In 2006, Rielle Hunter, a former coke addict turned film-maker, became the mistress of US vice-presidential candidate John Edwards. From the time they met, life became a melodrama of lies and litigation, all played out against the backdrop of his wife’s cancer and death in 2010. Donal Lynch takes a look at Hunter’s just-published memoir.
Theirs was a love that could conquer all. Or at the very least a love that could brazen anything out. Not a wife dying of cancer, a sex tape, a federal corruption case nor a tacky paternity caper played out in public could split up John Edwards and Rielle Hunter. But just recently, in the wake of her explosive memoir — What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter And Me — the pair finally decided to call time on their affair. No reasons were given but perhaps the former vice-presidential candidate, like much of America, had watched horrified as Hunter went on national television and portrayed his deceased and all-but-sanctified ex-spouse Elizabeth as a shrill, controlling harpy. Or perhaps things just weren't as exciting when they were all out in the open.
The announcement marked the final chapter in a sordid tale that has transfixed America and provided a curious epilogue to Hunter's score-settling book, which reads like some long-forgotten episode of Dallas. What has been really shocking is Hunter's willingness to break the final taboo by confronting the ghost of Elizabeth Edwards. In her book she calls Elizabeth, who passed away after a struggle with cancer in late 2010, a “witch on wheels” and accuses her of “using her cancer and [her children] Emma and Jack as weapons in the war against a father trying to take care of his daughter”. On American TV the quotes were emblazoned over images of Elizabeth's casket at her funeral. It was little wonder that Rielle and John were sarcastically known as “America's sweethearts”.
Despite her professed inexpertise at home-wrecking, she was a mistress who seemed to know the look and the lines. By the time they met, in 2006, Hunter, a blonde former cocaine-addict in her early 40s, had dedicated herself to “spiritual growth”. Already once divorced, the occasional film-maker lived in South Orange, New Jersey, with her best friend and the friend's two sons. She was on her way back from another fruitless business meeting in downtown Manhattan when her friend contacted her and suggested they stop into Loews Regency Hotel for a drink. There, at the bar, they ran into the entourage of John Edwards, a slick and shifty southern lawyer who had been John Kerry's running mate during the 2004 presidential race. Hunter had the impression that Edwards was a “geek” and “deep as a puddle” but now she found herself magnetised by his aura of power. She greeted him with a line worthy of a pulp-fiction gold digger: “You are so hot!” In Hunter's misty, new-age logic, she could offer Edwards at least as much as he could give her. She wanted to make him “more aware” so that he could see his own “mind patterns”. Nevertheless, her seduction process was something less than spiritual. Within a few hours, she had delivered herself like room service to his hotel room and the euphoria of landing a man she felt she had fallen for was “intoxicating, magnetic and so forceful”. “He took the lead,” she recalls but the swiftness with which she began using (with his consent) his ATM card to withdraw thousands of dollars in cash was remarkable.
When Edwards ran for vice-president in 2004, he vowed to bring the two Americas — rich and poor — closer together. The Kerry-Edwards ticket floundered in a late wave of Republican support and the poverty gap never got any smaller. Meanwhile, the various strands of Edwards' own secret lives never quite managed to knit together. Hunter would soon discover that she was not the only girlfriend — Edwards sheepishly admitted he had been conducting long-term relationships with three other women; one in Florida, one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles. It was these women whom Hunter considered her greatest competition — she was tormented by the fact that Edwards still received calls from one of them, even after he claimed to have ended the relationship with her. Indeed, it is several chapters into her book before Elizabeth Edwards' name is even mentioned. Initially, even the politician's handlers and aides were a bigger irritant than the wife to his new mistress. They balked when she was installed as a campaign videographer, whose job, conveniently, was to follow John Edwards.
Hunter was irritated that the political staffers who surrounded Edwards seemed to consider him to be some sort of idiot savant, capable of becoming the US president but incapable of organising his own life. Ironically Hunter was prepared to make similar excuses for her new boyfriend — she ascribed his every failing to other people.
