by Chris Crain
Merv Griffin’s obituaries belatedly pried
open his closet door, but only far enough
to catch a whiff of his sex scandals.
When Merv Griffin died this month, many mainstream media obituaries dared to report what largely went unsaid throughout his long career: the legendary entertainer and entrepreneur was a closeted homosexual.
That news probably came as a something of a shock to most Americans old enough to remember Griffin’s incarnations as a big band singer, or high-brow talk show host, or creator of “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune.” That’s because over the years, especially during the peak of his celebrity, media mention of Griffin’s personal life was limited to photos of him with gal pal Eva Gabor of “Green Acres” fame, with no hint she was really his “beard.”
The willingness of some media outlets to pry open Merv’s closet door, at least after his death, would seem to represent a new maturity in how our society deals with homosexuality as a natural fact of life, rather than the secret shame it was for so many in Griffin’s generation.
Until now, the mainstream media could be counted on to “straight-wash” the lives of gay public figures, whether they were fully closeted in life or not. When R&B crooner Luther Vandross died two summers ago, the public mourned a “lifelong bachelor,” and the media missed the chance to report the irony that a man who built his legend singing about love and lust dared not speak, or sing, about his own.
Ditto when feminist and intellectual Susan Sontag died from cancer in December 2004. Even though a proper search would have turned up some discussion by Sontag about her longtime relationship with photographer Annie Leibowitz, the media deferred to dig.
Filmmaker Ismail Merchant was partnered personally and professionally with James Ivory for more than four decades, and that unique collaboration would have been the central storyline of retrospectives on Merchant’s life if Ivory had been female. But mainstream press accounts of Merchant’s death two years ago stuck to the work relationship.
Unfortunately, the news about Griffin being gay wasn’t in the context of a loving, longtime partner now left behind, or even happiness in coming to terms with his sexual orientation, however late in life. Instead, the obituaries rehashed two tawdry lawsuits from 1991.
One was a multi-million dollar palimony claim brought by Brent Plott, a former secretary-driver-bodyguard-horse trainer who claimed Griffin dumped him after a long live-in relationship. The second was filed by “Dance Fever” host Denny Terrio, alleging sexual harassment by Griffin, who created the show.
Both lawsuits were dismissed, although why isn’t exactly clear. Since gay couples are rarely recognized legally, gay palimony suits rarely succeed, and the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t authorize same-sex sexual harassment suits of the type brought by Terrio until 1998, so it’s simplistic to interpret Griffin’s court wins as a complete vindication.
Whether or not the suits had merit, they did give the media a convenient way to raise rumors about Griffin’s homosexuality in retrospectives about his life. That’s playing fair, if not nice, since a hetero palimony or sexual harassment suit would no doubt receive attention in an obituary about a straight celebrity, too.
But in a larger sense, the coverage of Griffin’s life after his death represents a lingering double standard that plagues reports about gay public figures. No doubt out of sympathy, the mainstream press usually defers to celebrities and other public figures when it comes to reports about a closeted same-sex relationship.
So all too often, the public only learns about a public figure being gay when they’re caught up in scandal. Reports on Merchant and Sontag ignored their long-time lovers, but slap Merv Griffin with a palimony suit from his horse trainer and the press pack is finally ready to ask “the question.”
This double standard doesn’t just come to life in a public figure’s death, either. The media turned a blind eye for years to Mark Foley’s long-term relationship with a Florida physician, so the public learned the Florida congressman was gay from graphic IM chats he had with pages. Former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe skated by the same way, until allegations from pages surfaced against him, too.
Singer George Michael lost a longtime lover to AIDS and even dedicated a CD to him, but the media left the subject of his homosexuality alone until he was arrested for offering sex to an undercover cop in a public toilet.
You get the picture.
Of course the other willing participants in the cover-up are the closeted celebrities themselves. Griffin was demonized by activists like Michelangelo Signorile for not coming out earlier. Ever the morally outraged gossip columnist, Signorile blasted Griffin for not clueing in his pals Ron and Nancy Reagan about AIDS, even though Signorile has no evidence he didn’t. For that sin, Griffin is apparently culpable for the horrific deaths of thousands.
Washington Post TV columnist Tom Shales rallied to Griffin’s defense, explaining away his closet saying the truth would have destroyed his career. That excuse might have worked in the ’70s and maybe even the ’80s, but Griffin and the world changed too much in the last 20 years for that dog to hunt. Just look at Lily Tomlin, for example. And shame on Shales for not fessing up to how questions of homosexuality and the closet are personal ones for him, too.
It takes two to tango, or in this case, perpetuate the double standard. Until the press is prepared to ask questions about happy romantic lives, it’s singularly unfair how they pounce on the scandals. And it’s even more revolting how leeches like Mark Foley or former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey wait until they’re wallowing in scandal to milk coming out for public sympathy.
Are you listening, Anderson Cooper? Jodie Foster? Ricky Martin? How many more celebrity scandals — or funerals — do we need to get this right?