Merv Griffin will always be remembered as one of America's most beloved show business figures. With his trademark charm and business savvy, Merv built a life that defined success. From his start as a band singer, to his twenty-three years on television as host of the Emmy Award-winning Merv Griffin Show, and through his entrepreneurial years, Merv lived the American Dream. Perhaps his most enduring legacy, though, is his creation of the two most successful syndicated game shows in television history, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
Merv: Making the Good Life Last is the quintessential Horatio Alger story of a young man born into modest circumstances who, through hard work, unshakable self-confidence, and an unfailingly positive attitude, dreams his way to the top.
Only to retire and do it again.
In this brilliant, funny, and revealing memoir, full of great stories and even better advice, one of America's most beloved and popular show business figures tells the story of his "retirement" years, in which he made billions and became a bigger celebrity than ever. Merv: Making the Good Life Last is a great American success story, a tribute to a wonderful life, and great entertainment for Griffin's many generations of fans, who will never forget him or his legacy.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
David Bender was a founding contributing editor of George
magazine. His previous books include Stand and Be Counted (with
David Crosby) and The Confession of O.J. Simpson: A Work of
Chapter One: Dreams
When I was five years old, my family lost our house to the bank and we were forced to move. It was the height of the Depression and my father's job in a sporting goods store wasn't enough to keep up the mortgage payments. We lived (and I was born) in San Mateo, a bedroom community twenty miles south of San Francisco. Even today I can remember the exact layout of that house: my sister's bedroom on the top floor, my parents and I on the second floor, the big kitchen that always seemed to be filled with people. Somewhere I still have the picture of me and my sister, Barbara (who was two years older), sitting together on the front stairs looking sad, while we watched our possessions go out the door.
As it turns out, we did leave a few things in the house. One item that apparently remained behind was our original toilet seat. I heard recently that it was sold at an auction to benefit a charity in San Mateo. You know those signs -- "George Washington Slept Here"?
I can only imagine how they described it in the catalogue: "Merv Griffin ---- Here."
I still remember crying when we finally left our house. And believe me, those early childhood experiences stick with you in a powerful way. I'm certain that because I was a Depression baby, there have been times as an adult when I've placed far too much value on material things. That's an instinct I've had to wrestle with my entire life. And although it's taken me seven decades to do it, I honestly believe that I've finally got it beat.
We moved in with my maternal grandmother and her two other daughters, Claudia and Helen, both of whom were older than my mother. How can I describe my mother and her sisters? Each of them had brown hair and deep brown eyes. None of them wore makeup -- they didn't need it. When people see a picture of my mother as a young woman, they frequently remark on her strong resemblance to the actress Anne Baxter (remember All About Eve?). My Aunt Helen was a gifted ballet dancer with a lithe dancer's body who once performed with the legendary Isadora Duncan. She moved through a room and across a stage with incredible grace. Aunt Claudia had the most luminous skin; she looked strikingly like one of the angels you'd see depicted on a holy card.
Even before we moved in, Aunt Claudia had begun teaching me how to play the piano. I'd started at the age of four when I was still so tiny that I could only play standing up, my small fingers banging away on the keys. I was her little "Buddy" (the nickname my mother had given me to minimize confusion between my father, Mervyn Sr., and me), and she was my best friend. When I wasn't practicing the piano, Claudia would sometimes take me fishing at Coyote Point, not far from our house. We'd sit out on the end of the wharf all day catching jacksmelt, the small silver and blue fish that populated the San Francisco Bay. Those were idyllic days; the sky was bluer and the sun warmer. Looking back, I know how lucky I am to have grown up in such a close family.
Probably as a result of my family's financial worries, I became a very entrepreneurial child. The first things I ever did, I didn't consider to be jobs at all -- they were just fun to do. At four, I had a magazine route, selling The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty door-to-door. I carried them in a little white canvas bag on my side. I mowed our neighbors' lawns. Years later, when I was in my twenties and already an established performer, that particular job experience would come in handy. I had become great friends with Frank Loesser, the brilliant composer who wrote Guys and Dolls. On Saturdays he would invite me to his house to rehearse his songs with him. But he also had a not-so-hidden agenda. Every week, without fail, he'd look out at his yard and say, "That lousy gardener didn't show up again. Would you help me cut the lawn, Merv?" And every week, without fail, I'd cut his damn lawn. Still, it was worth it just to spend time with him.
