January 12, 2009 by

Cornelia Wallace


Categories: Government

Cornelia Wallace was a beauty queen, a singer, a mother and a socially-active governor’s wife, but Southerners will always remember her for a split second decision she made in 1972. For when her husband was shot at a political rally, Cornelia threw herself over his fallen form in an effort to comfort and protect him from additional bullets.
Before she became the first lady of Alabama, Cornelia Ellis was simply known as “C’nelia.” Born in Elba, Ala., she studied voice and piano at Methodist Huntingdon College and Rollins College, and placed in the semifinals of the Miss Alabama contest. As a young woman, Cornelia performed with country singer Roy Acuff, recorded two songs (“It’s No Summer Love” and “Baby With the Barefoot Feet”) for MGM and starred in a water ski show in Cypress Gardens, Fla., but a full-time career in the entertainment field remained just out of reach. While the dark-haired beauty did catch the eye of millionaire John Snively III, whom she married and bore two sons before their divorce in 1969, Cornelia’s place in history actually began at a party when she was only 8 years old.
The event was held at the governor’s mansion, where her uncle, Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, held court. There she encountered George Corley Wallace Jr., a hard-line segregationist and state legislator 19 years her senior. At the time, Wallace was married to his first wife, Lurleen, who became Alabama’s first and only female governor in 1967. But when Lurleen died of cancer a year and half into her term, Lt. Gov. Albert Brewer took over. Despite political pressure from President Richard M. Nixon to opt out of the race, Wallace challenged Brewer for the job and won it in 1971. Two weeks before the gubernatorial inauguration, he wed Cornelia, a move that did not endear the public to her.
While Cornelia was totally committed to Wallace and his career, most of the state’s residents preferred his first wife. Public opinion of Cornelia changed in 1972 when Wallace decided to run for president on the Democratic ticket. On May 15, 1972, at a campaign stop in Laurel, Md., would-be assassin Arthur Bremer shot Wallace four times, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Cornelia’s instinctive decision to protect him — and her loyalty to him during his long recovery — showed the true measure of her devotion.
After the assassination attempt, Cornelia vowed to carry on his presidential campaign until he was well enough to do so. Taped conversations between Wallace and another woman tempered this effort, as did his depressed and angry outbursts. The couple divorced in 1978, and Wallace died 20 years later. In 1997, their story served as the focus of the TV movie, “George Wallace,” starring Gary Sinise and Angelina Jolie. Although the role earned Jolie a Golden Globe for best supporting actress, Cornelia was reportedly dissatisfied with the way she was portrayed.
Cornelia entered the Democratic primary for governor in 1978, but she put on a weak campaign and finished last among 13 candidates. After the election, she retired to central Florida to spend more time with her children.
Wallace died on Jan. 8 of cancer. She was 69.

4 Responses to Cornelia Wallace

  1. kristin nicolai

    I had the chance to meet this wonderful woman while she had a brief, but memmorible stay at the nursing home i work at. She was such an inspiration to everyone and will be greatly missed, i feel truely blessed to have gotten the chance to interact and socialize with this woman, and she will be greatly missed!We love you Cornelia!

  2. Woody

    I had the chance to meet her in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was a friend of my father David Marks. I was visiting my fathers home there. Mrs Wallace was beautiful. She was funny and telling great stories and interested in what I had to say. This would have been around 1980. She was living in a house with some guys that painted portraits of famous people. We had dinner with her in in the Forum Building on Palm Beach Lakes Blvd. She talked about how she missed George. She told a story of how she was able to meet Rose Kennedy. Seems Mrs Kennedy would walk real late at night on this certain part of Palm Beach. Cornelia said that she went there and walked with her one night. She was one of the most naturally beautiful women I have ever seen ..up close.
    What has she been doing the last 30 years?

  3. Sara Sottile

    I also had the privilage to work with her. while she staied at a nursin home i work at. she was a wonder full talented woman who never lost her sperit she will be greatly missed

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