Vaughn Meader

Ill-fated mimic of John F. Kennedy
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The Independent Online

Vaughn Meader was an American comedian who rose to fame in the autumn of 1962 for his ability to mimic President John F. Kennedy. The President's death, a year later, destroyed his career.

Abbott Vaughn Meader, comedian: born Waterville, Maine 20 March 1936; four times married; died Auburn, Maine 29 October 2004.

Vaughn Meader was an American comedian who rose to fame in the autumn of 1962 for his ability to mimic President John F. Kennedy. The President's death, a year later, destroyed his career.

Born in 1936 in Maine, Meader spent his childhood shuttling between children's homes and relatives following the death of his father when he was still a baby. By the early 1960s he was working as a night-club singer and comedian in New York City, trading on his uncanny ability to mimic the voice of President Kennedy. In August 1962, two experienced television writers named Bob Booker and Earle Doud, who had already formed the idea of making a comedy album to humanise the movie-star president by placing him in everyday situations, happened to see Meader's show. Booker and Doud realised that they had struck gold.

The record, The First Family, was an affectionate treatment of the Kennedy family. Jokes included Kennedy treating a family breakfast as a press conference; the President driving his entire motorcade into a petrol station and then leaving because they did not issue Green Shield stamps; and a sketch in which he and Jackie are talking in bed and say goodnight to each other and then to all their relatives, implying that all the Kennedys slept in the same room.

Representations of the President were still at that time sacred and, despite the album's gentle tone, many recording companies dismissed the project out of hand. Cadence Records took a chance. It was released in the days following the Cuban missile crisis when the US was eager for light relief. It struck a nerve, selling six and a half million copies in six and a half weeks. It won a Grammy and was the fastest-selling record in US history to that date.

The record startled the White House. Jackie Kennedy (who was also parodied) hated it, while Kennedy's assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jnr, who heard a track on the radio, warned the President: "There is a real chance that the unwary listener may think he is hearing the real thing . . . Remember Orson Welles and the Martian invasion."

Schlesinger recommended that stations playing the album clearly label it as a spoof and that imitations of the President's voice not be used for commercial purposes. The administration successfully lobbied radio stations to ensure that Meader's voice was not used for advertisements, but their insistence on full credits for the record ironically proved a boon to sales.

Kennedy himself took the joke in good heart. The President noted at a press conference in December that he thought Meader sounded more like his brother Ted. He later joked at a Democrat party dinner that he had only come because Vaughn Meader was busy. JFK sent 100 copies of the album as Christmas gifts in 1962.

Meader, Booker and Doud turned The First Family into a stage show, which opened at Carnegie Hall on 5 January 1963. New material for the stage version included sketches featuring Castro and Khrushchev and Harold Macmillan. Booker and Doud prepared a script for a second album but had to threaten Meader with a lawsuit to get him to record it. Jokes included a sketch in which Jack and Bobby Kennedy looked back on the 1960s and 1970s as old men, recalling how they had both served multiple terms in the White House.

On 22 November Vaughn Meader was in Milwaukee. A taxi driver asked him if he had heard about the President in Dallas and he answered, "No, how does it go?" - expecting a new line for use in his routine. The assassination finished his career in an instant. Now old women burst into tears when they met him in the street. It would be 30 years before John F. Kennedy was a fit subject for humour again. The notoriously ribald stand-up Lenny Bruce greeted the Kennedy assassination in his act by remarking, "Boy, did Vaughn Meader get fucked." And so it proved.

Booker and Dowd recalled and destroyed copies of The First Family sequel album, and moved on to other projects. Meader could not move on. As the owner of a talent that no one wanted, he spent the 1960s adrift in drink, drugs and broken marriages.

He then found religion and in 1971 attempted a comeback with an album about the second coming of Christ. It ended with a rejected Messiah on Christmas morning surrounded by a chorus of homeless people singing "Happy Birthday to You". It flopped. He progressed to cameos in best-forgotten films like Lepke (1975) and a nude role in the soft-porn film Linda Lovelace for President (1976). In 1980 he represented his home town of Waterville, Maine, at the state's Democrat Presidential Convention as a delegate supporting Senator Edward Kennedy's bid for the White House.

In 1994 Vaughn Meader released one last record, entitled The Last Word, a series of sketches based on bible stories in which God, Jesus and Moses all spoke with the voice of JFK. It did not sell well. In his declining years he divided his time between Florida and his native Maine, where he owned a bar. He sang, worked on memoirs and was buoyed by talk that Tom Hanks might play him in a biopic.

While the impact of Kennedy's death on Meader was plain, it is less often noted that Meader's album played an important part in the development of the Kennedy image. His humour filled in the gaps behind the public façade of Kennedy, and strengthened the public bond with their president. In the long run Meader opened the door to less affectionate impersonations of the Commander in Chief, but in the short run his humour lifted the country, giving it farther to fall in November 1963.

Nicholas J. Cull