A wealthy San Francisco socialite who hobnobbed with Nancy Reagan, claimed Phyllis Diller as a friend, and collected loads of designer shoes before giving everything up to take a vow of silence and become a nun, has died. She was 92.
Ann Russell Miller was a well known character in SF's society pages and at opera galas, and by all accounts she was a good-time gal. Her daughter, Donna Casey, tells the Chronicle in a fairly amusing if baffling obituary that Miller liked to drive fast in one of her several cars, and spent lavishly on a shoe collection kept in a large cedar-lined closet. Her youngest son Mark Miller says her collection would have put Imelda Marcos's to shame.
"She had a million and one friends. She smoked. She drank. She played cards," he writes on Twitter. "She gave up smoking, alcohol and caffeine on the same day and somehow managed not to commit homicide as a result."
But at age 61, in 1989, five years after her husband succumbed to cancer, Miller decided to devote the remainder of her life to God and she entered the Order of Discalced Carmelites of Des Plaines, just outside Chicago.
The order requires nuns to live in silence and prayer most of the day, give up physical contact with the outside world, and remain cloistered in the convent, sleeping on a thin mat on the floor. She sold most of her possessions, and Metallica's Lars Ulrich bought one of her former homes.
When you do go to visit, you can’t hug or touch. You are separated by an offset pair of double metal grilles. pic.twitter.com/wrWhpJL992— Mark R. Miller (@4T9NER) June 6, 2021
Miller's decision to become a nun reflected her devout Catholic faith, Casey says, and a desire that she and her husband had expressed for many years to give up secular life in their retirement and join a monastic order. And her family says that despite all public appearances, Miller was extremely strict in policing the morality of her children, and even kicked her son Mark out of the house at age 18 because she caught him having premarital relations with a girl. Mark Miller says that he only saw his mother twice in the last thirty years, and their relationship remained "complicated."
In liberal San Francisco, Miller and her husband Richard — both heirs to fortunes, hers from the Southern Pacific Railroad, his as the son of the founder of what became PG&E — stood out as staunch Republicans, even as the nation elected its first Catholic president in John F. Kennedy. And in another reflection of their faith, they produced a brood of 10 children — and Casey tells the Chronicle they were "trying to produce a gaggle of conservatives" by having such a large family.
It has to be strange to say goodbye to your mother one day — Miller threw an 800-person party for herself at the San Francisco Hilton, caviar and all, the night before she left for the convent — and then only ever see her through wrought-iron bars on occasional visits until the end of her life. But such were the last three decades for Ann Miller, who never had any physical contact with her 28 grandchildren or 16 great-grandchildren as a result.
As Miller announced to the guests at that party, "The first two-thirds of my life were devoted to the world. The last third will be devoted to my soul." And she was nearly perfectly prescient that she would survive another 30 years — it ended up being almost 32.
Reportedly at the party, according to friend Marie Gallo of the wine-making Gallos, Miller walked around wearing a flower crown and had a helium balloon tied to herself that said, "Here I am," so that friends could find her in the crowd to say their goodbyes.
The convent told her family that even in her devotion, Miller — lately known as Sister Mary Joseph of the Trinity — was perpetually late for prayers and duties around the facility, and she could never sing. As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, she spent her final days helping the other nuns roll rose petals into rosary beads to sell — which is how the order continues to support itself.
Casey tells the Sun-Times that her mother probably made the best decision for her, as strange as it may sound to most of us.
"Everything was black or white [for her]," Casey says. "She felt it truly was her job as a mother to make sure her children got into heaven. And, as far as she was concerned, she was going to pray for us."
"Many of her friends were furious at her for doing it, and they felt she’d abandoned us and them," Casey adds. "Her decision triggered a great deal of unease in them because they had to look at their own spiritual conditions."
Miller is being buried on the grounds of the convent in Illinois, and her family is having a private funeral for her tomorrow.