Melody Miller, Trusted Aide to the Kennedys, Dies at 77
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’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.
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.
Melody Jean Miller was born on Feb. 2, 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.”