At seven, I decided to start my own two-penny newspaper, The Whispering Winds. It covered all of the breaking news in our corner of San Mateo. I ran it off on something called a hectograph, which used a gooey purple substance similar to Jell-O. By the time I got the paper out every day, my skin had taken on a definite purplish hue. (Picture a kid in a Barney costume and you'll get the idea.)
I was like one of those young newsboys in the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, running everywhere, spreading truth to all the neighbors, whether they liked it or not. Once I included some gossip about the people who lived next door to us. They bought up all thirty copies of the paper before canceling their subscription. My journalistic career lasted until the day I printed an off-color joke told to me by an older kid. I was too young to understand the joke, but the neighbors got it and they were not amused. Our phone rang off the hook with cancellation orders and that marked the end of The Whispering Winds.
Larry King often calls me the "Merv of All Trades." He doesn't know the half of it. Growing up, I had other jobs including setting up pins in a bowling alley (I was once "double-balled" -- before I could get out of the way, a bowler released his second ball and I became the spare); selling war bonds on street corners (my rhyming patter was very effective -- I was the world's first rapper); and selling Christmas wreaths to the wealthy residents of Hillsborough, an affluent community north of San Mateo. I worked right out of the phone book: "Excuse me, Mrs. Van Smythe, I was passing by today and I noticed that your beautiful home on Maple Street doesn't have any holiday decorations up yet. I'm sure you're very busy, but it just so happens that I have some very lovely wreaths that I'd be happy to bring by and show you." If they already had one, I just apologized and moved on to the next name in the book. There's an old Irish term for this -- we call it "chutzpah."
After several years of piano lessons, Aunt Claudia knew that I had gone way beyond what she could teach me herself. Instead of being proprietary about her favorite student, Claudia loved me enough to push me out of the nest. She and my mother arranged for me to study with a trained classical teacher, Madame Siemmens, who taught at Mercy High School, a private girls school in nearby Burlingame. I eventually outgrew her as well, and not a minute too soon -- she used to rap my fingers with her ruler. After Madame Siemmens, I took lessons at a music conservatory and studied under a gifted man named Lesley Growe, who taught me to play some of the great classical piano pieces.
Although I couldn't know it then, the experience of regularly going in to San Francisco as a piano student would soon play an important part in my relationship with Aunt Claudia.
All through grammar school, I'd race home in the afternoon and shout, "Aunt Claudia, I'm home!" But starting around the time I was thirteen, I'd call out her name and, quite often, she wouldn't answer. Then I'd knock on her bedroom door: "Aunt Claudia?" Nothing. So I'd quietly turn the knob and push the door open a crack. There she was, kneeling on the floor in front of a large picture of the Sacred Heart, her body swaying slightly as she murmured her prayers. This generally lasted for about an hour. And no matter how many times I looked in on her she never seemed to hear me. I'd usually just shut the door quietly and wait for her to come out. When she emerged, she was invariably glowing, as if she'd just had the most profound religious experience right there in our little house in San Mateo.
Eventually I asked my mother about my aunt's strange ritual. She told Barbara and me not to mention it to anyone, including Claudia. She reminded us that as a girl, Aunt Claudia's only ambition was to enter a convent, but my grandmother wouldn't let her go.
After a few months of keeping watch on her, I came home one afternoon and found a note on the kitchen table: "Please don't worry. I must be about my father's business." I recognized the quote -- it was Luke 2:49 -- but the import of it didn't really register until my mother got home. We waited for two days without a word and everyone was frantic with worry. My father was getting ready to call the police (Chief Burke was a family friend), when the wall phone rang in the kitchen. I ran to answer it -- it was Aunt Claudia. She'd walked the eighteen miles from our house all the way in to San Francisco, stopping only to sleep in the Daly City cemetery.
For the past day she had been wandering the streets, preaching the gospel to anyone who would listen. I begged her to stay on the phone and talk to my mother, but she hung up. I flashed the receiver (something you can't do anymore) and the operator came on the line. "Yes, sir. May I help you?" I lowered my voice and said, "This is Chief of Police Burke. Give me the location of the last call on this line." "Yes, sir. Just a moment." A few seconds later she came back on the line -- the call had been placed from a phone booth in central San Francisco.
