Sunday, February 19, 2023

Melody Miller, R.I.P. (NY Times, WaPo)

I just learned that one of my most beloved mentors, Ms. Melody Miller died last year.   Today would have been her 78th birthday. Melody Miller was one of my mentors in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy (Best. Senator. Ever.) 

When I was a beardless youth of 17.5, from 1974-76, I interned in Senator Kennedy's mailroom 2.5 days a week. Ms. Miller was our receptionist, who eventually worked her way up to be Chief of Staff by the time Sen. Kennedy died in 2009.  There were three hour-long network specials on Sen. Kennedy's death, including one on CBS featuring Ms. Miller. 

It was Ms. Melody Miller taught me how to answer a telephone.  I would substitute for her when she was at lunch, fielding some of the numerous telephone calls on the huge Call Director® telephone at the receptionist desk, constantly ringing and blinking, with dozens of telephone lines and buttons, with a huge cable connecting it to the world over AT&T's phone system, a telephone as big as the one that once sat on President Lyndon Johnson's desk.  We'd answer by the third ring, always conscious that our constituents and other callers ad visitor appreciated a friendly voice, accompanied by a smile.   We'd talk while I waited for errands and other work assignments.  

Ms. Miller's effervescent personality reminded me of what Sir Winston Spencer Church said  about Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "meeting [her] was like opening your first bottle of champagne. Knowing [her] was like drinking it."

My EMK office nickname was "Fast Eddie."  It was Ms. Melody Miller who gave me my nickname, based upon the rapidity with which I could walk and run errands around Capitol Hill, despite my juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, sometimes walking a mile or two around the Capitol campus. Unlike other lallygagging college interns, I always swiftly returned to the mailroom, where I shared what Lincoln would call "public opinion baths," autopenning Ted Kennedy signaures on legislative correspondence and reading and sorting some of the 2000+ letters per day that Senator Kennedy received, and later working for the late incomparable staffers Mary Murtagh, on ending pelagic whaling, or for Susan Reilly-Katz on casework and grants.

Ms. Melody Miller taught me about politics, love, life, the lore of the United States Senate, and the Kennedy family.  She was kind and generous, with cool friends (like the late Hal Holbrook) -- she once gave another intern and I (Chris from the University of Santa Clara in California) tickets to see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts), where we had V.I.P. box seats looking right out upon the stage.  

On Facebook in 2020, Ms. Miller recalled her 1975 lunch meeting with Senator Joe Biden, who pondered resigning from the Senate to take care of his boys, who lost their mother and sister in a tragic truck-car wreck.  Meeting in the cafeteria in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Building, Ms. Miller and a former Kennedy staffer working for Senator Biden, helped persuade Joe Biden to stay the course and stay in the Senate. Thank God!

Like me, Ms. Miller was drawn to public service by the example of John F. Kennedy, who was assasinated  while she was a college student and when I was six years old.  

Ms. Miller worked for the Kennedy family for some 40 years, and was the last person to turn off the lights in RFK's office.  She was a light in my life, and others. 

I miss her. 

More on EMK here: and here:

From The New York Times and The Washington Post:

Melody Miller, Trusted Aide to the Kennedys, Dies at 77

She worked with the family for over 40 years, mostly for Senator Ted Kennedy. But her duties went far beyond the office.

Melody Miller in a black and white photo holding a phone to her ear with a bulletin board on the wall next to her.
Melody Miller in 1979, when she ran the reception for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Over time her unofficial duties expanded.Credit...Harrity/Associated Press
Melody Miller in a black and white photo holding a phone to her ear with a bulletin board on the wall next to her.

There are Kennedy family loyalists, and then there was Melody Miller.

As a college intern, she helped Jacqueline Kennedy handle the unending bags of condolence letters and gifts that poured in after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963. Five years later, as an aide to Robert F. Kennedy, she was the last person to turn out the lights in his Senate office after he, too, was assassinated.

She then spent nearly 40 years working for the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward M. Kennedy, known as Ted, with a short list of official titles and an endless run of unofficial duties: Senate speechwriter, presidential campaign adviser, personal confidante and gatekeeper. Once, when a man called threatening to kill the senator, she kept him on the phone for 45 minutes, until the F.B.I. could trace the line.

