As the nation (or at least citizens of a certain age) reflects on the life and legacy of John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I am compelled to take a moment to remember Vaughn Meader, the comedian whose fortunes became inextricably linked with the beloved president. His is one of show business’s saddest stories.
Between 1962-63, Meader was one of the hottest acts in America on the strength of his uncanny Kennedy impression. Today, if he is recalled at all, it is as collateral damage of Kennedy’s murder. It was something of a sick joke at the time among pop culture observers that Oswald’s bullet claimed two victims on Nov. 22, 1963. When the president died, so did Meader’s meteoric career. It is said that comedian Lenny Bruce took the stage that night as scheduled and began his performance by saying something to the effect, “Poor Vaughn Meader.”
I was in Mrs. Amedei’s second grade class when news of the Kennedy shooting broke. I remember vividly being gripped by a feeling of unease when Mrs. Dobrikyn entered the room. This was not unusual. Mrs. Dobrikyn had that effect on us. She was feared by students as a strict and stern taskmaster; the antithesis of Mrs. Amedei, who, if I were casting the movie, would have been be played by Francis “Aunt Bea” Bavier. Mrs. Dobrikyn called Mrs. Amedei out into the hallway, leaving us alone and buzzing in the classroom. When she returned, she was crying.
Unlike James Wolcott in Vanity Fair (“I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after”), I do not remember much about how I felt that day. School was dismissed and we were sent home, an action normally reserved for severe weather warnings. I do remember my mother, especially, was very distraught (Among the items found in her closet after she passed was the commemorative Kennedy edition of the Nov. 23 Chicago Sun-Times).
But on reflection, it was probably Meader who most shaped my image and perception of President Kennedy. At seven, news and politics weren’t exactly on my radar, but comedy albums were. My parents were among the millions who made Meader’s “The First Family” the biggest selling and fast-selling comedy album to date.
The songs and sketches on the album and its inevitable sequel etched a portrait of a charmed and glamorous leader brimming with “viggah.” One song counts off the miles of a 50-mile hike as family and staff desperately try to keep up with the president (“How’s my Baby John?”/”Wah-wah, pants fell down,” which, I’m sorry, was hilarious to a seven-year-old). In these grooves, Kennedy is a man charged with destiny. In a flashback sketch, the newlywed senator and wife Jackie looking for housing meet with a real estate agent who shows them the White House. “I want an option to buy,” the young Kennedy insists.
With its gentle satire (a family dinner recast as presidential press conference) and spoofs of world leaders and American politicians, that album was my “The Daily Show.” So indelible is Meader’s incarnation of the president that on this anniversary observance, it is not John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” I replay in my head, but instead Meader as Kennedy’s “The rubber swan is mine,” which became “The First Family’s” breakout catchphrase
“The First Family” earned a Grammy for Album of the Year, nearly unheard of for a comedy record. Kennedy was said to have given copies as Christmas presents. He even got into the act. At one appearance, he joked, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself."
Meader took his act on the road, on television talk and variety shows, and even to Carnegie Hall. Reportedly, Frank Sinatra invited him to join the fabled Rat Pack. And then, in an instant it was over. The story goes that Meader entered an airport taxicab on Nov. 22, 1963, unaware of what had happened to the president. The taxi driver asked him, "Did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?" Meader, used to fans pitching him Kennedy jokes, replied, "No, how does it go?"
It did not go well after that. Nightclub engagements and TV performances were cancelled.
There were bouts with alcohol and drugs. He would later cameo in a movie, “Linda Lovelace for President.” Ultimately, he dropped Vaughn and went by his given first name, Abbott, under which he performed as a honky tonk piano player. He died from emphysema in 2004 at the age of 68.
From an investor standpoint, Meader’s thwarted career reminds us if nothing else about the importance of diversification. But beyond that, his story is a reminder of life’s caprice. There is an indelible scene from an interview Meader did with Entertainment Weekly a year before his death. An onlooker notices that Meader is being interviewed and asks if he is somebody famous. “I used to be somebody,” Meader replies. “Now I’m nobody.” When the stranger insists, “Aw, c’mon, everybody’s got to be somebody,” Meader responds, “Not me, I’m happy being a nobody.”
“The First Family” albums are a time capsule that instantly recapture that brief and shining moment that as a child I experienced more through Vaughn Meader’s comedy. And so it has become a tradition for me that on the anniversary of that tragic day in Dallas, I take my cue from one of the jokes from “The First Family’s” second volume, in which a frustrated Kennedy, trying to impersonate Meader, calls out, “Jackie, bring out that silly album again."