Slowly, Hunter became more enmeshed in Edwards' life. There is a particularly creepy scene in her book in which she describes being introduced for the first time to his two children, Emma and Jack. At the end of the staged meeting in a department store, the little girl innocently wonders if they will ever see their “new friend” again. Hunter says she loved Emma “instantly” and later delights in the fact that Edwards buys presents for both mistress and child in the same shop. She would later pay Emma and Jack $5 each to do an interview on camera. And later still she would make a sex tape with their father.
According to Hunter, she pitied Elizabeth Edwards and held her mainly accountable for participating in the public fiction of the marriage. She cringed when John flew to Chicago to tape an episode of Oprah, promoting Elizabeth's book, Saving Graces. Doing so, Hunter felt, was tantamount to “lying to millions of people”. She privately seethed when he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic vice-presidential nomination and fumed when he decided to stay in the race despite Elizabeth's cancer, which in 2005 had been fought into remission, returning. Hunter recounts long phone calls in which Elizabeth would scream abuse at her (in Hunter's description) pliant, meek husband. She felt nauseated by his public description of his wife as “the most generous person I have ever met” and speculated that the psychological hold she had over him stemmed from the fact that they had lost a child together — 16-year-old Wade was killed in a car accident when high winds swept his jeep off a North Carolina motorway in 1996.
To be fair to Hunter, the Oprah-abetted image of Elizabeth as the long-suffering
martyr has been challenged elsewhere. In the book Game Change, authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote of her that “the nearly universal assessment” among campaign aides, “was that there was no one on the national stage for whom the disparity between public image and private reality was vaster or more disturbing”.
On the campaign trail, slowly but surely, the rumours about Hunter and Edwards trickled out. Elizabeth met these rumours head on: she and Edwards would have an extravagant wedding vow renewal ceremony — soon to be splashed across the pages of People magazine. Elizabeth would get confirmation of the affair when she discovered a mobile phone, which looked like John's work mobile, but which Rielle had bought him so they could stay in touch. Elizabeth called the phone to have Rielle pick up with the greeting, “Hey baby!” “And she hung up on me ...” Hunter recalls. “He calls me back a little later saying that it's over. We're done. I assumed that she was standing there when he said that and he was in a traumatic state. His worlds had just collided. And he hung up the phone. I didn't cry. I had the thought, ‘What do you mean we're over? We're just getting started.'.”
And they were. By the middle of the summer of 2007, Hunter was pregnant with Edwards's baby — they never used birth control together, she says. A staffer called Andrew Young would find out even before Edwards. She told Young the news in an effort to get in touch more quickly with the presidential candidate himself. When Edwards learned of the pregnancy, she was impressed that he did not ask her to get an abortion. Prosecutors unsuccessfully alleged at Edwards's recent trial that around this time vast sums of money were being paid for medical and travel expenses for Hunter.
In the meantime, however, there were more immediate problems. By autumn Hunter was visibly pregnant and The National Enquirer had paid a call to her friend Mimi's house. Hunter fled to North Carolina, where she would stay with Andrew Young and his wife, Cheri, whom Hunter despised. The Enquirer ran the story of the affair without naming Hunter, and, in her account, the mainstream media went into “a feeding frenzy”. In fact, the reaction to The Enquirer story was more muted than that — media observers put it down to the Edwardses' immediate and firm denial as well as the widespread sympathy for the cancer-stricken Elizabeth. In his own book, The Politician, Young would later write that Edwards had told him he wanted to leave “crazy” Elizabeth but felt he couldn't because she played better with American voters than he did.
