In the last two decades of his life, Abbott Vaughn Meader played piano in bars, wrote songs, made people laugh and supervised the kitchen at The Wharf in Hallowell.
It was the sort of life Meader had envisioned for himself, his widow said, before an impression changed his path, making him nationally famous nearly overnight, then a castoff just as quickly.
“He went from pre-Kennedy to Kennedy to post-Kennedy,” Sheila Stratton said. “His life didn’t flow, it went in acts or chapters.”
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago today changed the course of history and many Americans’ perceptions of their country and government. Few individuals, however, felt the impact of the assassination as directly as Meader, whose impression of Kennedy made him a star for almost exactly one year.
Born in Waterville, Meader was one of the first presidential impersonators. After a talent scout found Meader doing his Kennedy bit in a small comedy club, he soon began performing on television and ultimately on a comedy album that parodied the Kennedy White House.
“The First Family” sold millions of copies within weeks in late 1962, and it won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1963.
But after Kennedy was killed, the record was pulled from shelves, Meader’s upcoming gigs were canceled, and that part of his career was over, though he kept performing in some form or other almost up until his death in 2004, at the age of 68.
After the Kennedy assassination, Meader immediately stopped doing the impression, mostly out of respect but also because he was more interested in doing other things.
“Someone once said, âSay something as President Kennedy,'” Stratton recalled. “And Abbott said, âThe man hasn’t said anything for years.'”
The aftermath of the assassination was hard on Meader, whom Stratton described as a natural musician and entertainer, someone who craved the affirmation of an audience.
“It’s a strange thing. If a tragedy has happened to you, people tend to do one of two things,” Stratton said. “Either come up to you and hug you — âOh you poor thing, what can I do?’ Or pretend they don’t see you at all. And for Abbott, having people pretend they didn’t see him at all was terrible.”
Meader recorded a few other comedy albums, but none were successful. Although he was funny on the spot, Stratton said he was no writer.
After several years of doing drugs, drinking and a series of marriages, Meader returned to Maine. He was playing at a piano bar in Rockwood on Moosehead Lake when Stratton met him in the early 1980s.
The sign at the piano bar said Vaughn Meader, the name under which he’d gained fame as Kennedy’s impersonator, but with friends he went by Abbott, and Stratton uses the names almost as if they belong to two different people.
Even though Meader left the Kennedy act firmly in his past, Stratton said it continued to open doors for him.
“If it hadn’t been for Vaughn Meader and JFK, Abbott Meader probably would not have been as popularly received as he was. The cachet of having successfully imitated (Kennedy) … carried over through the rest of his life,” Stratton said. “Once he gave up New York City and chasing the dream of stardom and settled in Hallowell, he became most comfortable as himself. But that was I think by the grace of having the Kennedy name to ride on. It was sort of a magic carpet that got him where he wanted to go. And then he could be himself.”
Meader and Stratton, who has remarried and lives in Augusta, moved to Hallowell in the mid-1980s, and he became a fixture of the music scene there. Stratton said he was initially received as a minor celebrity but quickly became Abbott, the beloved piano player.
Meader lived hard, and at the end he suffered from chronic emphysema and other ailments, but he also gathered friends easily.
On Nov. 21, 2004, almost exactly 41 years after the death of John F. Kennedy and Meader’s comedy career, more than 200 people gathered at The Wharf to celebrate Meader’s life. Stratton lit fire to a basket with trinkets, photos, and a cardboard model of a piano, pushed it into the Kennebec River and blew the symbolic funeral pyre a kiss.