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Vaughn Meader was 27 when "The First Family," his musical spoof of the Kennedys, became the best-selling album in history. A year later, the president he had become famous for impersonating was dead. Meader spoke to David Isay about his life before and after.
Abbott is the name I was born with, Abbott Vaughn Meader, in Waterville, Me., the night of the biggest flood in New England's history. I grew up in children's homes, got thrown out of one of them, got through high school and went in the Army. When I came back I started doing stand-up comedy. I was doing a little political stand-up in the Village, and one night I threw in a line in Kennedy's voice and everybody fell down. So I started doing press conferences as Kennedy with the audience. A manager found me and got me to do the album.
I was in Detroit the day the album started selling like wildfire. That day "The Ed Sullivan Show" called me, Time magazine, The New York Times. So I went back to New York, and I was walking past Sam Goody's and there was a big crowd, all the way out to the middle of Broadway. And when I got closer I heard that they were listening to me -- it was mind-boggling. Then it got totally crazy. Just gone. It was just a whirlwind, going here, going there, going here, going there. And playing the game -- the star game. It was a blur, you know? I thought I was having the time of my life. Who wouldn't? Just wine, women and song, you know? But it doesn't last. And nobody knows when you're down and out.
Nov. 22, 1963, the day I died. I was in a cab in Milwaukee, and the cabdriver said, "Hey, did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?" And I said, "No, how does it go?" because I thought it was another Kennedy joke. But it wasn't. So I went to my hotel, grabbed a bottle of booze, went back to New York and just kind of drowned myself. Everything got canceled, and everything stopped. I remember walking down Second Avenue, and this big huge construction worker in a hard hat stopped his riveting and ran over to me with tears in his eyes wringing my hands and saying, "I'm sorry." It was weird. Most of my show-business friends dropped me -- I was no longer a commodity to them. So I got barroom heavy. I got into cocaine, heroin. And I went down South and drifted from place to place to place.
In February 1968 I got stabbed by a cabdriver in Chicago. It was a freezing-cold morning, and I dozed off in the cab. When I came out of my daze the guy was pulling into this old junkyard, and he turned around and he stabbed me -- to this day it's so real! Two seconds later I blacked out, and when I came to, he said: "Everything's cool now, baby. I'll take you where you're going."
There were no marks, there was no trace, there was no nothing -- but it was real! So I went back to New York and I started meditating and reading the Bible and doing things like running in Van Cortland Park with my eyes closed, saying, "Blind faith, blind faith, blind faith, blind faith." And then a few years later I came back here to Maine to write songs and be with my wife.
The conclusion I've come to is the cosmic force of timing. That's the lesson I learned. It's all. It's like a Swiss watch, and we're all working for it whether we know it or not. There's a celestial clock with gears within gears and wheels within wheels and individuals spiraling through life. I don't know if I can explain it, other than when it's time, it's time. It's almost like the movie of our lives is already in the can and all it's doing now is running, with the earth as our stage. So everybody's got parts, and when each of us comes to our grand finale, then that's that.
From the November 21, 1999, New York Times Magazine. Photograph by Burk Uzzle for the New York Times.
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