22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 18 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

MELODY MILLER, aged 77

STAFF PLUS

Born in Seattle, she grew up in Arlington, Virginia. Her father worked for the Veterans Association and her mother was a nurse. Melody had one brother.

In her final year at high school, she got a Saturday job working for Republican Senator Joseph Montoya. He called her his, “Girl Friday – on a Saturday.”

She was inspired by the inauguration address of President John F. Kennedy when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” At that moment she decided to become a Democrat and to dedicate her working life to public service.

In her art class, Melody sculpted a bust of President Kennedy. After hours of work, the bust shattered in the kiln. She started it all over again.

Her endeavours were reported in a local newspaper.

Shortly afterwards, she was unexpectedly invited to the White House. Kennedy had been given the article and asked 18-year-old Melody to visit him.

Melody was informed of this when she was in a journalism class at school. A note was delivered to the lesson and her teacher read out, ‘Your mother has called, and President Kennedy is planning to meet you in the near future.” The whole class cheered.

During her next lesson another letter arrived. Her English teacher read it, looked at her and put the note down on the desk. She spent the next 45 minutes in anguished expectation. The note said she would meet President Kennedy in 2 days’ time.

Melody rushed out and bought herself a new suit and a very large handbag, big enough to carry her copy of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Profiles in Courage’.

She met the President in the Cabinet Room – with her sculpture in tow. He was impressed with her efforts and praised her. They had a photograph taken together and he signed her book – ‘For Melody Miller, with warmest and personal regards, John Kennedy – May 3rd 1963.”

He asked her if she would like to run for Congress? She confessed she had only ever wanted to be a gym teacher. Then she asked if she could volunteer to work on his 1964 re-election team. “Absolutely” said the President.

He also gave her a PT-109 pin badge. This was the boat (PT = Patrol Torpedo) he was on in the Second World War. She treasured it for the rest of her life.

But she never got to work for President Kennedy. Six months after her meeting with him, he was assassinated in Dallas on the 22nd November 1963.

At this point, Melody had become a student at Penn State University.

When asked later on to describe Kennedy she said, “Incandescent.” She also called the meeting, “The most treasured 20 minutes of my life.”

But she was given a part-time job at the White House. She worked in the office of First Lady Jackie Kennedy. She was charged with sorting through, and replying to the thousands of condolences to the grieving widow sent from around the world. She worked very closely with Jackie.

She also dealt with all the toys sent to the Kennedy’s children, Caroline and John. Consequently, Melody grew close to the family and increasingly became invaluable to them.

She later said of President Kennedy’s assassination, “It was probably the greatest grief I’ve ever known in my life.”

Her efficiency was so great that she was noticed by Robert Kennedy and was recruited as press aide to him when he was the Democrat Senator for New York.

Robert Kennedy (courtesy Britannica)

But her duties extended much further than just the press. She remembered wrapping presents under the tree late one Christmas Eve for Robert Kennedy’s children.

At this time, Melody had married Paul McElligott, but this ended in divorce. She went on to marry James Rogers but that did not last either, with another divorce.

Melody was instrumental in planning Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid in 1968. His brother Edward tried, and failed, to persuade Robert not to stand because of what had happened to their brother, John.

The campaign was going extremely positively with the press assuming Robert had one foot in the White House, when he was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in June of that year.

She remembered, on the evening of the assassination, being the last to leave the Senator’s office. It left her with a sense of desolation.

It was also her job to organise the clearing of his office and remembered being the last to leave for the final time, turning the lights off and locking the door, with a very heavy heart.

Shortly afterwards, the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward, (always known as ‘Ted’) asked her to come and work for him. This she did for 37 years.

Ted Kennedy (courtesy GQ)

The only time she left the Kennedys was when she worked on George McGovern’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972.

She built a close relationship with Ted Kennedy. He was a tortured soul, suffering immense grief due to the deaths of his brothers, and had his own personal crisis with the 1969 Chappaquiddick Affair. Kennedy had driven his car off a bridge into a lake, killing his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne.

Consequently, Kennedy suffered from depression and had an alcohol problem.

Melody helped him conquer this. She was always at his side, advising him. He went on to be a very influential senator, despite failing with a presidential bid in 1980. She said, “He wasn’t perfect, he’d be the first to tell you that. But he worked harder than any man I have ever seen.”

Melody with Edward Kennedy (courtesy The Times)

She felt his presidential bid in 1980 was misjudged because he stood for the Democratic ticket against incumbent president Jimmy Carter, so had little hope of securing the nomination. The two men disliked each other intensely and she always felt Carter blocked any future opportunities for her man.

