July 6, 1925– When Mervyn Edward Griffin died, he left behind: Wheel Of Fortune, Jeopardy (both game shows invented & produced) & its theme song, hotels, real estate ventures, more than a billion dollars, & a great deal of speculation. According to the biography Merv Griffin: A life In The Closet written by his pal Darwin Porter, Griffin’s first big crush was Errol Flynn, who Griffin saw passed out naked on a couch. Griffin was roommates with gay actor Montgomery Clift for 2 years. He lived with gay actor Roddy McDowall at the famed Dakota Apartments in NYC, where Griffin introduced Eddie Fisher to Elizabeth Taylor, & we all know how that worked out. He had an affair with gay actor Rock Hudson, who he had met through gay Henry Wilson, Hudson’s agent, who advised him to keep his gayness locked in the closet, plus there was a young James Dean 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 & Robert Walker were on his list of conquests, plus 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 & let myself into our house with a key, let the dog out, practice the piano & then settle in to watch The Merv Griffin Show (1962-1986) I was already zany for show biz & I was big on Merv’s regular guests including: Eva Gabor, Moms Mabley, Pamela Mason, & the special song stylings of Mrs. Miller. Griffin had all sorts of guests from all manner of celebrity: actors, sports figures, singers, scientists, musicians, politicians, writers, & people famous for being famous. Watching the show, you might catch Rosa Parks sitting beside John Wayne, Salvador Dai with 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 & led the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, a moment so nutty that I considered giving up smoking pot.
Griffin had 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 6 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 in elderly British character actor 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 LA, 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: “& 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 suffer 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 Dance Fever host Denny Terrio who alleged sexual harassment, & by his “personal assistant” Brent Plott seeking $200 million in palimony. Both suits were eventually dismissed. Eva Gabor played his beard. Nothing was discussed in the media or in his own group of friends, particularly in straight political circles. Though he quietly led a gay life, with the pool parties & a parade of boyfriends, his gayness was viewed as “private” information that was not 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 remain private. He felt that he needed no explanation. I think maybe he owed it to himself to open up the secret he’d been forced to hide throughout his life.
Griffin had an exalted place in the Hollywood firmament at a time when being gay was unthinkable & the allegation alone would 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 tabloid scandal probably only drove him deeper into the closet.
Griffin’s closet kept him shockingly silent while he had easy access to POTUS as gay people were dying by the thousands. He was BFFs with the Reagans, Nancy in particular, they share a birthday today. During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, with few treatments available & fear-mongering having gripped the media, Griffin said nothing. His friends, his lovers, gay men across America & around the world suffered & met horrifying deaths. Griffin stayed closeted & 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 & 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 the media & a major force in shaping the TV industry when his voice would have made a huge difference.
Griffin’s final credits rolled in 2007, at 82 years old. He left behind a gigantic fortune & a bunch of unanswered questions.