It was the worst of times for Vaughn Meader, those months in 1968 when the fear and self-loathing took over. Stepping into a taxicab late one night in Chicago, he convinced himself the driver intended to stab him to death. On another night, in Los Angeles, a dose of the hallucinogen known as angel dust conjured hideous visions, and the man who once became an overnight star imitating John F. Kennedy ran naked and crazed through California streets.
The demons that haunted Vaughn Meader have receded now. His full beard is graying, his bushy silver eyebrows are out of control. Meader's slate eyes crinkle like a riverboat gambler's when he laughs, and his leonine smile suggests great good humor. He speaks in a boom with a Down East accent, and he roams his homestate of Maine wearing Western garb -- cowboy hats, shirts with brass or mother-of-pearl buttons, boots with fancy stitching.
Vaughn Meader's life, like that of few others, has been strangely intertwined with that nearly mythic American family, the Kennedys. He became a famous comedian mimicking JFK during the president's last year in office, but his act died with Kennedy. For years after Kennedy's assassination, strangers approached Meader in public places to shake his hand and cry, transferring their love and sorrow for the martyred president to the hapless comedian. "Oh, I'm so sorry, so sorry," they would sob, as if Meader himself had died that afternoon in Dallas.
In a symbolic sense, Meader did die. Sudden success and its abrupt departure exacted a toll. Today Meader is a born-again ex-alcoholic who struggles to shed his association with his past, sometimes performing as a singer under a fictitious name.
Yet as much as he seems to want to forget his past, no sooner did the Ted Kennedy-for-president fever begin than Meader began writing a song called "I'm Getting Ready for Teddy." A New York agent thinks it could make a novelty hit single.
The irony is almost too much for Meader, who at 43 wants fame to visit him again on his own terms. And those terms do not include anything that has to do with a Kennedy. But, like a man trying to barter only a slice of his soul with the devil, Meader gave the go-ahead to the marketing of the Ted Kennedy song. Maybe, he hopes, it will establish him as A Potential Singer instead of The Great Kennedy Impersonator. Maybe it will give him enough clout that producers will be interested in the dozens of songs he has written over the past couple of years. Maybe, when he dies, Vaughn Meader will be remembered as someone other than the guy who used to do Kennedy. Maybe.
Once he was preppy-looking, rich and famous -- "a silk-suit phony," he called the old Meader. He was a 27-year-old Greenwich Village pianist when he hit it big 17 years ago. A record producer happened to see him do a brief imitation of JFK on a talent show, and one night in 1962 -- the evening Kennedy went on television to tell Americans about Russian missiles in Cuba -- Meader entered a New York recording studio to poke fun at the First Family in a series of vignettes for a comedy album.
In one bedtime sketch, for example, Jacqueline Kennedy, played by Naomi Brossart, griped, "Family, family, family. Jack, there's just too much family. Can't we ever get away alone?" Responded Meader-as-Kennedy: "Tomorrow. I, uh, promise tomorrow we'll go away together. No more family for a while. Now I promise. Now, uh, turn off the light . . . Good night, Jackie . . . Good night, Bobby . . . Good night, Ethel . . . Good night, Peter . . . Good night, Caroline . . . Good night, Teddy . . ."
Americans loved it. Cartons of the record, "The First Family," were airlifted to major cities where lines of people snapped up 5 million copies in one year, making it the fastest-selling album in history at the time. Life magazine wrote about Meader in a story titled "A Kennedy Spoof Full of 'vigah."
The president said good-naturedly that Meader reminded him of his little brother Teddy, while the young senator said Meader sounded like brother Robert. No, said the attorney general, Meader's style and accent reminded him more of his brother-in-law, Sarge Shriver.
Meader pocketed about 7 cents in royalties from each album -- he was the only one of the cast to cut a percentage deal -- and his future as a comedian seemed assured. His Manhattan penthouse cost $600 a month in 1962. He imitated Kennedy on The Ed Sullivan Show. Las Vegas showrooms paid him $22,500-a-week, and after covering the costs for supporting cast, Meader banked half that, swelling his savings account to about $500,000 at one point.
