It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and Abbott Meader is sitting in a beachfront bar in Gulfport, Fla., working on a rum and Coke — neither his first nor his last of the day. He strikes up a conversation with a fellow mid-afternoon drinker. Their talk slowly works around to the question of why, exactly, a reporter and photographer are following Meader around.
”They’re doing a ‘Whatever Happened To…?’ story,” Meader says, adding grandly, ”Whatever happened to me?”
”Are you somebody famous?” his new drinking buddy asks, staring a little more intently now, as if to peer past Meader’s toothless smile, his bushy beard, and his thick glasses in the search for a familiar face.
”I used to be somebody. Now I’m a nobody.”
”Aw, c’mon,” the guy says amiably. ”Everybody’s got to be somebody.”
”Not me. I’m happy being a nobody.”
Now there is an awkward pause. The guy’s still searching Meader’s face for clues. I try feeding Meader a line: ”Do you want to tell him what you did?”
Here is what Meader did: in October 1962, under the name Vaughn Meader, he recorded an LP that sold more than a million copies in two weeks, earning it a place in the Guinness World Records as the fastest-selling album of all time. It went on to sell a total of 7.5 million and to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Overnight, Meader became a star: He was profiled in TIME and LIFE. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Show, The Joey Bishop Show, What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth. He was arguably the second-most-famous man in America. He played the Blue Angel in New York City; he filled the big room at the Sahara in Las Vegas. His exploits studded Walter Winchell’s column. He kissed Judy Garland and was asked to open for Harry Belafonte. At the peak of Meader’s fame, Frank Sinatra offered him a chance to join the Rat Pack. He said no.
The album that had made him a star was called The First Family, and Meader’s skill — his gift — was doing a very funny, spot-on impersonation of the most famous man in America, President John F. Kennedy. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Meader flew to Milwaukee to do his Kennedy act for the state Democratic party. At the airport he stepped into a cab. The driver turned and said, ”Did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?” Meader had grown accustomed to being recognized by strangers and hearing Kennedy jokes, so he figured it was a setup line. ”No,” he replied. ”How does it go?” Before the cabbie could answer, Meader heard the news on the radio.
So on that day Vaughn Meader — then all of 27 years old — woke up famous and went to sleep a has-been.
A grim punchline of sorts arrived 10 days later, when Lenny Bruce took the stage at the Village Theater in the East Village for his first appearance since the assassination. He paced back and forth, letting the anticipation build: What could the ultimate dark comedian possibly have to say about this national tragedy?