July 6, 1925– When Mervyn Edward Griffin kicked the bucket, he left the world with: Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy (both game shows invented and produced by Griffin) and its theme song, hotels, tons of real estate ventures, more than a billion dollar estate, and a great deal of speculation.
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 gay actor Roddy McDowall at the famed Dakota Apartments in NYC, where Griffin introduced Eddie Fisher to Elizabeth Taylor, and we all know how that worked out.
Griffin had an affair with gay actor Rock Hudson, who he had 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. Golden Age Of Hollywood stars Peter Lawford and Robert Walker were on his list of conquests, and he enjoyed a liaison with Marlon Brando. He was famous in LA 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: Eva Gabor, Moms Mabley, Pamela Mason, and the special song stylings of 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 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 person or topic, something you never saw with Johnny Carson, or in our era, with Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel.
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:
“…& 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 the “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 Dance Fever’s host Denny Terrio, who alleged sexual harassment, and by his “personal assistant” Brent Plott who 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 the pool parties and a parade of boyfriends, but his gayness was viewed as “private” information that was not to be discussed in mixed company.
Even in the 1980s, near the end of his life, Griffin deflected the 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. 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 people were dying by the thousands. He was BFFs with the Reagans, Nancy Reagan in particular, they share a birthday today. 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 Nancy 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”. Maybe it wasn’t true anyway… maybe he was actually dating Eva Gabor. Griffin stayed silent about the epidemic 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.