Then the best of times ended.
He learned of JFK's assassination from a taxi driver at the Milwaukee airport.
"Did you hear Kennedy was shot?" the cabbie asked him.
"No," said Meader, the comedian, "but how does it go?"
Meader didn't know it, but he'd just cracked his last Kennedy joke.
Well, I don't want to be the one to say "I told you so,"
When the life you chose has gone and let you down.
When the grand illusion changes to the naked truth,
I'm not sure I want to be around. -- "I Told You So"
The warm-up singer is on stage at New York's Lone Star Cafe, a bar that likes to think of itself as a little bit of Texas in Manhattan. The singer alternates between his guitar and a piano. His voice is rich and strong, his songs western flavored, his lyrics clever. Perhaps because all the songs are ones he has written -- no familiar tunes to tap your feet to -- or maybe because he is unknown -- not many people have heard of a singer named Johnny Sunday -- the crowd is noisy and inattentive.
At the bar a young airline stewardess, Claudia Thornton, is asked if she remembers someone named Vaughn Meader.
A comedian. He used to imitate Jack Kennedy. Remember?
Vaughn Meader . . . oh, sure, says Thornton, who is startled to learn the ballad singer Johnny Sunday is none other than Mr. Meader, late of worldwide fame and fortune.
"That's Vaughn Meader?" asks Thornton, turning with new interest toward the stage.
"Wow! He looks different."
How does she remember Meader?
"Hey, as John Kennedy. I mean, how can you forget him?"
That, of course, is Meader's special problem. His is the clean-cut face on the record album gathering dust in millions of American homes. Meader knows his past fame is a foot in the door of record companies and newspaper offices and, sometimes, that it can help him land a short musical gig. Thus, his dilemma: how to trade off curiosity -- made all the greater by his fall from grace -- and become famous again as a musician.
"A lot of people say I'm Vaughn Meader," says Johnny Sunday off-stage with a sly smile, " which is ridiculous. I'm tired of this character following me around. After all, Vaughn Meader was a comedian, and there's nothing funny about me."
Oh, but there is.
To begin with there is the Johnny Sunday character Meader himself created. He is a parody of an evangelist, a drunk who stumbles into a church one day and decides to begin his own ministry called "The Last Church" based on a verse from Corinthians: "God chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise." For Johnny Sunday, Meader has written some 28 songs he would like to package into a musical. They are witty and melancholy. Some of the music is razzle-dazzle, some romantic.
After singing a few songs from his Johnny Sunday routine, Meader belts out a tune that draws a great response from the Lone Star Cafe crowd. It's that simple ditty called "I'm Getting Ready for Teddy." Sample lyrics:
I'm getting ready for Teddy.
I've grown much smarter,
Since I went with Carter,
Those days I wasn't quite right in the head.
Well, at least he wasn't tricky as Dicky,
Or not quite as clumsy as Ford.
It's not that he's a bad guy,
Or that I'm anti.
To tell you the truth,
I'm just bored.
After 15 years of relative obscurity, after trying on for size the preachings of various political radicals and religious gurus, after three marriages, after bouts with alcoholism and drugs, after two years of working on a musical he hopes might signal a new career, Johnny Sunday's best hope for center stage might still be Vaughn Meader.
He loathes the thought.
Meader is at home in Maine. He likes to think of himself as a "cranky Yankee," a weathered troubadour who has seen it all and is content to stomp the woods while the world goes spinning madly on without him. He may like to think of himself that way, but it won't wash. Meader wants to be sucessful again.
You can see it even when he is relaxed and playing the well-used piano for guests at Bob and Sue Crory's Country Club Lodge, a gracious resort overlooking Rangeley Lake in southwestern Maine. It is a kind of second home for Meader, who keeps an apartment on the Maine coast in Waterville. In 1978, coming off the years of booze and drugs, he visited the Crory's lodge and was invited to stay and sing a few songs. He was married there last winter to Christine Surma, a 29-year-old California auctioneer who traveled east with Meader. The Meaders and the Crorys struck a happy deal: in exchange for room and board several days each month during tourist season, Meader sings his songs to a small audience.
