Washington society tends to confuse fame with merit, and so it sucks up to Senators and Cabinet Secretaries and talk-show hosts while politely ignoring their spouses. But Elizabeth Edwards was different. When her husband first arrived in the Senate ten years ago, you heard that all the time. John Edwards? Yeah but you've got to meet his wife!
She was everything an up-and-comer's spouse is not supposed to be: funny, talkative, opinionated, brainy, vivid. She violated the rule that no one is allowed to outshine the candidate. I must say I never understood what people saw in her husband, and when I would ask for an explanation, what I usually heard was that he must be all right if she were on his team.
Back then, her biography seemed to trace the inspiring line of a Hollywood tearjerker: great success, interrupted by the unspeakable tragedy of her son Wade's death in a car accident, only to be renewed by grit and young children and new vistas.
The intervening decade was cruel to her and devastating to her memory. By the time Edwards died on Dec. 7 of relentless cancer at her home in Chapel Hill, N.C., she had seen herself humiliated by her husband's infidelity, while enduring the exposure of her own worst traits. People charmed by her at dinner parties evidently were lucky they weren't working for her under the pressure of a failing campaign.
It's a mistake to think that we're seeing the real person when first we meet a public figure and just as big a mistake to think that we've understood a human being based only on her public life. Fame is a fun-house mirror, eternally distorting. I imagine that Edwards was never really the comet that she appeared to be years ago, and likely not quite the wreck she appeared to be at the end. Whoever she was, really, Elizabeth Edwards paid full price for her hopes and dreams.
David Von Drehle
A version of this story previously appeared on TIME.com on Dec. 7, 2010.