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A Long Way From Camelot

Vaughn Meader's JFK impersonation made him a star. Then an assassin's bullet took everything away.

April 20, 1997|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HALLOWELL, Maine — The hard part of the day--waking up, staring at TV, waiting for someone to come and visit--is over and Abbott Vaughn Meader is back in his element, at the River Cafe on Water Street, nursing a rum and coke through a straw.

Although he tries never to peak too early, he is indeed, at 5 in the afternoon, in danger of doing just that; his words shouted, the jokes rolling slurred and fast off his tongue, his eyes dancing with mischief.

"Abbott," says Sheila, his fourth wife, a couple of bar stools away, "I think you're absolutely crazy. Why don't you come home and let me cook for you?"

He'll have none of that. He much prefers being here among his friends, people who tolerate him and care about him and laugh with him. They are, after all, the only crowd Vaughn Meader--once the hottest name in the recording business--has left to work.

"I love this place," Meader says of Hallowell, an old mill town, population 2,500. "I've been thrown out of every city in America, but Hallowell, it hasn't even tried. People are very accepting. 'Tolerant' is the word I'd use. There's magic here and magic you can't explain. No sleazebags, no phonies. That's why I came back to Maine."

It's been 35 years since Meader, a young comedian playing the coffeehouses of SoHo for $7.50 a night, skyrocketed to fame and fortune with his album on the Cadence label, "First Family," an impersonation of President John F. Kennedy so close to perfect as to be eerie. And 34 years since his career died, at the very moment a bullet struck down Kennedy in Dallas. "That was it," Meader remembers. "One year, November to November. Then boom. It was all over."

Lenny Bruce was playing Carnegie Hall that night. He took the stage and, after a respectful silence, sighed, "Man, poor Vaughn Meader."

Meader, who goes now by his first name, Abbott, lights another cigarette and pauses to let pass a cough that comes from deep in his lungs. He nibbles a pretzel, rolling it over toothless gums. He orders a margarita, just a touch of triple sec, salt on the rim, please, and Christ, oh yeah, he says, the $1 million or so he earned from "First Family" was piddled away years and years ago, on coke binges, on booze and wives and fancy living, and now he's lucky if Sheila gives him a sawbuck or two for a few drinks but, you know, here on a cold Maine spring day made warm by the glow of friends and a welcoming tavern, life's OK, it really is.

"In a way," he says, "I'm better off than I've ever been. When I had the album, all those lowlifes around me who said they were friends, what I didn't realize was they were in it for the business. Now the funny thing is I'm a bum and I find people who really care. I have a wife who cares, friends who care. I look at Elizabeth Taylor at the Academy Awards or wherever, and I say, 'She any better off than me?' and I doubt she is."

*

Meader found the Kennedy voice quite by accident, mimicking the president offhandedly one day with friends in New York. They laughed and he incorporated a five-minute impersonation into his nightly routine. Word got around and then came the album and what a ride it was.

"First Family" sold 10 million copies, becoming, at the time, the most successful album in history. He played the Sahara in Vegas for $22,000 a week. Carnegie Hall booked him, and Belafonte asked him to open his show. Sinatra called. He went to an awards banquet with Phyllis Diller. So many groupies thought of him as a JFK surrogate that one of his orgies made Walter Winchell's column. Vaughn Meader had just turned 27.

"I didn't know how to handle it," he recalls. "It was a blur. I thought stars were supposed to do certain things, so I'd fly here, fly there, buy anything I liked in a store window. My ego and arrogance were way out of control. Playing the president was easy, but playing God was a bitch."

Then, on Nov. 22, 1963, he got into a taxi in Milwaukee, where he was performing, and the cab driver asked if he'd heard about Kennedy in Dallas.

Thinking he was being set up for a joke, Meader said, "No, how's it go?"

What never crossed his mind was that his career was over. The Kennedy stuff had been only a small part of his night-club act. He played the piano, sang, told jokes. He had talent and he'd get a new routine.

But everywhere he went, teary-eyed people approached with an extended hand and the words, "I'm sorry," as though he himself were part of the first family. People saw Meader and thought of the bloodied Kennedy. He could never live that down; his comeback attempts were haunted by a ghost.

Meader began to drink heavily, and by 1965 had blown the last of the 10 million dimes he had earned--one for each album. In 1967, he gave away his Grammy, his gold record, his suits--all the trappings of the Camelot he had shared--and hopped in a van in New York with two women, headed for San Francisco and its summer of drugs and flowers. It was, he wrote in a song the other week, the summer he can't remember and one he'll never forget:

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