Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

An unlikely success


Tell-all biography of Merv Griffin disappoints

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Show business is filled with remarkable careers that few would have predicted. Merv Griffin (1925-2007) fits that category. Born Mervyn Edward Griffin, Jr. in San Mateo to a middle-class family, he had performing ambitions early. Despite an undistinguished voice, he became a singer with Freddy Martin Orchestra's during the late Big Band Era. His ambition for movie-musical stardom failed, yet by the time of his death, he had become a major force in television, both as a talk show host and as the inventor of syndicated game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, leaving an estate of $1.6 billion. Darwin Porter's Merv Griffin: A Life in the Closet (Blood Moon Productions, $26.95) is a salacious but unsatisfying and unreliable retelling of what should be a compelling study of the price many celebrities paid for publicly denying their sexual orientation. 

Griffin's greatest skill seems to have been ingratiating himself with people who were more famous, better-looking, more talented than he was, and earning their trust. He frequently was in the right place at the right time and, if Porter is to be believed, bedded almost every attractive gay, bisexual, or willing-to-try-it man in Tinseltown, often paying for their services. According to Porter, Griffin was obsessed with large penises, and among those properly equipped whom he serviced were Rock Hudson, Roddy McDowell, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Burt Lancaster, Nicky Hilton, one-time movie Tarzan Gordon Scott, Guy Madison, and second-tier leading man Steve Cochran, who reportedly had the largest endowment of all, big enough to satisfy the rapacious Joan Crawford, with whom he starred in The Damned Don't Cry (1950). Griffin also had a brief affair with Montgomery Clift, but it proved unsatisfactory, because Clift had a very small penis, one of the many things troubling that handsome and talented actor.

Porter admits that many of his quotes – usually about sexual encounters – aren't verbatim, but rather "conversations remembered," and, "If the wording isn't exactly right, the points are dead-on." Alas, that's questionable. He's also vague on chronology. Hence, he "quotes" Elizabeth Taylor criticizing Marilyn Monroe at a time when she probably hadn't heard of her, let alone met her. Even more unbelievably, he claims they were rivals for Clift, whose homosexuality was well-known to both. The book is filled with so many unverifiable assertions that defy common sense that it throws into question almost everything Porter describes.

Griffin got a contract with Warners, but appeared in few movies, usually uncredited, although he got billing and screen time in So This Is Love (53), The Boy from Oklahoma, and Phantom of the Rue Morgue (54). He failed to replace Gordon MacRae, a much better singer, as the studio's top male musical star. Reluctantly giving up on films, he continued singing and working on television, usually temporarily replacing vacationing personalities. Stardom came with his syndicated daytime talk show, which ran from 1962-86. As an interviewer, he was respectful and charming, although he often had controversial celebrities as guests. Profits from Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune enabled him to  invest in hotels, casinos, and other lucrative ventures. Porter barely discusses Griffith's business acumen, which must have been exceptional.

Almost no mention is made of the woman Griffith married, by whom he had a son, Tony. Towards the end of the biography, Griffin, dying from cancer, is quoted as telling his son, "You are my life." It comes out of nowhere, since Porter barely gets beyond Griffin's bedroom exploits to illustrate what kind of father he was.

He addresses Griffin's repeated denials about his sexual orientation and use of actress Eva Gabor as a beard. Porter argues, correctly, that for a man of Griffin's era, publicly coming out was far too risky, although had he done so towards the end of his life, it wouldn't have mattered. Griffin undoubtedly suffered from internalized homophobia and was uncomfortable in the age of gay liberation. In this, he resembled Hudson, Liberace (reportedly a close friend), and many others. Late in life, two handsome young men sued him for palimony. Griffin refused to pay, and prevailed in court. Porter portrays a man capable of friendship, but guarded. He doesn't seem to have found emotional fulfillment with anyone, and while he was rarely alone, appears to have been fundamentally lonely. These are themes that a good biographer would develop, but here are unexplored.

Porter lists many sources, but provides no footnotes. Even more telling is who isn't cited. Actor Jack Larson (the original Jimmy Olson on television's Superman), for example, was a very close friend of Clift's and often helped him. He isn't mentioned. Porter doesn't seem to have spoken with Tab Hunter, who, like Hudson and others, was represented by the notorious agent Henry Willson. McDowell, whose "conversations" appear frequently, was highly regarded for his vast knowledge of Hollywood secrets and legendary discretion. Porter makes him sound like Perez Hilton. Most of the people whom he quotes are dead, and unable to challenge him.

Yanking gay history out of the closet is important. Griffin deserves a competent biographer to tell the story of a man far more complex than he admitted in two unrevealing memoirs, or whom Porter portrays in this tedious book. With luck, a reliable author will write that story.

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