The ascent of John Kennedy to the White House brought many people into the spotlight with him. One of the lesser-known figures vaulted into fame alongside JFK was a twenty-something stand up comedian named Vaughn Meader. Meader was not a member of Kennedy’s Cabinet or staff, nor was he an official spokesperson for the administration, but he was a profound ambassador of good will for the President. He was President John F. Kennedy’s personal impersonator. Many stand-up comedians and sketch comedy show cast members have gained fame and acclaim for impersonating various Presidents over the years, but few have managed to capture the essence of their subject as well as Vaughn Meader. He brought the same zeal and wit to his impersonation of Jack Kennedy that Kennedy himself brought to the highest office of the land. And like the Presidency of Jack Kennedy, Meader’s career came crashing to an end in November, 1963.
From Manhattan to the Strip Via Washington
Vaughn Meader was a hip up-and-coming comedian in the Greenwich Village comedy scene when his spot-on impersonation of President Kennedy hit a chord with club audiences. Meader would start with a traditional standup comedy act and then transition into an informal press conference format where he would field questions from the audience as President Kennedy.
The format of stand-up comedy was perfectly suited for Jack Kennedy’s real personality. As President, he ran his own press conferences like a comedian doing crowd work, trading witty barbs and one-liners with reporters. Kennedy’s love of humor and witticisms can perhaps be traced back to his admiration for Theodore Roosevelt, the only President younger and wittier than Kennedy himself.*
The success of Vaughn Meader’s club act gained him enough attention to land record deal. His album of Kennedy sketches The First Family made him an instantaneous success. The record became the fast-selling album in HISTORY and won Meader a Grammy for album of the year, one of only two comedy records to accomplish such a feat. Meager’s Kennedy lines became as quotable and as the real President Kennedy’s legendary speeches. “Great Vigah” was a household phrase just the same as “ask not what your country can do for you.”
The world of Jack Kennedy was as sophisticated as King Arthur’s and wild as the Rat Pack’s. After The First Family rocketed up the Billboard charts, Vaughn Meader’s life started seeming that way too. One day Meader would be in Life magazine or The New York Times, and the next day was doing a spot on Ed Sullivan or headlining the Sahara for 22 grand a week. Even the real President Kennedy took note of the talented young Meader’s perfect put-up of the President, but noted that the comedian’s voice sounded closer to his brother Bobby’s than his own. Nonetheless, the world was filled with hope and promise for Jack Kennedy and Vaughn Meader. The party was on, and girls and glory were in abundance. Then one day, the party stopped.
“The Day I Died”
There are so many side tragedies in the Kennedy assassinations, aftershocks of the sniper fire in Dallas. So many innocent lives were ruined that day in some way or another, from the life of Mrs. Kennedy and the other occupants of the doomed Presidential limousine, to the dozens of ordinary citizens forever scarred from having witnessed the brutal and unexpected public execution of their young and charismatic hero. Vaughn Meader’s life fell apart as quickly as those of the witnesses and victims of Dealey Plaza. In a 1999 New York Times interview conducted 5 years before Vaughn Meader’s death, the aging comedian referred to November 22nd 1963 as “the day I died.”
The New York comedy scene from which Meader was hurled into fame was stunned and silenced by the assassination in a way not to be seen until the tragic events of September 11th 2001. The only comedian who managed to crack a joke was the legendary Lenny Bruce. “Well,” he mused, “Vaughn Meader’s screwed.” Just like the career of Jack Kennedy, filled with so much promise and potential, the career of Vaughn Meader was cut short instantaneously by the assassination of the President. Friends and colleagues turned away and the gigs dried up. “Literally overnight,” Meader claimed, “nobody wanted to know from me. As far as they were concerned, I was as dead as the President.”
His career dead, Vaughn tried to kill off his body with booze, cocain, and heroin. The lethal combination of heavy drugs and heavier sorrow has killed many a comedian over the years, but somehow Meader survived it. The young comedian had gone from the heights of glamor to a world of despair, just like the country had after the tragic loss of their leader. In winter of 1968, Meader was stabbed in some sort of altercation in a Chicago junkyard. That summer, Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. Meader survived, Bobby wasn’t so lucky.
No Comeback in Sight
Vaughn Meader attempted several comebacks over the years, parodying other popular figures such as Ronald Reagan and even Jesus Christ. His post-assassination efforts were applauded by critics, but failed to gain the interest of ordinary people. To most Americans, seeing Vaughn Meader alive was a painful reminder of all they had lost in the death of Jack Kennedy. There were apparently rumors and rumblings that Meader would find a way to rechannel his uncanny ability to capture the essence of the the beloved John Fitzergerald Kennedy into something more serious, along the lines of Hal Holbroke’s legendary one man show as Mark Twain. Sadly, this never came to pass. Perhaps Vaughn Meader could have helped Americans cope with the death of JFK with laughter or even thoughtfulness, but he was never given the chance.
Loveable hack Rich Little has kept a Nixon impersonation up his sleeves for his entire career, even exploiting it for a recent Vegas.com commercial spot. Dana Carvey used his fantastic George H.W. Bush impersonation to great success on SNL and in his own stand-up act. Will Ferrel carried on the flame with his goofy George W. Bush impersonation. Ferrel’s Dubya was a bright spot in the chaotic 2000 election and the controversial Bush years. After the real Bush left office with historically low approval ratings, Ferrel’s Bush enjoyed critical and popular success with a hit one-man show that went to Broadway and cable television. Dozens of Bush impersonators tour corporate events all over the country. The author recently attended a conference in San Francisco’s Moscone Center where attendees were treated to an appearance by a hacky but accurate Dubya impersonator as well as a keynote speech from the real William Jefferson Clinton. Both the former President and the fake President got plenty of laughs and plenty of dough. JFK has been portrayed by scores of actors in a countless number of films, television programs, plays, and docudramas by many talented actors, but none have captured the wit and whimsy of JFK as well as Vaughn Meader. Despite this, Meader never played Kennedy again, and died in obscurity in 2004, another causality of the Dallas gunfire.
*Like Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt gained attention as a young writer and war hero with great wit and charisma. Both men were the targets of assassinations. Roosevelt survived what would have been his own assassination when his serendipitously pocketed speech notes and eye-glass case softened the blow of a bullet to his chest. Perhaps JFK thought himself as invincible as his hero TDR when he brazenly cruised the streets of Dallas in November ’63. But just as assassin’s bullets began the Presidency of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt when President William McKinley was slain at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, assassin’s bullets ended the Presidency of John Kennedy 62 years later.