She helped organize the 100th birthday for Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch, and handled the press at Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s funeral in New York. She filled out the touch-football teams at Hickory Hill, the Kennedy enclave in Northern Virginia, and assembled presents for the Kennedy children on Christmas Eve.

She knew secrets and intimate details. She knew about plans for John F. Kennedy Jr.’s 1996 wedding to Carolyn Bessette, information kept from even many family members. She knew that Ted Kennedy had provided a confidential back channel between Soviet leaders and the Reagan White House. She also knew that the senator was one of the few people that Elizabeth Taylor allowed to call her Liz.

Ms. Miller, who was found dead on Nov. 8 at her home in Washington, spent her entire career working for the Kennedys, becoming an unofficial member of America’s most storied political clan. She was 77.

Her brother, Rockley Miller, confirmed the death, from a heart attack.

Ms. Miller wearing a black blazer and white shirt and seated at a table with her left hand raised as she speaks.
Ms. Miller in 2005, the year she retired from Ted Kennedy’s office.Credit...Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call, via Getty Images
Ms. Miller wearing a black blazer and white shirt and seated at a table with her left hand raised as she speaks.

Ms. Miller’s first encounter with the Kennedys came during her senior year in high school, in Arlington, Va. She was a self-professed jock, mostly interested in basketball, but turned to politics after hearing John Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric about service and sacrifice. Inspired, she made a ceramic bust of the president, only to have it explode in the kiln.

She was interning on the weekends for a New Mexico Democrat, Representative Joseph Montoya, whose office passed along the story of her enthusiasm to the White House. President Kennedy himself asked to meet her.

“The door opened and there was President Kennedy,” Ms. Miller recalled in a 2008 interview for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “Incandescent was the only word I could use for him. There was a glow all around him, the summer tan, the chestnut hair, the wonderful gliding way he moved.”

They chatted about her sculpture — she had remade it and brought it to the meeting — and about her desire to work on his forthcoming campaign. He signed her copy of his book “Profiles in Courage” and gave her a bracelet commemorating his service on the PT-109 torpedo boat during World War II.

“That was one of the most treasured 20 minutes of my life,” she told the Miller Center.

After the president was killed, she worked for his widow, and then for his younger brother Robert’s 1964 Senate campaign. Following his victory, she interned in his office on Capitol Hill.

By then she was in college, at Penn State, but she was already marking territory as a Kennedy diehard. Whenever she came home on vacation, even for just a few days, she would make sure to put in time, if only to run a few errands or handle some mail. Or she might head to Hickory Hill to round up some of Robert Kennedy’s many young children.

Ms. Miller wearing sunglasses and a white jacket and sitting on a boat next to Ted Kennedy, who is steering.
Ms. Miller with Ted Kennedy, with whom she worked for nearly 40 years in a variety of capacities.Credit...Miller family
Ms. Miller wearing sunglasses and a white jacket and sitting on a boat next to Ted Kennedy, who is steering.

It was the 37 years she spent working for Ted — first as a press and legislative aide, and later as a deputy press secretary — that made her a Kennedy in all but name. Always perfectly coifed and immaculately dressed, Ms. Miller radiated the easy grace so long associated with the family, not to mention their easy, confident competence.

Anything could happen in Senator Kennedy’s office, and anyone might drop by for a visit. Ms. Miller handled it all during her first decade on the job, when she ran the reception. A drop-in once slapped her hard across the face, for no clear reason. Another time the actor Paul Newman swung by to say hello to the senator and ended up chatting with Ms. Miller.

“I don’t mean to be tooting my own horn,” she told the Miller Center, “but I did know how to defend him on the issues, explain his issues, juggle 628 phone calls a day coming through, and put people on hold and get back to them and pick up on the conversation where I had been before.”

All the while, her unofficial duties expanded. Senator Kennedy listened to her, and took to heart her concerns about his intention to run for president in 1980. In a way, the presidency had killed two of his older brothers, she argued.

During one conversation, he seemed lost in thought, she recalled.

“Where are you?” she asked him. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m somewhere between happiness and sadness,” he replied, “and life and death.”

He ran in the primaries against President Jimmy Carter. When he lost, Ms. Miller said, she was quietly relieved.

Ms. Miller in a dress suit holding a white purse while standing next to John F. Kennedy and smiling at the camera.
Ms. Miller in 1963, when she first met John F. Kennedy at the White House. Later that year she would help his widow sift through unending bags of condolence letters.Credit...via Miller family
Ms. Miller in a dress suit holding a white purse while standing next to John F. Kennedy and smiling at the camera.

