards, who agreed to interviews this spring, says she doesn’t know what transpired between her dad and the priest. “We were there to honor Ms. Mellon,” she says.
The incident is a telling example of her complicated relationship with her father. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one mystery is that she speaks to him at all.
After all, her mother, Elizabeth, had separated from her husband of more than 30 years even while she was dying. The reasons were national news, excruciatingly recounted on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in books and countless news stories and blogs. John Edwards carried out an affair with a campaign videographer while his wife had cancer, lied about it, then lied about being the father of the child of that liaison, then lied about persuading a married staffer to claim paternity and, after his wife’s death, narrowly missed conviction on campaign finance violations related to the coverup. (A Greenville, N.C., jury acquitted him of one charge and hung on the rest.)
In 2012, a New York tabloid called him “the most hated man in America.”
Cate, meanwhile, became executrix of her mother’s estate and president of the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation, which she helped create, and it seemed clear she was her mother’s daughter.
But not only does she still speak to her father, she is now in business with him.
In November, she turned her two-lawyer firm into the Washington office of Edwards Kirby, the elder Edwards’ attempt to relaunch the trade that made him famous. (In his first trial after renewing his license, completed last month, he helped win a $13 million settlement in a personal injury case.)
“Cate and I are very close and talk all the time,” Edwards said. “There’s nothing of any significance in my life that she doesn’t know about.”
Both father and daughter say the idea of working together emerged after his trial ended. Each has an affinity for civil cases that champion the proletariat, and the self-description of Cate’s boutique firm might have been lifted from the early days of her father’s work: “representing regular, working people and give them a level playing field in the law.”
Given her privileged start in life, Cate Edwards is low-key. Yes, she has a $1.3 million home, but she doesn’t come off as upper-crust. She’s good company, doesn’t bother much with makeup and lets her long brown hair fall loose. She and Trevor have a dog and a Vespa. At dinner, they are a fun couple.
If one wishes to understand what the future might hold for Cate Edwards, then one must consider the trials that shaped her and, thus, why her close relationship with her father endures.
Growing up fast after tragedy
Life was pretty sweet when she was a kid.
Her dad was a millionaire trial attorney in Raleigh. Her mom was a successful lawyer, too. Cate and her brother, Wade, two years her senior, went to public schools.
“Theirs was the house that all the kids would go to after school,” remembers Wynn Cherry, a now-retired teacher from Broughton High School, who taught the Edwards children and who is on the board of the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation. “They were just very good people.”
Cate played softball and basketball and excelled in advanced mathematics.
One spring weekend when she was 14, shortly after she and her mother returned from touring boarding schools, a state trooper knocked on the door. Wade had been killed in a car accident.
Cate wrote a eulogy and read it at the funeral. One line – “And I see you in each shining star” – her parents had engraved on a granite bench at Wade’s burial plot.
Plans for her to go to boarding school were scrapped. She moved into her parents’ bedroom.
“There was not enough room for another bed,” John says, “so we pushed these two chairs together. She was there, taking care of us. She was young, and hurting herself. She was there for Elizabeth and me.”
Cate slept on the chairs for the better part of 18 months. “My parents were a mess,” she says.
Her mother wrote in “Resilience”: “We were held together by an extraordinary 14-year-old girl, our daughter Cate. She placed her own dreams in a box and put them away for a time.”
Friends say there is no understanding the dynamic between father and daughter without understanding this crucible.
“For them, the worst had already happened,” says Sunjung Kim, Cate’s roommate for four years at Princeton. “Everything that came after was just something to be dealt with.”
‘Quirky, alternative vibe’
Her dad returned to work, and her mom set up and managed the Wade Edwards Foundation and Learning Lab, a nonprofit group to help struggling students.
Cate went from being the Baby of the Family to the Only and Oldest Child.
Her parents came to involve her in all of the grown-up decisions. Should he run for the U.S. Senate? Should they have more children? Should he run for president?
In this way, the family members pulled themselves from the ash heap of grief. In 1998, two years after Wade’s death, John won the Senate seat and almost instantly became a national figure.
Elizabeth, at 48, had Emma Claire that year. Jack was born in 2000.
Cate settled on attending Princeton. She showed up the first day in Birkenstocks and corduroys, hair down to her waist.
“She had this quirky, alternative vibe,” Kim remembers.
Cate met Trevor, a medical student from Santa Clarita, Calif., at Princeton in 2002. They bonded over a love of math.
In 2004, eight years after Wade’s death, her father became the Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States.
