Image: George and Cornelia Wallace
AP
Then-Alabama first lady Cornelia Wallace joins Gov. George Wallace at his hospital bed in Silver Springs, Md., on May 17, 1972, two days after he was shot.
updated 1/9/2009 3:55:42 PM ET 2009-01-09T20:55:42

Former Alabama first lady Cornelia Wallace, who threw herself over Gov. George C. Wallace when he was shot in a 1972 assassination attempt, has died in Sebring, Fla. She was 69.

Wallace's cousin, Melissa Boyen, said the former first lady died Thursday from cancer.

Cornelia Wallace was the niece of two-term Gov. James E. "Big Jim" Folsom. The dark-haired beauty, known simply as "C'nelia," married George Wallace on Jan. 4, 1971 — just days before he began his second term as governor. It was the second marriage for both.

The union marked a merger between Alabama's two most famous political families and surprised some because George Wallace had defeated Jim Folsom in the 1962 race for governor and the relationship between the two governors had been strained since then.

Cornelia Wallace was a socially active first lady known for her lively personality. But for many, the most lasting memory of her occurred on May 15, 1972.

She was accompanying her husband on the Democratic campaign trail for president when Arthur Bremer shot him four times at a campaign rally in Laurel, Md. A news camera captured photos of Cornelia Wallace throwing herself over her husband's body to shield him as he lay bleeding in a shopping center parking lot.

"She's etched in Alabamians' memory because of the tragedy of that," said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.

'Totally devoted to him'
William Stewart, a longtime political scientist at the University of Alabama, said he remains impressed by her bravery during the shooting and her loyalty to her husband during his long recovery from the wounds that left his legs paralyzed.

"I don't know if he would have made it without her," Stewart said. "She was totally devoted to him. It was beautiful to see."

Turnham recalled that as first lady, she urged Alabamians to plant vegetable gardens to be more self-reliant. To help her make her point, his father, former state Rep. Pete Turnham, D-Auburn, and others joined her in planting a vegetable garden in the back yard of the Governor's Mansion in Montgomery.

The Wallaces divorced in 1978, amid claims she had bugged his phone in the Governor's Mansion. She entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1978 but never campaigned hard and finished last among the 13 candidates. She later moved to central Florida to be near her sons from her previous marriage.

Angelina Jolie portrayed her
In 1997, Turner Network Television made "George Wallace" and cast actress Angelina Jolie to portray Cornelia Wallace. The role earned Jolie a Golden Globe award for best supporting actress in a TV movie or miniseries, but Wallace criticized the script for portraying her as a shallow sex kitten.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Survivors include a brother, Charles Ellis of Elba; and her sons, James Snively of Lake Placid, Fla., and Joshua Snively of Winter Haven, Fla.

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