NEW YORK, November 8, 2013 — Back somewhere in the mid-1970s I remembered Vaughn Meader, a man the rest of America forgot.
This forgetfulness happened in an instant, November 22, 1963, exactly 1:40 pm, Eastern time, when CBS-TV interrupted the soap opera As The World Turns for Walter Cronkite’s report that the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, had been shot in Dallas, Texas and was “seriously wounded.”
A thousand dreams went to the Arlington grave with Kennedy those 50 years ago. This was the month when time stopped for an entire generation.
Along with Camelot, the most dazzling career of any entertainer came to an abrupt finish.
Lenny Bruce quipped, “Poor Vaughn Meader.” (See Wikipedia.)
Up to the time of the assassination, Meader had been America’s most famous comedian. His impersonation of Kennedy was so right on that even Jackie sometimes mistook the one for the other, especially when Meader appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, where once again he had America in stitches, spoofing the president so perfectly that the rest of us also thought he was genuine.
Meader’s The First Family was the fastest-selling album of all-time until the Beatles came along. Ratings zoomed whenever he appeared on TV.
The nation loved him because the nation loved JFK. Then came that moment, and down went Meader, never to rise again. This was not a career in decline. This was a crash. All TV appearances and club dates were immediately cancelled. America, guilt-ridden and grieving, wanted no part of this ghost.
I caught up to him in the 1970s when he was working on another comeback, doomed to be another failure. Kennedy was gone and Kennedy was all he had.
“Right after that shot heard around the world, a woman came up to me, sobbing. She said that she was so terribly worried about me. Can you imagine?”
“She was worried about me? What about the rest of America?”
That was part of our conversation when we met in Manhattan some 10 years after the event. He was boozing for a fame come and gone in a flash. He was with a woman who would soon lose patience with him. Rejection was to become his fate. He had joined cults and lost himself in various otherworldly pursuits. He tried new nightclub routines. Nobody laughed. Nobody came. He went back into hiding. He travelled and stumbled with the Mark of Cain.
Meader embodied the best of our times and the worst of our times…the times that brought us the Peace Corps…and the times that brought us Vietnam.
We did most of our talking in an OTB parlor. Meader was on edge, but more relaxed playing the horses.
I was preparing a piece on him for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which was eventually published and later turned into the historical novel The Days of the Bitter End, where chapter 21 here, suggests (reveals?) that Kennedy foresaw his assassination at the hands of the CIA, as reported by The New York Times’ most esteemed columnist, Arthur Krock. (Sourced from William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream.)
“I became the scapegoat,” Meader said. “When it was good, people thought I was the real deal. They would ask me what to do about Castro.”
When it was good, it was very good. Glamour was now in the White House. High culture was sought and celebrated. Novelists, artists and poets dined with Jack and Jackie. Here is what Kennedy said, April 1962, at a table honoring Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” (See The American Presidency Project.)
This was the age of a new frontier. The nation was on the move. Our president was young, so we were all young. Our first lady was beautiful. All women were beautiful. Kennedy was one of us. He was hip. When he was asked what he proposed to do about some college kids who had defied the ban on visiting Cuba, he said that if he were 21, he’d have done the same thing.
We laughed. America was a nation of laughter, even as the Soviets had 10,000 missiles pointed in our direction. Still, we danced and twisted with Hula Hoops. Our president was charming. His press conferences were peppered with snappy flirtations. Bad back and all, he was athletic and adventurous. He got us hooked on a fitness craze — and he promised us the moon, and delivered.
His youthfulness was the target of endless jokes. So this got the biggest laugh of all, but from Vaughn Meader. “The rubber swan is mine.”
You had to be there to appreciate that line. You had to be there for that brief shining moment that was Camelot.
New from Jack Engelhard, recapturing JFK and the 1960s as no other historical novel, The Days of the Bitter End.
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