Taken together, these individual and familial achievements were remarkable. Large swaths of the American public loved the Edwardses: the handsome dad fighting for the poor and dispossessed; the lawyer mom devoted to her children; their smart, attractive and accomplished oldest child.
They had, it appeared, endured and prevailed. America loves that kind of story.
A devastating affair
Then it began to fall apart.
Her dad’s ticket lost the election. Within days, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
On Feb. 21, 2006, an out-of-work “spiritual adviser” named Rielle Hunter walked into a hotel bar in New York and saw John Edwards. “You’re so hot!” she told him. So began a disastrous affair. (Hunter now reportedly lives in Charlotte.)
Nine months later, in December – the same month John announced his second campaign for the presidency – his wife learned of the relationship, she wrote in “Resilience.” She wrote that he falsely characterized it as a one-night stand.
The campaign careened ahead. Cate stumped. Her mother’s cancer worsened in March the following year, and then the marriage began to collapse in ways that couldn’t be kept secret. In “Game Change,” authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin called the cognitive dissonance between the public “Saint Elizabeth” image and the campaign-trail reality “disturbing.”
“She called her spouse a ‘hick’ in front of other people and derided his parents as rednecks. She was forever letting John know she regarded him as her intellectual inferior.”
This viciousness did not land well with their daughter, who describes it as “nonsense.”
“Obviously, I disagree with the ‘Game Change’ characterization.”
A talk with her father
Cate can’t remember exactly when her father told her. Summer of 2007? 2008?
In any event, it was “the summer before everything blew up.” With the Enquirer pursuing the Hunter affair, John summoned Cate to the family’s new cathedral of a home, a 20,000-square-foot, two-building complex. He sat her down in the library.
“It was important from my dad’s perspective to be honest with me,” she says. “He was very emotional in telling me.”
She then went to see her mom, who was elsewhere in the house.
In August 2008, the tabloid published pictures of Edwards holding the child, Frances Quinn, prompting him to acknowledge the affair on television – though he denied paternity. The campaign died in scandal and outrage, and the next year, just after Christmas, so did the marriage.
In the aftermath, Cate and Elizabeth took “girl” trips to Europe and New England. On Dec. 7, 2010, just days after Cate and Trevor were engaged, Elizabeth Edwards died.
Enduring a trial
Cate took a year off to set up the foundation in her mother’s name, to get married, to help out with her younger siblings, to stand by her father during his 2012 trial on charges of violating campaign finance laws. It was not pleasant. She left the courtroom in tears one day, her father quietly calling after her, “Cate, Cate.”
When the trial ended, Cate stood beside him on the courthouse steps when he spoke to reporters.
She returned to Washington, set up her law firm with Sharon Eubanks, who had been one of the lead attorneys for the U.S. Justice Department against Big Tobacco. Last November, six months after Cate’s father reactivated his law license, they decided to combine offices.
In considering this period after her mother’s death, when public sentiment was so high against her father, Cate stammers when pressed about her emotions. Wasn’t she angry? Didn’t she feel that life had treated her harshly?
“I had my moments of self-pity,” she begins. “I’ve never reacted with anger exactly. I mean, you know I was angry at my dad for a while. We worked on, we worked very hard to repair our relationship.”
Today, she sees Frances Quinn, her half-sister, far less often than she does her mother’s children but says she’d like to cultivate the relationship.
“I saw her at Christmas,” she says, a little uncomfortable. “She’s down there in Charlotte. It’s not as easy.”
Do you have a relationship, of any kind, with Rielle Hunter?
Cate makes a surprise visit
John Edwards grows animated talking about a wrongful death case in Washington state they might work on together.
“She loves her work advocating for cancer survivors, being a lawyer for people being discriminated against,” he says. “She stands up for people not being treated fairly. That’s who she is ”
Sometimes the best way to understand the future is to look at the past.
Let’s look at a final case from a long time ago, one that helped make her dad’s name.
It was 1996, several months after Wade died. John Edwards was concluding a civil case against a swimming pool drain manufacturer whose product had left a little girl grievously injured. He was, he writes in “Four Trials,” channeling his emotions about the loss of his son into the injuries suffered by the girl.
As he was making his closing argument, he looked up and was astonished. Writing in 2004, he recalled:
“My daughter Cate walked into the packed courtroom. My family knew that the people I represented needed every bit of my attention, and so they had always left me at the courtroom door. And now for the first time, for the one time I needed a child of my own there, without my asking, Cate had come. My daughter pushed her way through the railing, and we held each other.”
Perhaps in family, as in love, as it was, so it remains.