July 6, 1925– Mervyn Edward Griffin
When Merv Griffin kicked the bucket, he left us with eternal Wheel Of Fortune, and Jeopardy (both game shows invented and produced by Griffin) and the Jeopardy theme song, hotels, tons of real estate ventures, more than a billion dollars in real estate, and a great deal of speculation about his gayness.
According to the biography Merv Griffin: A life In The Closet (2009) written by his pal Darwin Porter, Griffin’s first big crush was Errol Flynn, who Griffin happened to see passed out naked on a couch. Griffin was roommates with gay actor Montgomery Clift for two years. He also lived with Roddy McDowall at the famed Dakota Apartments in New York City, where Griffin introduced Eddie Fisher to Elizabeth Taylor, and we all know how that worked out.
Griffin had an affair with actor Rock Hudson, who he had just happened to have met through Henry Wilson, Hudson’s agent, who advised him to keep his gayness locked in the closet. Plus, Griffin got his hands on young James Dean who was selling sex for cash. He had an affair with Judy Garland‘s Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) boy next door, Tom Drake. Film stars stars Peter Lawford and Robert Walker were on his list of conquests, and he enjoyed a liaison with Marlon Brando. He was famous in Los Angeles A-gay circles for his all-male pool parties with hired porn stars serving up the refreshments.
I used to come home from elementary school and let myself into our house with a key, let the dog out, practice the piano and then settle in to watch The Merv Griffin Show (1962-1986). At that tender age I was already zany for show biz and I was big on Merv’s regular guests including: the always entertaining Eva Gabor, Moms Mabley, Pamela Mason, and the special song stylings of the inimitable Mrs. Miller.
Griffin had all sorts of guests from all manner of celebrity on his show: actors, sports figures, singers, scientists, musicians, politicians, writers, and people famous for being famous. Watching the show, you might catch Rosa Parks sitting beside John Wayne, Salvador Dali chatting up Aretha Franklin, Hedy Lamarr alongside Woody Allen. He once had booked comic Phyllis Diller who remained on the couch for an interview with Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese navy officer who planned and led the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a moment so nutty that, for a moment, I considered giving up smoking pot.
Griffin was a fan of The Golden Age of Hollywood, and his shows served as a fascinating forum for stars looking back on their careers: Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Bette Davis, William Wyler, Ingrid Bergman and John Wayne were just some of his guests that got the entire hour as the only guest.
Griffin possessed an overly concerned conversational style which created the perfect atmosphere for conducting interviews that could be deadly serious, or seriously silly, depending on the guest. Rather than do an interview for the customary six minute talk show segment, Griffin would provide lengthy, deep discussions, sometimes stretching out for more than 30 minutes. Sometimes, Griffin would dedicate an entire show to a single topic, something you never saw with Johnny Carson, or in our era, with Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel or Ellen DeGeneres.
Griffin was super smart, and he realized that to grab the modern audience he had to take chances. That made him more open to booking some of the era’s most groundbreaking new talent. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were little-known stand-up comics performing in small clubs around Greenwich Village in 1965 when Griffin discovered them just weeks apart and booked them on his show. Griffin gave them both multi-show contracts and had them on regularly for the next two years, giving them their first television exposure and providing a major boost to their careers. Pryor was a particular favorite. Griffin would announce: “…and now here’s our own little Richie Pryor”, as he brought on the awkward young comic, who did his famous imitation of a children’s production of Rumpelstiltskin on Griffin’s show. Pryor soon developed his own raw provocative style. A few years later Griffin saw Pryor’s live club act for the first time. He said: “I was shocked. It was the filthiest routine I’d ever heard in my life”.
Griffin had a swell sidekick, an elderly British character actor named Arthur Treacher who, after reading off the names of the guests, would introduce Griffin with the phrase:
“… and now, here’s the dear boy himself, Meeeer-vin!”
In 1970, when Griffin relocated the show from NYC to Hollywood, he left behind Treacher who told him: “At my age, I don’t want to move, especially to someplace that shakes”. After that, Griffin would announce himself, walking on stage after saying:
“And now… heeeere I come!”
Griffin’s not so secret gay life was well known in showbiz circles, but not to his viewers. He seemed to have suffered from what I call “Liberace Syndrome”, where he could not consider that his middle-American, middle-aged, mostly female fans would accept his gayness when all the rest of the world could hardly ignore it.
