Carol Shepp grew up in Philadelphia. She first knew John McCain while he was attending the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis from 1954 to 1958. In 1958 she married one of his midshipman classmates, Alasdair E. Swanson, who had been a football and basketball star there. She and her husband, who became a Navy pilot, had two children, Douglas (born 1959) and Andrew (born 1962), and lived in Pensacola, Florida. The couple subsequently divorced in June 1964, after she sued him for infidelity. Five feet eight inches tall, Shepp was a swimsuit and runway model for Jantzen swimwear in Philadelphia.
Shepp met McCain again when he was stationed at the Naval Air Basic Training Command at Pensacola in 1964 and after her first divorce, they began dating. On July 3, 1965, Shepp married McCain in Philadelphia. The following year, John McCain adopted her two children. The McCains then had a daughter named Sidney in September 1966.
John McCain was shot down and badly injured over North Vietnam on October 26, 1967, beginning what would be five and a half years as a prisoner of war. During his captivity, she raised their children by herself in Orange Park, Florida, with the assistance of friends and neighbors in the Navy-oriented community. She sent frequent letters and packages to him, few of which the North Vietnamese let through. She became active in the POW/MIA movement, while those around her wore bracelets with her husband's name and capture date on them.
While visiting her family in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve 1969, Carol McCain skidded and crashed into a telephone pole as she was navigating icy, isolated country roads while driving alone. She was thrown from her car into the snow, going into shock. Hours later she was found and taken to Bryn Mawr Hospital. She had two smashed legs, a broken pelvis, broken arm, and a ruptured spleen. She spent six months in the hospital and underwent 23 operations over the following two years in order to rebuild her legs with rods and pins as well as undergo extensive physical therapy. She did not tell her husband about the accident in her letters, believing he already had enough to worry about, and the U.S. State Department warned her surgeon not to mention anything to the press, lest it worsen his treatment in captivity. Businessman and POW advocate Ross Perot paid for Carol's medical care, and she remained grateful, later remarking: "The military families are in Ross's heart and in his soul...There are millions of us who are extremely grateful to Ross Perot". Years after John found out about Perot's help, he said "we loved him for it". Carol was interviewed on CBS Evening News in 1970 and said Christmas had no meaning for her without her husband but that she carried on with it for their children.
The McCains were reunited upon his release from captivity on March 14, 1973. She was now four inches (ten centimeters) shorter, in a wheelchair or on crutches, and substantially heavier than when he had last seen her; he was also visibly hampered by his injuries and the mistreatment he had endured from the North Vietnamese. The McCains became frequent guests of honor at dinners hosted by Governor of California Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan, and the two couples became friendly. Carol McCain was the Clay County director for Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign, as he sought the Republican Party nomination. Her husband's assignments as executive officer, then commanding officer, of A-7 attack squadron VA-174 at NAS Cecil Field required the couple lead an active social life. Such engagements included entertaining other naval personnel at their Orange Park home and Ponte Vedra beach house.
The McCains' marriage began to falter due to his extramarital affairs. John McCain's next assignment was to the Senate Liaison Office within the Navy's Office of Legislative Affairs. The McCains separated briefly, then rejoined. His job was aided by the social life the couple conducted, entertaining Navy, government, and other people three to four nights a week at their Alexandria, Virginia home. During this time she worked for Congressman John H. Rousselot. By 1979, the McCains were still living together.
In April 1979, John McCain began a relationship with Cindy Lou Hensley, an Arizona special education teacher and Hensley & Co. heiress. John McCain pushed to end the marriage, and friends described Carol as being in shock. The McCains stopped cohabiting in January 1980; he filed for divorce in February 1980, which she accepted. When asked by a friend what had gone wrong, she said, "It's just one of those things." The uncontested divorce became official in Fort Walton Beach on April 2, 1980.
John McCain would later say, "My marriage's collapse was attributable to my own selfishness and immaturity more than it was to Vietnam, and I cannot escape blame by pointing a finger at the war. The blame was entirely mine." Carol McCain later said, "The breakup of our marriage was not caused by my accident or Vietnam or any of those things. I don't know that it might not have happened if John had never been gone. I attribute it more to John turning 40 and wanting to be 25 again than I do to anything else." McCain's biographer Robert Timberg believes that "Vietnam did play a part, perhaps not the major part, but more than a walk-on." According to Carol, her husband's five-year captivity in Vietnam had left him wanting to "make up for lost time", and John put it this way: "I had changed, she had changed ... People who have been apart that much change." Ross Perot later said, "After he came home, he walked with a limp, she [Carol McCain] walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona [Cindy McCain, his current wife] and the rest is history." Carol’s three children were initially upset with John McCain about the divorce, but later reconciled.
The divorce settlement afforded Carol McCain full custody of their three children, alimony, child support, including college tuition, houses in Virginia and Florida, and lifelong financial support for her continuing medical treatment from the car accident. John McCain and Hensley were married on May 17, 1980. Carol McCain was sued by Roberta McCain, John's mother, in 1980 for return of personal property; the suit was settled out of court in 1981.
Despite the divorce, Carol McCain has remained on good terms with John McCain and has supported him in all his subsequent political campaigns. She refused to discuss her marriage with an election opponent of McCain's in 1982 who was seeking negative information about him, telling the opponent that "a gentleman never would have called". She supported his 2008 presidential campaign and told The Mail on Sunday in June 2008 she was not bitter and that, "He’s a good guy. We are still good friends. He is the best man for president."
Carol McCain moved to La Mesa, California, where she lived for several months with the family of top Reagan associate Edwin Meese. She became a personal assistant to Nancy Reagan in fall 1979, working with her as a press assistant on Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign, and then worked on the 1980 Republican National Convention. She was director of the 1981 Reagan inaugural ball, and as the Reagan administration began, she handled scheduling for the First Lady and the Reagan children.
In 1981 she became Director of the White House Visitors Office. There she planned tours and dealt with the pleas of different groups for the limited slots available. She also dealt with demands from Washington officials, including a dispute regarding tour slots between Nancy Reagan and New York Congressman Thomas Downey. About the pressures of her job, she said cheerfully: "I'm always in tears, but I love the job. I'm really having a ball." During the early 1980s recession, she declared that the White House tours were fully booked even when other Washington attractions saw declining attendance; her office processed well over one million visits a year. She was a well-liked presence on the Washington social scene.
Between 1981 and 1986, she greatly expanded the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, adding participatory activities and doubling the size of the crowds attending. The Washington Post likened her "extravaganza-loving" event style to that of Cecil B. DeMille. She was also involved in planning South Lawn State Arrival Ceremonies, as well as a national Christmas celebration.
She left the White House Visitors Office position in January 1987 to join Philadelphia-based We the People 200, Inc., which was the organization planning the celebration for the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution that year. She was named programming director, part of We the People 200's senior management team. The bicentennial project was already troubled by lack of corporate financial sponsorship and persistent internal conflicts; the high salaries of McCain and other senior staff came under some criticism, but were defended by the organization's president as justified based upon age and experience.
By 1990, she was a spokesperson for Washington, Inc., a large event planning company. During 1991, she was a spokesperson for the Desert Storm Homecoming Foundation, which held a $12 million victory celebration and memorial in Washington in June 1991 following the conclusion of the Gulf War and Operation Desert Storm. She later worked in press relations for the National Soft Drink Association in Washington.
In 2003, Carol McCain retired and moved to a bungalow in Virginia Beach. She did not marry again, but she did have several relationships. She continues to have difficulty walking as a result of her accident four decades earlier.