AUBURN – Abbott Vaughn Meader is momentarily energized. Minutes before, his chin had rested on his chest as he dozed on the bed in his living room, in his trailer, in JaLynne Mobile Home Park. But now, he’s explaining why, after more than 30 years, he returned to impersonating the voice that made him famous: John F. Kennedy’s.

He wanted people to pay attention again.

“So I let them have the voice. That’s all I have left. So far that isn’t gone, it’s right up here and can be bought for” – his voice rises- “a song, a song, a song!

Someone in the audience that night in 1994, when Meader gave the world his best JFK one last time, remembers it as “magical. Abbott does these magical things sometimes.”

To Meader’s friends, he’s made magic all his life. To the public, none will top the time he went into a studio in 1962 and recorded “The First Family.” The parody won a Grammy for album of the year and set a Guinness World Record for sales with Meader’s spot-on impression of the handsome young president from Massachusetts.

Millions of albums sold. Meader owned the world. Fourteen performances a week in Vegas. A half-dozen appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” An invite to join the Rat Pack.

He shelved his famous material after the president’s assassination, but that didn’t matter. His incredible run was over. With his newfound lifestyle, the money didn’t last.

Meader, 68, is dying. He’s mildly disappointed the American public will probably remember him as the voice of JFK, despite recording more than a dozen honky-tonk albums and singing almost all the decades since.

Now endlessly tethered to an oxygen line, he hasn’t performed for a large audience in more than a year. Alternately abrasive and charming, he’s happy to talk about his old life – the parts he wants to talk about.

Failing health hasn’t inspired him to cut out cigarettes, or rums and cokes, or sudden bursts into song. Nor has it warmed Meader to the book his wife has written about him.

“I read a chapter and the chapter told me all I wanted to know,” he said in early October, eating red grapes at his kitchen table. Across from him sat Sheila, pale blond archivist, caretaker and fourth wife, wincing as he salted each grape.

“It’s got no romance, it’s like reading a newspaper column.”

He faults her for not drawing him out, insisting: “It’s up to the questioner to dig.”

His life had more drama.

More feeling.

More sex.

So, he says, he’s going to write his own book. Just as soon as he finds a ghostwriter.

Tom Hank’s small production company has optioned the rights to his life story for a made-for-TV movie.

Asked who ought to play him, Meader pauses, then: “Bruce Willis, if he’s free.”

The Voice

Meader was born in Waterville, delivered by a doc in a tux by candlelight, on an evening so stormy the local bridge washed out. The physician barely made it over in time, scooting out from a formal dance.

His father died when Meader was 1, snapping his neck after diving into a too-shallow pond. His mom was an alcoholic, who, according to Meader, didn’t stay in Maine for long after his dad’s death.

He grew up shuffled around; family stories say he started entertaining early. He attended five high schools, kicked out of one – Good Will-Hinckley near Skowhegan – after tearing a sheet into armbands, assembling an army of students, naming himself general and marching around campus.

Meader joined the real Army as a teen. He met his first wife, Vera, a waitress, playing in a piano bar in Germany. (In a pile of memories and news clips, there’s a photo of him and Vera attending the First Annual Hooker’s Ball some years later. He’s wearing a Sgt. Pepper-style outfit. She’s wearing panties, cat ears and gobs of paint.)

Back in the states, he sold Singer sewing machines, delivered frozen chickens, and when he couldn’t make money in Maine, hit the comedy club scene in New York City. He was about 25 when he tossed out a line in JFK’s voice during a performance. People loved it.

In October 1962 he and other actors recorded “The First Family,” taking a break at one point to listen to the real president give the Cuban Missile Crisis speech on television.

The album parodied Kennedy buying gas, playing monopoly and keeping his tub toy from his children. (Famous line: “The rubber swan is mine!”)

It was an immediate smash hit, selling 200,000 copies in three weeks, more than 7 million the first year.

“It had no precedent, no one had ever done it. We thought we had a funny album. We thought maybe we could sell a couple thousand. It was a freak, I’m a freak,” Meader said.

He earned about 10 cents an album, no small sum, and the gang took their comedy act on the road.

The president, for his part, mostly laughed. His wife did not.

Neither did an aide who heard an excerpt on the radio, according to an article by the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and swore it was his boss – right up until: “I don’t see why a person of the Jewish faith can’t be president of the United States. I know as a Catholic, I could never vote for him, but other than that …”

Kennedy allegedly bought 100 albums to give as Christmas presents. Meader was invited to a White House dinner. The First Lady uninvited him.

“Jackie didn’t want me coming. She didn’t like me,” Meader said.

No matter. With thick bangs brushed across his forehead, the right squint, the right finger gestures, he looked and sounded like the president to the point that, Meader has said, he attracted, and accommodated, JFK groupies.

Trying to come back, trying again

At the height of his popularity, Frank Sinatra sent a lackey to invite Meader to join the Rat Pack.

“Tell Mr. Sinatra I’ll get back to him,” Meader said. He didn’t.

With a little encouragement from producers – they sued him – Meader recorded “The First Family Vol. 2” in the spring of 1963. It sold another million copies.

Peter Re, a musician who would later become a friend of Meader’s, remembers the headmaster at his small Waterville school declaring “Vaughn Meader Day” that year. Re wouldn’t meet Meader for another 30 years.

“I thought it was cool that a guy from Waterville, Maine, had hit the big time. Very cool,” he said.