The next morning I got up at six o'clock and took the bus into San Francisco. Fortunately, my time spent studying piano had also given me a working knowledge of the city's geography. I quickly found the phone booth, then I just started walking in wider and wider circles until I found the closest Catholic church. I sat through two Masses and, suddenly, there was Claudia, coming down the aisle carrying a large cross with a figure of Jesus on it. She stopped at the communion rail and knelt down, placing the cross beside her. I went up, knelt next to her and said softly, "It's me, Aunt Claudia. Buddy." She just bowed her head and began sobbing. I cried with her. Finally, I helped her to her feet and we went to a nearby breakfast room to talk. She described her experiences on the street -- how the sailors would pass her by and jeer because she was preaching for peace, at a time when the entire country was preparing for our entry into World War II. I listened uncritically to everything she had to say, then I told a white lie that I knew I would be forgiven for: "Aunt Claudia, we all need you too. Your brother Joe [who lived nearby in the city] is very ill and he really wants to talk to you. Will you call him tonight?"
I left her without really knowing for sure what she'd do. The whole family drove up to Uncle Joe's that night and waited anxiously until Claudia finally called. My parents picked her up and drove her to a hospital for observation. She was given a clean bill of health and released a few days later, but her religious fervor never wavered throughout the remainder of her life.
Just as Aunt Claudia gave me early direction by teaching me to play the piano, my father's brother Elmer was also a strong influence in my young life. Uncle Elmer was the first person to help me see the world beyond San Mateo, a world that previously existed only in the movies I'd seen.
In order to fully appreciate my Uncle Elmer, you first have to understand the important role that the game of tennis has always played in the Griffin family.
There were five Griffin brothers -- Frank, Clarence (known as Peck), Elmer, Milton, and my father, Mervyn. Collectively they were referred to as "those Griffin boys with their lace curtain Irish names." (Until I started this book, I never knew the actual meaning of the name my father and I share: "Merv" means both "from the sea" and "a famous friend.")
All the Griffin men were about 5'9", except Uncle Peck, who at 5'7" was the bantam of the group. And they all had athletes' faces -- those classically ruddy Irish features. My father and Elmer looked very much alike; each had a strong, athletic body and thinning hair. Uncle Milton had jowls, four double chins, and a potbelly, so he was never much of a sportsman. Neither was Uncle Frank, but nobody could play the piano like he could. Oddly enough, although my father and Uncle Elmer were both champion tennis players, it was the smallest brother, Uncle Peck, who was the national doubles champion, a fact he never let his brothers forget.
Peck's title notwithstanding, it was generally conceded that my father was the best tennis player in the family. For a time he even coached Don Budge, one of the all-time greats of the game. But of all the brothers, my father was the only one who chose to get married and have children. Since tennis was still only an amateur sport in my father's day, his decision to support a family forced him to leave the tennis circuit when he was only twenty-one. Ironically, in today's game even mediocre players are earning seven-figure salaries. I've often wondered how far my father might have gone had he been born fifty years later.
I was always grateful to my dad for one thing. As much as he loved tennis, he never pushed his kids to play it professionally. (Neither my father nor my mother were the kind of parents who tried to live vicariously through their children.) It's true that he did try to teach Barbara and me the rudimentary features of the game. Yet like most athletes, he had a terrible time coaching his own kids. He would take us out on the court, but what he ended up doing was just running us back and forth until we got dizzy and fell down. That was his idea of fun.
Elmer also had a lot of fun with the game. So much so that his exploits earned him three separate mentions in "Ripley's Believe It or Not." Once he won three Oregon state titles all in the same afternoon. Then he won a match while wearing roller skates (his opponent wore sneakers). My favorite Ripley's entry was the time he defeated one of the great players of all time, U.S. men's champion William "Little Bill" Johnston. Uncle Elmer beat Johnston without using a racquet, by catching and returning every serve and volley with only his bare hands. He won the set 6-1.
In 1926, Elmer founded the Beverly Hills Country Club as a place where film executives and stars could meet, socialize, and conduct business. It quickly became a favorite spot for Hollywood stars to see and be seen. Some of the early members included Cesar Romero, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn.
It was almost beyond comprehension to me that my own uncle knew movie stars like Errol Flynn personally! Flynn was my favorite screen hero, leaping from ship to ship, brandishing his sword gallantly in the cause of justice. Invariably in the last reel he would vanquish the villain, then sweep the leading lady up in his arms and kiss her passionately. Fade to black.
When I was sixteen years old, I made my first solo trip to visit Uncle Elmer in Los Angeles. It happened that Errol Flynn was actually staying with him, as he often did between wives and girlfriends. I was literally trembling with excitement when I walked into my uncle's house. What I didn't expect was that my film idol, fresh from the shower, would be sitting starkers in Elmer's living room. Now, how shall I put this? I think it's fair to say that Errol Flynn brandished a sword both on and off the screen.
At thirty-two, Flynn was twice my age chronologically, but a thousand years older than I was in terms of life experience ...
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