She also defended Kennedy against press accusations he was a womaniser. She admitted he was popular with women but said all relationships were consensual and none of his girlfriends ever complained about him.

Republican heavyweight Newt Gringrich had led the campaign against Kennedy. She caught him in a lift and gave him a piece of her mind. She also named 2 Republican senators who had sexually assaulted her in the very same lift.

As she worked for Edward Kennedy for years, she got to meet a lot of famous people. Kennedy was very much involved with trying to get apartheid stopped in South Africa.

They were visited at his office by the then largely unknown Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later, Melody was scrambling around to find the photos of his visit.

She was working in her office late one evening when the recently freed Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie walked in. Days later, Kennedy gave Melody a photograph of herself with the Mandelas with the words, ‘To Melody, End Apartheid Now – Ted’, written on it.

But it was a signed, framed photograph of herself with Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, that she kept on her office wall. It was taken at a Democrat Party Convention in Massachusetts.

Melody said one of the perks of the job was getting to meet famous people. She knew astronaut (and senator) John Glenn very well from the 1960s, had met Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (she thought Ms. Taylor was lovely but was stunned by the amount of jewellery she wore), the Dalai Lama, Chancellor Willie Brandt and actors Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson. Actress Julia Roberts became a close friend of hers.

But not everybody was glad to meet her.

A very volatile woman came into the office to try to attack Senator Kennedy. Melody grabbed her and found herself rolling on the ground, fighting, underneath the senator’s desk.

On another occasion, a disgruntled war veteran came in to protest about President Jimmy Carter pardoning Vietnam draft dodgers. He punched Melody on the jaw.

Melody continued to be a valuable help to the whole Kennedy clan. She got on extremely well with all of the Kennedy children – 2 of John’s, 3 of Edward’s and all 11 of Robert’s. She was never left out of any family gathering. “I’ve been to a lot of weddings – and organised many of them.”

Although working for them, she was very close to them all and labelled herself ‘Staff-Plus’.

She arranged the 100th birthday party of the matriarch of the family, Rose, in 1990.

In 1991, she wrote a very angry letter to film director Oliver Stone, protesting about the film ‘JFK’.

JFK 1991 (courtesy Amazon UK)

She was also extremely cross about an episode of the TV show ‘St Elsewhere’, which was about a senator who stood for president – and was clearly based on Edward Kennedy.

She never forgot President Kennedy though. She arranged for a house to be built on the Solomon Islands for the man who saved Kennedy when his PT 109 boat sank in the Second World War.

Kennedy’s Patrol Torpedo (PT) 109 (courtesy Pieces of History)

In 1996, John F. Kennedy Junior married Carolyn Bessette. Melody was charged with ensuring the event was kept secret from the press.

John Junior and Carolyn Bessette (courtesy Belfast Telegraph)

And two years later when John, Carolyn and her younger sister were all killed in a plane crash, it was Melody who acted as liaison with the world’s press.

In 1997, she got married for a third time – to William P. Wilson (known as Bill), a television consultant. Way back in 1960, when America had its first presidential election television debates, it was Wilson who had coached John Kennedy on how to defeat his rival Richard Nixon.

The strong performance of Kennedy in the debates has been considered the decisive factor in his narrow victory for the presidency.

With this marriage, Melody gained a stepdaughter, Eliza.

Melody retired in 2005. Ted Kennedy said of her, “She made an enormous difference for me and for all the members of the Kennedy family with her ability, dedication and friendship.”

At her retirement, she finally learned how she had been selected as a schoolgirl to visit the President. Her weekend boss, Senator Joseph Montoya had arranged the meeting unbeknown to her. He visited JFK and then the President wrote him a note with the words, ‘Have Melody come and visit me at the White House.’

The Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston sent her a copy of the note. She said, “I was thunderstruck. 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.”

Melody filled her retirement with travel, animal rescue and working with MOB (Mothers Opposing Bush).

Melody was extremely upset when Ted Kennedy died in 2009.

Her husband Bill died in 2014.

Right up until her death she was known as the ‘Dorian Gray’ of American politics. She never lost her beauty.

Melody in the office (courtesy New York Times)

Melody herself died of a heart attack at her home in Washington DC.

Washington political journalist and close friend of Melody, Eleanor Clift said, “There was nobody more well-versed on everything ‘Kennedy’ than Melody Miller, and nobody more devoted.”

RIP – Really Impressed President

 

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