The Media Closet of Merv Griffin

Richard Burnett
Hollywood titan Merv Griffin was your classic closeted Hollywood fag. But you’d never know it from rea-ding his obituaries in the mainstream media in the days immediately following his August 12 death from prostate cancer. The former big band singer – originally touted to replace Tonight Show host Jack Paar – launched his daytime TV talk show The Merv Griffin Show in 1962, the same day Johnny Carson took over the Tonight Show. Griffin would later leverage his career as a popular TV talk show host into a business empire that included the syndicated game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, sold his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola Co. for $250 million in 1986 and was reportedly worth $1.6 billion when he croaked.
But I doubt any of the young men he fucked over the years will ever see a penny. And you’d never know Griffin loved sucking cock by reading the obits.
“Over the years, Griffin was linked to many Hollywood actresses, including Eva Gabor, and he was close friends with former first lady Nancy Reagan,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “But he was also dogged by sex scandals and insinuations that he was gay. In 1991, he was sued by Denny Terrio, the host of Dance Fever, another show Griffin created, alleging sexual harassment. The same year, Brent Plott, a longtime employee who worked as a bodyguard, horse trainer and dri-ver, filed a $200 million palimony lawsuit. Griffin characterized both lawsuits as extortion; ultimately, both suits were dismissed.”
Boy, how the LA Times has fallen.
In Hollywood North, the Toronto Star wrote, “Griffin’s 1958 marriage to Julann Wright produced a son, Anthony, and ended in divorce in 1976. Griffin later had a close relationship with actress Eva Gabor, who died in 1995.”
Reading that you’d think Griffin and Gabor actually fucked.
USA Today was hardly better. They wrote, “Griffin rarely discussed his personal life. His 2003 autobiography, Merv: Making the Good Life Last, devoted just three pages to his 1958-76 marriage to Julann Elizabeth Wright, with whom he had a son, Tony. For more than a decade, until shortly before her 1995 death, Eva Gabor was his constant companion, a vacancy filled in recent years by friend Nancy Reagan. Quizzed about two high-profile, multimillion-dollar 1991 sexual harassment suits — both dismissed — from former male employees, Griffin told a New York Times reporter, ‘I tell everybody that I’m a quatre-sexual. I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.’”
The closest Bob Thomas of AP got to the truth was when he wrote of Julann Wright, “They divorced in 1976 because of ‘irreconcilable differences.’”
The New York Times, quoted by USA Today, itself wrote of Merv the Perv, “Mr. Griffin and his wife, the former Julann Wright, were divorced in 1976. They had a son, Anthony, who, along with two grandchildren, survives him. Over the years, he squired many Hollywood actresses, including Eva Gabor, but he was also dogged by sex scandals and insinuations that he was gay.”
There’s that word “insinuations” again.
Rolling Stone came closest to outing Griffin, in a 2006 profile.
“It hasn’t all been triumph in Merv’s pastel paradise,” Rolling Stone reported. “In 1991, Brent Plott, a former employee described as a “secretary/driver/horse-trainer/ bodyguard,” leveled a $200 million palimony suit against Merv. Plott claimed to have been Merv’s longtime live-in lover and instrumental to the creation and development of Wheel of Fortune. Merv is not happy when this topic comes up. '’Listen – it was extortion,'’ he says. Merv launched a countersuit against Plott. ‘I said, Well, I’m not going to pay him off! That’s admission of guilt. We go to court. I’m not going to pay hush money. I forget what it was – $5 million that he wanted? Five million, my ass.’”
His ass, indeed.
Rolling Stone continued, “Plott’s case was ultimately dismissed with prejudice by the California Supreme Court. But Merv’s legal problems were not over. That same year, Merv was sued by Denny Terrio, the host of Dance Fever, a disco show that Merv created in 1979. Terrio was charging sexual harassment, claiming that Merv propositioned him and then fired him when Terrio declined his offer. This case, too, was thrown out of court. Merv insists that any accusations against him were motivated by greed. ‘It was after they started printing the money stuff!’ he says. ‘After the sale of Wheel and Jeopardy! You’re a target.’”
Rolling Stone concluded, “Merv does not refute the underlying implication in both cases: that he is gay. Nor does he admit to it. Instead, he mentions the high-profile relationship that he began with actress Eva Gabor at the time of his legal troubles. They were photographed everywhere: Atlantic City, La Quinta, Hollywood premieres. Merv says that they discussed marriage, and he parries any direct questions about his sexual orientation. ‘You’re asking an 80-year-old man about his sexuality right now!’ he cries. ‘Get a life!’”
I’d rather Merv Griffin got a life. Certainly he could have made the lives of countless young gay people better had he served as some kind of out role model.
In his own column, the Godfather of Outing, journalist Michelangelo Signorile, wrote on the day Griffin died, “Merv Griffin was an example of how dangerous the closet can be – and how the closet and power are a combustible combination that adversely affects so many other lives. We should point to his life for GLBT youth and say, ‘Don’t let this happen to you. Don’t let your closet compromise you to the point where you are actively harming your own people, even though you have the power to do so much good.’”
Signorile continues, “Griffin never acknowledged he was gay, though it became widely known in Hollywood, even as Eva Gabor played his beard. Yet, it was nothing discussed in the media and, apparently, in many of his own circles, particularly straight political circles. Though he’d quietly led a gay life – and had his pool parties filled with hot young men in years past, as well as a parade of boyfriends – that was viewed as ‘private’ information that was not discussed in mixed company. I had interviewed many gay men who’d known Griffin as gay, as well as men who told stories about how his closet had him doing horrendous things – and how he was threatened by openly gay people.”
How so?
“First off, Griffin’s closet kept him shockingly silent while he had access to the president of the United States as his own people were dying,” Signorile reports. “This man was intimate with the Reagans (and Nancy Reagan in particular) during the height of the AIDS epidemic in 80s, with few treatments available and fear-mongering having gripped the media…
“Secondly, Griffin’s closet had him engaging in workplace sexual harassment, something that, as I showed in my 1993 book Queer in America, is common among closeted powerful men, who often are simply seeking outlets for sex. That was not only focused on in the Denny Terrio lawsuit against Griffin but also was something that several Hollywood gay men told me about, offering first hand experience, while I was researching Queer in America back in the early 90s and some of this (though, for legal reasons not all) is reported on in the book…
“Finally,” Signorile winds down, “Griffin’s closet had him firing gay men who’d actually made it up through the ranks of his own company, simply because they were openly gay. There is a story in Queer in America about a man identified as “The Mogul” who did just that. I can now reveal that The Mogul is Merv Griffin. Open homosexuality is a threat to the closeted, and powerful people in the closet like Merv Griffin will often do whatever it takes to squash those who are open and who might advocate that all among the powerful should come out.”
So, as the mainstream media that assiduously protected Griffin’s closet now heralds him as a Hollywood titan, it is important to remember that Merv Griffin was also as queer as a Three Dollar Bill – and he hated it.

Richard Burnett is Editor-at-Large of Montreal’s Hour magazine where he writes his national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill, which you can also read online at