But the professional pride is there. He plays no requests unless they are for Meader-written songs. He brooks no noise from his audience. And the hunger is obvious. After entertaining the lodge crowd late into one night last summer, he was the first awake the next morning.Never mind that the most pressing business at hand was whether or not to spend the afternoon fishing, Meader was already working on the day's first cigarette.
"Up early," someone noted.
"Have to be when you're living on the edge," he said. "Have to run a little faster."
Meader's ancestors were Quaker settlers who came to New Hampshire from England in 1636. His grandfather, a horse trader, settled in Maine, and Meader spent the early part of his boyhood there in Waterville, where his grandmother hoped he would become a preacher. His grandfather died going over a waterfall in a barrel, and Meader's father drowned a year after Vaughn, his only child, was born.
His mother left her home town for the bright lights of Boston to work as a cocktail waitress. Her son was in and out of children's homes -- "You know," says Meader, "young, pretty girl in the big city. I guess I was sort of extra."
Was he ever close to his mother? "No. I guess I didn't know how to be. She drank a lot, that's what finally got her." Meader says the family name in earlier times meant "maker of mead."
In 1953 Meader became an Army lab technician in Mannheim, Germany. It is that four-year period in his life that he looks back on with fondness because he had a fine time playing in a band called The Rhine Rangers. After his discharge he sold sewing machines door-to-door in Maine until he decided to study radio and television on the GI Bill in Manhattan. While there, in the early '60s, he began doing some stand-up comedy in Greenwich Village clubs. His monologues were in the style of the hip humor of the time; other struggling young comics of that era included Lenny Bruce, Allan Sherman, Bob Newhart, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In the summer of 1962 Meader appeared on a TV show, "Celebrity Talent Scouts," and ended his monologue with an imitation of JFK. After a call from a record producer, the star was born.
Says Meader with the flatness of someone talking about another person he barely knows: "It was all finished in November of 1963."
He made bad investments, like the gas station he leased on Long Island, the one where they tore up the road so no traffic could get in or out for six months after Meader leased it. Broke, he went (in approximately this order) from alcohol to acid to gurus to Yippies to God. He tried a comeback as a comedian with a religious comedy album that featured a Hollywood agent, Joey Judas, who hears about somebody he thinks is a hot new rock group by the name of Jesus and The Miracles.
"In a different time and space, it would have caused a sensation," says Meader. "I find some real freaks who have it."
Then, after swearing to himself he'd never do Kennedy again, he accepted an offer to move to California to star in a play about JFK. It closed after 20 performances.
"It was too much of a ghost, doing it was too ghostly," he recalls.
Today he waits in Maine as a New York agent tries to hustle "I'm Getting Ready for Teddy." His wife is his biggest fan. She helps him with lyrics, is always in an audience when he sings. She keeps his life in order, keeping track of the songs he has written, the tapes he has made, particularly a demonstration tape of Johnny Sunday songs paid for by a millionaire friend. Meader has knocked on the doors of some producers in New York with that professional-quality tape. But knocking on doors is a part of the business he says he hates.
"I'm waiting for a guy to say, 'don't worry about it, sit up in Maine fishing, I'll take care of it.' I don't even like to hear the voice on the phone."
But he knows he's a middle-aged man trying to break into a young person's business, so he makes periodic treks to Manhattan. A friend, Kinky Friedman, got him his first job at the Lone Star Cafe, and with each appearance Meader seems to draw a more appreciative audience. In the meantime, he waits for the telephone to ring.
"There is a God that somehow . . . well, it works according to a script," says Meader. "I often say there was a wave that took me out and there's a wave that'll bring me back. It's fate. God is a great conspirator, chuckling somewhere, 'heh, heh, heh.'"
That last laugh is a dry one, making it clear that at least one Yankee Christian doesn't have precisely the same sense of humor as God.