Melody Jean Miller was born on Feb. 19, 1945, in Seattle. Her father, Peter Miller, served in the Navy during World War II and later moved the family to the Washington, D.C., area, where he worked for the Veterans Administration. Her mother, Dorothy Jean (Chittenden) Miller, was a nurse.

Not long after Melody’s first meeting with President Kennedy, she went off to Pennsylvania State University with plans to work for his re-election campaign over the following summer.

She was in her dorm room on Nov. 22, 1963, preparing for history class, when she learned that the president had been shot. She put on a black dress and went to watch the news on TV.

“His loss was the greatest grief I have ever known,” she told The New York Times in 2013, “even more so than the loss of family members with whom I had a long goodbye.”

She studied education and political science, and after graduating in 1967 went to work immediately for Robert Kennedy as a press aide, first in his Senate office and then on his presidential campaign.

Her first two marriages, to Paul McElligott and James Rogers, ended in divorce. In 1997, she married William P. Wilson, a former aide to John Kennedy who had negotiated the terms of Kennedy’s historic first televised debate with Richard M. Nixon in 1960. He died in 2014.

Along with her brother, she is survived by her stepdaughter, Eliza Wilson Ingle, and three step-granddaughters.

When Ms. Miller retired from Ted Kennedy’s office in 2005, a reception took place in the Russell Senate Office Building Caucus Room, the same room where John Kennedy had announced his presidential bid in 1960 and where Robert Kennedy announced his own eight years later. After Ted Kennedy’s death, the room was renamed in the brothers’ honor.

“That room is very special for me,” Ms. Miller told the Washington newspaper Roll Call, her eyes dewy with tears. “I can think of no more special room from which to depart.”

A correction was made on 
Nov. 29, 2022

An earlier version of this obituary misstated Ms. Miller’s date of birth. She was born on Feb. 19, 1945 not Feb. 2.

When we learn of a mistake, we acknowledge it with a correction. If you spot an error, please let us know at more

Clay Risen is an obituaries reporter for The Times. Previously, he was a senior editor on the Politics desk and a deputy op-ed editor on the Opinion desk. He is the author, most recently, of “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey.” @risenc

A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 2, 2022, Section A, Page 20 of the New York edition with the headline: Melody Miller, 77, an Adviser and Confidante for One Kennedy After AnotherOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe


Melody Miller, trusted assistant to Kennedy family, dies at 77 

She spent 37 years on the staff of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and served as a spokesperson and gatekeeper to one of the most powerful dynasties in American politics

Melody J. Miller was a longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images)
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A previous version of this article misreported the source of an oral history provided by Melody J. Miller. Ms. Miller provided the oral history to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, not to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate. This version has been corrected. 

Melody J. Miller was 18 years old, just shy of graduating from high school in Arlington, Va., when President John F. Kennedy invited her to meet him at the White House.

She had recently sculpted a bust of Kennedy in art class, but her work shattered in the kiln. When she painstakingly restored her piece to the president’s likeness, a local newspaper took note of her effort. A clipping of the article reached the president’s desk, and before she knew it, Ms. Miller found herself in the Cabinet Room, her sculpture of Kennedy in tow. Precisely how the visit came about she would not learn for years.

“ ‘Incandescent’ was the only word I could use for him,” Ms. Miller recalled years later of her meeting with the president. Kennedy complimented her handiwork, signed her copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles in Courage,” posed for a photograph and asked if she might like to run for Congress someday. When Ms. Miller volunteered to work on what was to be Kennedy’s 1964 reelection campaign, he replied, “Absolutely.”

That visit — six months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — accounted for what Ms. Miller described as perhaps “the most treasured 20 minutes” of her life. She went on to work for the Kennedy family for four decades, including 37 years on the staff of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), becoming a trusted assistant to one of the most powerful dynasties in American politics.

Ms. Miller, 77, was found dead Nov. 8 at her home in Washington. The cause was an apparent heart attack, said her brother, Rockley Miller.

A self-described “jock,” Ms. Miller was planning to be a gym teacher before President Kennedy ignited her interest in public service with his call in his 1961 inaugural address to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

She recalled Kennedy’s assassination as “probably the greatest grief I’ve ever known in my life.” It was also “a shock,” she said in an oral history with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, “because at 18 … life is all before you and everybody is invincible.”