Meanwhile, the media net was closing. In December 2007, The National Enquirer took a picture of Hunter in the car park of a Whole Foods supermarket in North Carolina. It was shortly thereafter that it was suggested that Young was the father instead. Elizabeth apparently thought that was a splendid idea. Hunter wept and wept and issued as many vague non-denials as she could to media enquiries. She claims she was browbeaten into making the statement: “Andrew Young is the father of my unborn child”, but her conscience wasn't overly troubled. The National Enquirer, she reasoned, was already full of lies. What was another, this time of her own scripting?
Frances Quinn Hunter was born on February 27, 2008, at exactly 9am, by caesarean section. Her mother would speak to John Edwards only by phone in the first few days after she was born — it would be late March before Edwards himself would see his child. Rielle later raged that her exit from the hospital in a wheelchair was broadcast by ABC. Meanwhile the mentions of the affair continued in the media. On July 21, 2008, Edwards had a 2am encounter with an Enquirer reporter at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, where Hunter was a guest, but Edwards himself was not. Edwards was forced to hide in a bathroom. A photograph from that night, which appears in Hunter's book, shows Edwards cuddling the baby, who is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Me For President'.
In August, with speculation mounting, Edwards would release a statement in which he admitted the affair but denied that he was the father of the child. Elizabeth would follow up with her own statement in which she acknowledged that John had “made a terrible mistake” but praised his “courage in the face of shame”. She dismissed claims that he had fathered Hunter's child as an “absurd tabloid fabrication”. “Although John believes he should stand alone and take the consequences of his action now,” she said, “when the door closes behind him, he has his family waiting for him.” Even as she became more seriously ill, she would revisit his infidelity, talking to Oprah Winfrey about it in 2009 and discussing it in another memoir. “Being sick meant a number of things to me,” she told Winfrey. “One is that my life is going to be less long, and I didn't want to spend it fighting.”
You could've fooled Hunter. Elizabeth, she says, was “hell bent on making my life as miserable as possible” and was involved in many decisions to do with her baby, including picking the house where they would live and attempting to have her sign an agreement stating she would never disclose Quinn's true paternity, except to the child herself. Edwards, meanwhile, was refusing to sign an affidavit swearing that the baby was not his. Andrew Young (described by former Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown as Edwards' “s**t-eating courtier”) meanwhile wrote The Politician — in which he claimed that Edwards knew all along that he, Edwards, was the father of the child. Eventually, Edwards signed a child-support agreement and went public with the statement: “I am Quinn's father. I will do everything in my power to provide her with the love and support she deserves ... It was wrong for me ever to deny she was my daughter.”
John and Elizabeth soon separated. Edwards' political career lay in ruins by then and throughout the year Elizabeth's cancer worsened. In the autumn, doctors advised her that it had spread from her breast area to her ribs, hip bones, lungs and liver and she decided against further treatment. She died on December 7, 2010.
Even with Elizabeth out of the picture, her enemies were multiplying. Federal prosecutors soon accused Edwards of orchestrating a scheme to use about $1m in secret payments from two wealthy political donors — Fred Baron and Rachel ‘Bunny' Mellon — to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
He would have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5m in fines if convicted of all charges. The case collapsed this year, however. Edwards was acquitted after the jury found him not guilty on one count that he accepted illegal campaign contributions. The jury deadlocked on five other similar counts, and mistrials were declared. On June 13 this year, the US justice Department announced that all charges against Edwards had been dropped.
But even with each of her foes vanquished in turn, there was to be no real happy ending for the woman they called ‘Man Hunter.' She is living out a quieter life with her daughter in Charlotte, North Carolina, and, before last week's statement about the end of their relationship, wrote that she wouldn't rule out marriage to Edwards. Her book finishes on an artificially positive, uplifting note of ‘no regrets' because she has “Johnny” and her daughter, the love of her life — “and, as sappy as it may sound, I love living in love”.
By the end of her memoir, however, it's difficult to find anyone to root for. Indeed, Woody Allen, whom she also quotes, had words, that perhaps more aptly frame the whole story: “Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a publishing deal.”