In 1991, the subject of his sexuality became an issue when he was targeted in a couple of lawsuits, one by the Griffin produced syndicated show Dance Fever‘s host Denny Terrio, who alleged sexual harassment. Around the same time his “personal assistant” Brent Plott sought $200 million in palimony. Both suits were eventually dismissed. For a decade, Eva Gabor had the role of his beard. Nothing was discussed in the media or in his own group of friends, particularly in Conservative political circles. Griffin quietly led his gay life, with his pool parties and his parade of boyfriends, but his being queer was viewed as “private” information and was not to be discussed in mixed company. Griffin, being coy, stated:
I tell everybody that I/m a quatre-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.
Even in the 1980s, near the end of his life, Griffin deflected the persistent gay questions with quips, determined to keep his private life private. He felt that he needed no explanation. I think maybe he owed it to himself to open up the secret that he’d been forced to hide throughout his life. Too bad. Too sad.
Griffin had an exalted place in the Hollywood firmament at a time when being openly gay was unthinkable and the allegation alone could ruin a career. Yet, I think that the public would have been more tolerant about his being gay as he grew into old age. Griffin’s little brush with a tabloid scandal probably only drove him deeper into the closet.
Griffin’s closed closet kept him shockingly silent while gay men were dying by the thousands. He was best friends with the Reagans, Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) in particular, they share a birthday today.
Reagan was born Anne Frances Robbins and after being adopted by her stepfather Dr. Loyal Davis, she changed her name to Nancy Davis. After her graduation from college, with the help of her mother’s friends in the theatre, including ZaSu Pitts, Walter Huston, and Spencer Tracy, she pursued a professional career as an actor. She landed the role of Si-Tchun, in the 1946 Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical Lute Song, starring Mary Martin and young Yul Brynner. Oscar Hammerstein told her “You look like you could be Chinese”.
She moved to Hollywood with a seven-year contract with MGM in 1949. She was petite and sort of attractive and possessed a somewhat distant manner made her hard for MGM to cast and publicize. Davis made 11 feature films, usually typecast as a “loyal housewife”, “responsible young mother”, or “the steady woman”. Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds and Janet Leigh were her competition at MGM. Davis dated Clark Gable, Robert Stack, and Peter Lawford, but she soon met the man who would become the 40th President of the United States, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. I guess she liked presidents.
She had noticed that her name had appeared on the Hollywood blacklist. Davis sought Ronald Reagan‘s help in having her name removed from the list. Reagan informed her that she had been confused with another actor named Nancy Davis. They began dating and their relationship was the subject of many gossip columns; one juicy item claimed it was: “the romance of a couple who have no vices” Reagan had just gone through a painful 1949 divorce from Jane Wyman. They dated for three years and married in 1952. The only people in attendance were William Holden and his wife, Brenda Marshall (the matron of honor). The ceremony was kept from the press because Nancy was pregnant.
During the Reagan’s 66-year marriage, Nancy remained deeply committed to her husband, to the chagrin of his White House staff. She played a key role in her husband’s decision making. She was a perfectionist and could be difficult to work with. She did not want the women on her staff wearing pants, and she could not abide long hair on White House maids. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, arrived at the White House for their historic visit in 1987, Nancy had all the floral arrangements changed three times in one day so that she could ”blow Raisa’s socks off”.” She understood the power that came with the job in a way that no other First Lady, except for Jacqueline Kennedy. The President called Nancy “Mommy”; she called him “Ronnie”. Isn’t that adorable?
Nancy Reagan and Griffin spent a lot of time together, dinners and lunches, and he was invited to the state dinners.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, with few treatments available and fear-mongering having gripped the media, Griffin said nothing. His friends, his lovers, gay men across America and around the world suffered and met horrifying deaths. Griffin stayed closeted and it is highly unlikely he ever connected the dots for the Reagans, pointing out the government indifference, or even talking openly about being a gay person. Ronnie and Mommy probably knew he was gay, but it was something that always went unspoken. The Reagans probably rationalized that Griffin was not like “those dreadful people”. They probably thought that he was actually dating Eva Gabor. Griffin stayed silent about the plague in the media, ironic because he was at the center of it all, a major force in shaping the television industry when his voice would have made a huge difference.
Griffin’s final credits rolled in 2007, taken when he was 82-years-old. He left behind a gigantic fortune and a bunch of unanswered questions. Nancy Reagan joined him in that greenroom in the beyond in 2016, taken by a hardened heart at 94. Anybody who was anybody attended her funeral.