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The dangerous closet of 'The Mogul'

Merv Griffin, the entertainment mogul who passed away the other day at 82, has been rightfully lionized for his role in Hollywood history. The producer of “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” turned those game shows into a multimillion-dollar empire, and did equally well as a hotelier/casino mogul.

What you didn’t see in the MSM obits (aside from the one in the New York Times) was a mention of Griffin’s openly closeted life.

In a Rolling Stone piece about Griffin in 2006, it notes that Merv was sued twice in 1991, the first a “palimony” lawsuit by a former employee, the second a charge from “Dance Fever” host Deney Terrio that the impresario made a pass at him then fired him for not complying. Both suits were tossed out. However:

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 eighty-year-old man about his sexuality right now!” he cries. ”Get a life!”

You may ask, how is this kind of gossip journalism? Those in the field of celeb journo would probably disagree with you that it isn’t journalism. The field may be tawdry and invasive (look at how they hound poor Lindsay Lohan), but this kind of reporting is big bucks. Coverage of openly-closeted gay celebrities versus het ones is still a struggle for the MSM. There have been quite a few articles written about the straight-washing of gay public figures in bios and obits, even ones where the figure was socially out, out within their industry and it’s known in the media.

The MSM managed to “straight-wash” Luther Vandross with nary a mention of his homosexuality back in 2005. As I said back then, the real problem is that the news media, which has no problem recounting the endless het romances of stars (real or alleged). The “legitimate” press can be ridiculously squeamish about reporting basic facts about gay public figures (such as the partner left behind).

In Vandross’s situation (as well as in the posthumous media de-gaying cases of Susan Sontag and Ismail Merchant), the coverage bent over backwards, straining any sense of credibility, to avoid any fact-finding about that might reveal he was gay, even if Vandross was openly gay in his social circles — but not to his fan base.

***

Michelangelo Signorile doesn’t hold back in his examination of Merv Griffin’s Dangerous Closet. The author of the landmark Queer in America (1993) discussed how the protected, openly closeted life the late entertainer and mogul led to silence during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Griffin, a close friend of the Reagans, and who served as a pallbearer at the former president’s funeral, chose not to leverage his personal influence.

Griffin’s closet kept him shockingly silent while he had access to the president of the United States as his own people were dying. 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. Griffin’s gay brothers — his friends, his lovers, his people across America, around the world — suffered and met horrific deaths. And yet, because he was closeted it is highly unlikely he ever made the connection for the Reagans (between himself and those who were suffering and dying), pointed out the government negligence, or even talked openly as a gay person. They likely knew, but it was unspoken, and that allowed all involved to just rationalize things — to say to themselves that, well, Merv, is not like those other people, and to always believe that maybe it wasn’t true anyway, and that he was truly dating Eva Gabor. He also stayed silent about the epidemic in the media — ironic since he was a man very much at the center of the media industry and in shaping communications and television in this country — when his voice would have made a huge difference.

…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.

Merv Griffin accomplished a lot and is, in his death, being held up as a example of a stellar Hollywood businessman. But he should also be held up as man who, like Malcolm Forbes before him, was hugely influential and powerful and yet still allowed the closet and homophobia to manipulate his life, and to cause him to do harm to his own people. That should not be forgotten.

It is clearly a personal decision to become an out activist when you’re not a political figure or elected official.  It’s unfortunate and tragic that, given the access to the Reagans he had, Griffin didn’t feel he could do more, even privately. As he was a multimillionaire and smart businessman, there was little risk to him financially for coming out. Griffin was a man of a different era when it came to the closet, it’s unlikely that any celebrity of his era would have been willing to go on the record in the media for any kind of gay rights advocacy. It just didn’t happen. And the right likes it that way — witness their increasing hysteria as more gays and lesbians kick the closet door open.

Go read the rest.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding