As the time neared for Elizabeth Edwards to look into the round face and blue eyes of the little girl whose conception shattered her 32-year marriage, she turned first to her comfort zone—shopping—and then did something most betrayed wives would find unimaginable. “She gave it a lot of thought, wrapped up a bunch of Christmas presents, took them to the baby and was so pleased when Quinn made a beeline to the toy carriage and doll,” says Elizabeth’s sister Nancy Anania, describing the December meeting in a North Carolina hotel room overseen by an intermediary. “She even said to Quinn, ‘Go stand next to Daddy.’ And she took a picture. I don’t know how she could do that. She just has a big heart.”
But the tenderness of that forgiving family portrait belies today’s reality: Elizabeth has called it quits, and John has moved out. “She said ‘I’ve had it. I can’t do this. I want my life back,'” Anania tells PEOPLE. “A long marriage is a tough habit to break, and when you throw in incurable cancer and young children, it makes you waver. But I hear peace in her voice that I haven’t heard in a long time.”
Elizabeth, 60, who is still undergoing cancer treatment, has had divorce papers at the ready for a year. Whether or not she files likely depends on her health, a source says.
But why now, three years after he first confessed the affair to his wife? The Edwardses’ marriage had already weathered the death of son Wade in 1996 and Elizabeth’s cancer diagnosis. The drama of recent days might seem to be a last straw, but their separation predates John’s Jan. 21 statement—”I am Quinn’s father”—acknowledging paternity of 23-month-old Frances Quinn Hunter, his child with a videographer on his presidential campaign. And it is unrelated to a January tabloid report that John hit on a woman in a Wilmington, Del., bar. (Elizabeth, says a friend, “dismissed it. She was like ‘I know that lady; she’s been our waitress before.'”)
Instead, there has been a lingering doubt on her part, and frustration on his, say friends. “Elizabeth is now a bit mistrustful, which she has every right to be,” says John confidant Michael Cucchiara. “And John feels like ‘I can’t live with you checking my cell phone, asking who I was with, where I went. That’s not how I want to live the rest of my life.’ I think they realized she still doesn’t trust him and therefore they shouldn’t live together until she can.” Adds Anania: “Most of the time, he is really sweet and nice to her. It comes down to, ‘Okay, what’s the last lie you told me?'”
Even after learning of John’s infidelity in December 2006, she stuck with her husband, both as a spouse and a contender for the White House. The couple stood united as voters and even staffers who had once embraced candidate John Edwards—who ran on an anti-poverty pledge to end the “two Americas”—turned away when he was revealed to be, ironically, living two lives. Once upon a time, “John was a guy who would go back to his room and watch a ball game or call Elizabeth or his kids,” says Harrison Hickman, who has known John since his days as a trial lawyer. But over time, “he started to think the rules didn’t apply to him.”
Some wondered if she stayed in the marriage out of political ambition. When her cancer returned four months after John’s private confession, Elizabeth stood bravely smiling at her husband’s side, supporting his decision to stay in the race. “I’ve always wondered why in March 2007, John and Elizabeth, who both knew about the affair, didn’t say, ‘This is a safe exit now from the campaign,'” says Hickman. Others accepted that she stayed for their children’s sake—or just maybe there was still love between these troubled spouses. As recently as last May Elizabeth wrote in her memoir, Resilience, “I am his and he is mine.”
Today things are different. After sharing what Anania describes as a “really nice” Christmas with kids Jack, 9, Emma Claire, 11, and Cate, 27, Elizabeth and John quietly separated. She is living in their Chapel Hill, N.C., mansion, while he divides his time between an annex they call “the barn,” and their beach house 160 miles away.
Although upset by the split, which some of his friends describe as just “for now,” John, 56, is relieved to have come clean on Quinn’s paternity and gotten past the awkwardness of introducing the girl not only to Elizabeth but to his parents, Wallace and Bobbie Edwards, who live in Robbins, N.C. “She’s a gift,” says Wallace, 77. “It was important to John that she had the same upbringing, love and care that his other children have had.” Bobbie, 76, says they’ve also met Quinn’s mother, Rielle Hunter, 45. “She’s been very gracious about letting us visit Quinn whenever we wanted.” John has been paying child support the past year but had not until Jan. 20 reached an agreement giving him “liberal visitation” and Hunter primary custody and undisclosed monetary support (she had sought $18,000 per month).
With Elizabeth accompanying him on the real-estate rounds, John bought a $535,000 Charlotte, N.C., home for Hunter and Quinn. (Hunter refused to comment.) Hunter and John have no contact on the advice of their attorneys—and because “that’s been a deal breaker for Elizabeth,” says Cucchiara. “He’s deeply in love with Elizabeth and would love to make it work out.”
For Elizabeth, making her peace with Quinn is about paving the way for her children to have a relationship with this new half sibling. “She’s looking to the future, when she won’t be here,” says close friend Suzanne Hultman. Cate, a law clerk in Virginia, is according to one who knows her, “still angry” about her father’s affair. The children have not yet met the baby. Some time ago, says Cucchiara, John told Jack and Emma, “You’re going to hear some stuff, so I want you to know we do have another member of our family. Whenever you think you are ready to meet her, you tell me. But I’m not going to force her on you.”
What he can’t control as well is the stream of accusations about the family brought about by the book Game Change, which paints a portrait of Elizabeth as a scheming political spouse. She has refused to come to her own defense, but John was livid, says Cucchiara. “The other day he said to me, ‘Kick me, don’t kick Elizabeth. She doesn’t deserve to be dragged through the mud with me.'” There is more to come. A federal grand jury is looking into whether payments to Hunter violated campaign finance laws. And hitting bookshelves on Jan. 30 is The Politician, a tell-all by former campaign aide Andrew Young, who has alleged that John paid him to say Quinn was his baby. In an interview for 20/20, he says John asked him to arrange a fake DNA test and reportedly claims to have a sex tape of John and Rielle. If Young is seen as credible, perception of the once political golden boy may get worse. Already, says John’s lawyer Wade Smith, “his life has fallen apart. He recognizes that he has been at fault.”
Now, he is trying to do good where he can. He was in Haiti, wrangling evacuations to Florida for earthquake victims. Normally, he’s driving carpool for Jack and Emma. John’s unpopularity is so universal, says Hickman, “he’s a marked man right now, where the only thing he can do is take his kids to school.”
Elizabeth, on the other hand, suddenly sees a wider world. Though she sometimes walks stiffly and wonders aloud whether it could mean a new tumor on her spine, her sister says the stage 4 cancer is mostly at bay, but for “a few new little spots, really small.” She’s running a furniture store, taking a painting class and venturing onto Facebook. Her inaugural posting went up two days after John’s statement forced her back into headlines. Quoting Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, she writes of “undertaking the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days.” Echoing her sister’s wish that Elizabeth reclaim an identity separate from John’s, she talks of old friends and reconnecting the parts of her life that predated her marriage. Finally, she writes, “So I have begun.”