Meet Vaughn Meader, Who Rose to Fame Imitating JFK

Meader was once among the most popular entertainers in the world.

November 22, 2017 10:39 am
Vaughn Meader
American Comedian Abbott Vaughn Meader at Home (Photo by Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Vaughn Meader is probably less well-known for being himself than he is for his scarily-accurate imitations of others, especially John F. Kennedy. He won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963, reports The New York Timesand his comedy record, The First Family, looked into the life of the Kennedys. It was the fastest-selling album in the history of the record industry.

By the 1990s, he had faded away. He spent a lot of time playing ragtime piano in a bar in Hallowell, Me. Though by that time he might have been known as the “town drunk,” The Times writes, that phrase does not capture how beloved he was by many in Hallowell. But no matter what, it was easy to forget that 40 years prior, he was one of the most popular entertainers in the world.

The First Family sold more than a million copies in its first two weeks. It seemed like people from both parties could get on board with Meader’s version of JFK. Even Kennedy himself liked it enough to give copies of the record as Christmas presents, according to The Times. 

But then, Kennedy was assassinated. During his first post-assassination performance, Lenny Bruce opened with, “Boy, is Vaughn Meader screwed.” The First Family was pulled from stores, so that they didn’t appear to be “cashing in” on the president’s death. Meader’s gigs were cancelled and his career ended. He immediately become “a walking reminder of the nation’s trauma,” writes The Times.

Journalists who write about Meader often describe his life as tragic. But Jennifer Finney Boylan, who met Meader when he was in his 60s and going by his first name, Abbott, wrote in The Times that everyone in Hallowell who knew Meader seemed to be looking out for him. People would help him out with some cash when he needed it, and wish him well while walking through town. He was beloved in Hallowell not because he was Vaughn Meader, the known entertainer, but because he was “a battered, imperfect soul, still in the throes of becoming himself,” writes The Times. 

Abbot Meader, who didn’t do a JFK impression but sang while he played his ragtime piano tunes, died in 2004.

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