Elaine Edwards, the first wife of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and longest-serving First Lady of Louisiana, died Monday. She was 89.
Edwin Edwards biographer Leo Honeycutt confirmed Mrs. Edwards died of respiratory problems. She was at the home of her daughter, Victoria, in Denham Springs, he said. Her son, Stephen, said in a statement that Mrs. Edwards died after a "protracted illness," with her four children at her side.
Mrs. Edwards, who was First Lady during the former governor's historic four terms in office, also served three months in Congress as a U.S. Senator appointed by her husband on an interim basis in 1971.
Like Edwin Edwards, Mrs. Edwards, born Elaine Schwartzenburg, grew up in Marksville, La. The two were high school sweethearts and married soon after graduating from Marksville High School in 1949. Young Edwin was a lawyer who had not yet begun his political career, which would include a stint on the Crowley, La. city council and as state senator, and then member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In a statement, the former governor called his ex-wife "a great asset to me as Governor."
"She spent a great deal of time raising funds for the crippled children's hospital in New Orleans which was named for my mother," Edwin Edwards said. "I am very grateful and appreciate the expression of sympathy from so many mutual friends."
During their marriage, Elaine Edwards raised the couple's four children (Anna, Victoria, Stephen and David) and was active in Edwin's political campaigns throughout the years, which culminated in his being elected governor in 1971.
A year later, Edwards appointed his then-wife to the U.S. Senate, to replace Sen. Allen Ellender, who died in office. The move was controversial but not uncommon. The governor claimed that the appointment was a "meaningful, symbolic gesture" against decades of discrimination of women in politics." She pledged not to run for a full term but endured questions about her qualifications.
She was initially reluctant to accept the post, admitting to The Washington Post at one point, "I never wanted to be liberated from sewing, cooking, or even gardening." The New York Times and other critics described it as a "hollow interim appointment" and also decried the fact that Edwards's "function…will be to represent other women by supinely taking orders—and from men at that."
According to an online history published by the House, in Congress, Mrs. Edwards served on the Agriculture and Forestry Committee and the Public Works Committee. "She joined Senator Hubert Humphrey in introducing a bill to establish an educational fellowship in Senator Ellender's name that appropriated $500,000 in fellowships for low–income high school students and teachers," according to the article. She said she took particular pride in securing federal funding for highways in Louisiana, including a 70/30 federally financed toll road.
"My proudest moment was convincing members of the Public Works Committee to vote funds for a north–south highway to connect the two east–west interstates in Louisiana," Edwards once said. "Now the prospects are very real that we can lure much–needed industry to the central part of the state."
She resigned the seat in 1972 and provided Senator–elect J. Bennett Johnston an edge in seniority by finishing the remainder of Ellender's term.
She returned to Louisiana as First Lady during her husband's terms in office, 1972 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1988. The couple divorced in 1989 after 40 years of marriage. Edwards went on to marry twice after their divorce, and have another son with his current wife Trina.
"We cannot revive the dead or change the past," Edwin Edwards said in his statement Monday. "I know she was very sick and suffered tremendously for the past few months and while her passing is sad, death was inevitable. My sympathy to my children. I have expressed and appreciate their loyalty to their mother."
In a statement Monday, Stephen Edwards said, "Our mother was a dedicated servant to the state she loved so dearly. She will be remembered as a true matriarch of our family, a philanthropist and the embodiment of class. In the recent days before her passing, she asked that I thank the people of the State of Louisiana for such a wonderful life."
Current Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and First Lady Donna Edwards, who share no family relation to Elaine Edwards, also released a statement expressing their condolences and prayers to the family.
"She served this state as the first lady and the country as a U.S. Senator with class, compassion and a true commitment to the people of Louisiana. As the matriarch of her family, she imparted great wisdom and leaves behind a remarkable legacy of giving back to others and a dedication to public service. Her love for this state and its citizens will be long remembered," Gov. John Bel Edwards said.
First Lady Donna Edwards said Elaine Edwards left a mark as the longest serving first lady of Louisiana.
"She certainly set the stage for those who have been blessed to serve in the same capacity. We were fortunate to interview her and learn more about the history of the Governor’s Mansion and the story behind the beautiful magnolias she needlepointed for several chairs here. In fact, they became the inspiration for our upcoming book Memories in the Mansion. She was a true inspiration, and we look forward to sharing more of her contributions to our great state soon," First Lady Donna Edwards said.