The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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 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.”

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 did take time out to encourage young people towards public service. He could just as easily have sent a picture, but he made the extra effort.”