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Merv Griffin was gay.
Why should that be so uncomfortable to read? Why is it so difficult to write? Why are we still so jittery even about raising the issue in purportedly liberal-minded Hollywood in 2007? We can refer to it casually in conversation, but the mainstream media somehow remains trapped in the Dark Ages when it comes to labeling a person as gay.
Maybe that helps explain why Griffin, who died of prostate cancer Sunday at 82, stayed in the closet throughout his life. Perhaps he figured it was preferable to remain the object of gossip rather than live openly as “one of them.” But how tremendously sad it is that a man of Merv’s renown, of his gregarious nature and social dexterity, would feel compelled to endure such a stealthy double life even as the gay community’s clout, and its levels of acceptance and equality, rose steadily from the ashes of ignorance.
I’m not at all insinuating that Griffin had a responsibility to come out. That was up to him.
But what a powerful message Griffin might have sent had he squired his male companions around town rather than Eva Gabor, his longtime good friend and platonic public pal. Imagine the amount of good Merv could have done as a well-respected, hugely successful, beloved and uncloseted gay man in embodying a positive image.
As it was, I loved the guy, finding him charismatic and charming. And I had more than a passing acquaintance with him, having worked on “The Merv Griffin Show” as a talent coordinator/segment producer in 1985-86 as the show was winding down. Around the office, Merv’s being gay was understood but rarely discussed. We knew nothing of his relationships because he guarded his privacy fiercely, and we didn’t pry.
Merv’s secret gay life was widely known throughout showbiz culture, if not the wider America. It gained traction in 1991 when he was targeted in a pair of lawsuits: by “Dance Fever” host Denny Terrio, alleging sexual harassment; and by assistant Brent Plott, seeking $200 million in palimony. Both ultimately were dismissed.
Over the past 16 years of his life, however, Griffin deflected the sexuality questions with a quip, determining that his private life remained nobody’s business. He certainly didn’t owe us an explanation, but maybe he owed it to himself to remove the suffocating veil he’d been forced to hide behind throughout his adult life. Then again, Merv carved his niche in the entertainment world at a time when being gay wasn’t OK, when disclosure was unthinkable and the allegation alone could deep-six one’s career.
If you’re Griffin, why would you think a judgmental culture would be any more tolerant as you grew into middle and old age? Even in the capital of entertainment — in a business where homosexuality isn’t exactly a rare phenomenon — it’s still spoken of in hushed tones or, more often, not at all. And Merv’s brush with tabloid scandal no doubt only drove him further into the closet.
While it would seem everything has changed today, little actually has. You can count on the fingers of one hand, or at most two, the number of high-powered stars and public figures who have come out. Those who don’t can’t really be faulted, as rarely do honesty and full disclosure prove a boon to one’s showbiz livelihood.
Nonetheless, the elephant that was his sexual orientation never really stopped following Griffin from room to room. He could duck it for a while, but it would always find him. It’s disheartening that Merv had to die to shake it for good.
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