Meader was in a taxi cab in Milwaukee on the way to perform for the Wisconsin Democratic Party when he heard the shocking news from Texas: The president had been killed in Dealey Plaza.

He’d already begun to phase out the JFK bits in his song and comedy routines; venues canceled his acts anyway. Traits that had endeared him were painful reminders.

The Guinness World Record for fastest sales set by “The First Family” was smashed: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy – A Memorial Album,” a collection of speech highlights, sold 4 million copies in six days that December, according to Guinness.

Eventually Meader joined the counterculture on the West Coast. He gave away his Grammy in a commitment to shed all material things, and dropped out. (No clue who has the Grammy today. “He wouldn’t care if he knew,” says Sheila.)

Reinvigorated in the late ’60s, he added Abbott to his performing name – he’d gone by Vaughn, his middle name, before – and released album after album of country tunes. On them his voice is rich and classic, a cross of Johnny Cash and Garrison Keillor.

He sounds like someone having fun.

“Music is my soul,” he said. The famous impersonation, “that was someone else’s soul, that was a rip-off.”

Every few years he’s been interviewed for “Where Are They Now?” stories, always trying to steer people toward his later work and never quite succeeding.

Even with minor appearances in film – he played Walter Winchell in 1975’s “Lepke” and a preacher in 1976’s “Linda Lovelace for President” – his career just meandered along.

In the 1980s, back in Maine, Meader managed, cooked and played regularly at a small Hallowell hangout called The Wharf.

Meader never had any children, “too busy hopping around,” he says.

He met Sheila in a piano bar in the Rockwood Motor Inn. They celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in September.

She takes care of his affairs, bakes and manages good humor while he tosses out requests for a drink or other things out of reach. (A friend once told a reporter the pair have stayed together all these years “because of their irreconcilable differences.”)

“The Vaughn Meader thing was never highly important,” she said. “There was never any star-struckness. In the morning he would read the paper and reinterpret the political news and make me laugh.”

Despite his love of music, Meader went on to release other comedy albums. It was on a 1994 album about evolution called “The Last Word” that he broke the decades-long, self-imposed ban and narrated in the voice of Kennedy.

After the 1998 Ice Storm, Meader bought a house in Florida. That was supposed to be the end of life in Maine.

When Sheila’s stepmother died in 2002, they came to JaLynne in Auburn with intentions to close her estate and sell her modest trailer. Meader got sick and they’ve never left.

He takes frequent naps, sometimes mid-sentence. He has emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A walk from house to car leaves him hacking and desperately winded.

“Fast living took its toll,” he says. “A person in my business runs out of air, it’s a shame.”

The final chapter (unless the Hallowell Fire Department finds out)

In 1997, The Playtone Company, a production outfit owned by Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks, approached Meader about the rights to his life story. He agreed – “I said, Send me 50 bucks and I’ll sign anything.'” – and every few years since they’ve renewed the contract.

“It would be flattering if they do something about it,” Meader said.

Friends ask him, “Who’s going to play me?” He tells them, “What makes you think you’d even be in it?”

Sheila’s skeptical. She’s not sure the project is ever going to happen. Playtone has done shows like HBO’s drama “Band of Brothers.”

A Meader film “would be black comedy, I think. There’s a lot of funny stuff, but a lot of it’s sad,” she said.

A few years back Sheila decided to write down her husband’s adventures.

She talked to family members and tried, without much luck, to interview Meader.

“Anytime I asked you to tell me stuff you clammed up and told me to go away,” she says to him.

Sheila’s book took 178 pages, minus pictures. She called it “Vaughn Meader: Jester of Camelot,” and though she’s shopped it around hasn’t had any nibbles.

The final chapter is all about the funeral he’s planned.

It’ll be at The Wharf, his body laid out on a baby grand piano and soaked with accelerant. After the piano is pushed into the Kennebec River, a friend will shoot a flaming arrow to set it off.

That’s the plan. Oh, plus pony rides for children.

“It’s been all worked out by friends. Everyone knows what their role is,” said Sheila. “I swear to God there is a dozen people involved. Now where we’re going to get the ponies, I don’t know.”

Claudia Brahms, a Hallowell friend, is in on it.

“I made a promise to Sheila it would happen just like he wants it. I don’t think any one of Ab’s friends would let him down,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to stand on an iceberg, I hope the weather cooperates. It’s got to happen.”

Brahms and her husband met Meader after they came to town in 1982. The entertainer drove over to check them out.

“I’d say most of our friends have come through meeting Abbott, and every one of them is the most genuine person you could meet,” she said. “If you even smell like pretension around Abbott, you better go running.”

After an October evening dinner at the Res’, Meader pushed his wheelchair slightly away from the table, put a green, plastic Melodica to his lips and fingered the keys. Everyone listened and watched.

The tune started “Silent Night” and ended two minutes later with “That’s Amore.” Meader missed a few notes (and felt miserable in the car later), but for those few minutes he had an audience again.

He put his instrument down and said he’d like to start planning his next birthday party, for March.

His birthdays are major productions, Blue Bunny Banquets, he’s called them. In the past, he’s topped the bill, playing the night away. That will probably have to change.

“Something where we could honor you,” Claudia suggested.

“Yeah.”

The Meaders have recently decided to rent or sell their Gulfport, Fla., home. A nude oil painting of him in the garage, nearly life-sized, a gift given by a friend, is the only item they have left down there.

“Whoever buys the place is going to inherit it,” said Sheila with a laugh. There’s just no room in the trailer.


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