After Kennedy’s death, Ms. Miller worked as a college student in the office of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, filing the sympathy letters that poured in from across the country and sorting the toys mourners had mailed to the slain president’s children, Caroline and John, she told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.

Ms. Miller subsequently worked as a press aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), the late president’s brother, and on his 1968 presidential campaign. After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of that year, she joined the Senate office of Ted Kennedy, the youngest Kennedy brother.

Ms. Miller takes phone calls in the office of U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1979. (Associated Press)

Ms. Miller served on his staff as a press and legislative aide, as well as deputy press secretary for his unsuccessful campaign for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. But her role with the senator and his family was by all accounts what she described as “staff-plus.”

“There was nobody more well-versed on everything ‘Kennedy’ than Melody Miller, and nobody more devoted,” Eleanor Clift, a longtime Washington journalist and friend of Ms. Miller, said in an interview.

Ms. Miller was frequently on hand — whether in Washington, at their compound in Hyannis Port on Cape Cod or elsewhere — in times of celebration and loss.

When John F. Kennedy Jr. married Carolyn Bessette in 1996, Ms. Miller deployed her savvy to help maintain the secrecy of the event, according to Roll Call.

Three years later, when the couple and Bessette’s sister died in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard, Ms. Miller acted as a spokesperson, responding to the flood of press inquires about the latest tragedy to befall the Kennedy family. She became intimately acquainted with their grief, especially Ted Kennedy’s.

“Edward Kennedy has not been able to form scar tissue that lasts very long, because he is required — doing his duty and following the demands of people — to speak on the anniversaries of all of these losses: on the anniversary of John Kennedy’s loss, on the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s loss … on the anniversary of all of the different things that are set up in their memories,” she said in the oral history.

“Every time he does that, the scar tissue breaks again, because it’s very emotional,” she continued. “Whereas you and I have scar tissue that gets stronger and stronger, and the pain gets less and less as the years go by and we are able to cope more easily with the loss, it’s been the reverse for him. As he got older and older, his scar tissue got thinner and thinner, and he was less able to contain his emotions.”

Ted Kennedy long struggled with alcohol and during periods of his life developed a reputation for womanizing. When the senator went on vacation, Ms. Miller told Roll Call, she reminded him that he was always in the media glare and admonished him to “remember two words: telephoto lenses.”

He emerged in later years as one of the most influential senators of his era, and when Ms. Miller retired in 2005, he credited her with having made “an enormous difference for me and for all the members of the Kennedy family” with her “ability, dedication, and friendship.”

Of her boss, Ms. Miller told The Washington Post when Ted Kennedy died in 2009, “he wasn’t perfect, he’d be the first to tell you that. But he worked harder and tried harder than any man I have ever seen.”

Ms. Miller on Capitol Hill in 1997. (Ray Lustig/The Washington Post)

Melody Jean Miller was born in Seattle on Feb. 19, 1945. By the time she was in elementary school, her family had settled in the Washington area, where her father spent his career with the Veterans Administration. Her mother was a nurse.

Ms. Miller graduated in 1963 from Yorktown High School in Arlington and in 1967 from Pennsylvania State University.

Her marriages to Paul McElligott and James Rogers ended in divorce. In 1997 she married William P. Wilson, a TV consultant who had, on behalf of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, negotiated the terms of his debate with Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Wilson died in 2014.

Besides her brother, survivors include a stepdaughter, Eliza Wilson Ingle, and several grandchildren.

As a high school senior, Ms. Miller got her first job in politics working weekends as a “girl Friday on Saturdays” for U.S. Rep. Joseph Montoya (D-N.M.).

Ms. Miller knew that Montoya had helped arrange her meeting with President Kennedy. But only after her retirement, she said, did the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston send her a copy of the correspondence exchanged in advance of the visit. On the letter, in what she said was Kennedy’s script, was a note that read: “Have Melody come and visit me at the White House.”

“I was thunderstruck!” she said in the oral history. “In a wonderful way, it verified and reaffirmed my life’s work in public service on the Senate staffs of his brothers. Words can’t express how much this discovery meant to me, for now I knew for sure that John F. Kennedy really didtake time out to encourage young people towards public service. He could just as easily have sent a picture, but he made the extra effort.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections.  Twitter

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