May 20, 2013
Merv Griffin’s Bodyguard of Lies
Posted on Aug 27, 2007
By Larry Gross
When Hollywood mogul Merv Griffin died on Aug. 12, queer-savvy media watchers wondered whether notices of his passing would maintain his preference for passing as straight. In recent years, celebrity obituaries have continued the long tradition of burying the departed closet cases in journalistically closed coffins, taking the not-so-secret truth with them to the grave. Singer Luther Vandross, writer Susan Sontag and film director Ismail Merchant had all been accorded the privilege of “inning” by the press, however open a secret their homosexuality had been while they were alive. Nil nisi bonum appears to be the rule for editors, and noting that a deceased famous person was gay certainly seems to count as speaking evil.
In Griffin’s case, though, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised, as The New York Times, The Washington Post all noted in their obituaries that Griffin had been the target in the early 1990s of unsuccessful palimony and sexual harassment suits, both brought by men who claimed that he had done them wrong, though in different ways, and both dismissed in court. Still, these lawsuits brought out into the open, if briefly, what had long been known in Hollywood: namely, that the divorced father of one, and highly visible public escort of Eva Gabor, was also gay. In the years since his legal outing, Griffin was sometimes questioned about his sexuality and always deflected the question with a joke: “You’re asking an 80-year-old man about his sexuality right now! Get a life!” In 2005 he told The New York Times with a sly grin: “I tell everybody that I’m a quatre-sexual: I will do anything with anybody for a quarter.”
The Associated Press, however, played the game the old way, limiting its obituary to Griffin’s early marriage:
Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hills funeral was a major Hollywood event, headlined by Nancy Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and co-starring Larry King, Ellen Degeneres and a host of TV old-timers such as Dick Van Dyke, Jack Klugman and Steve Lawrence. For some, the event was reminiscent of the funeral of another famous tycoon, an occasion that played a key role in launching the controversial journalistic-political tactic that came to be known as outing.
The New York gay magazine Outweek introduced the practice of outing closeted public figures, mostly politicians and show business celebrities who were unwilling to enlist in the cause of fighting AIDS. When prominent publisher Malcolm Forbes died in February 1990, the exposure of his homosexual side was not long in coming. The March 18, 1990, cover of OutWeek showed a photo of Malcolm Forbes on his motorcycle, with the bold headline: “The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes.” The article, by Michelangelo Signorile, begins with Forbes’ funeral, noting the presence among the mourners of many prominent homophobes—Richard Nixon, William F. Buckley, Al Neuharth—and asks whether they knew “that they were coming to pay homage to someone who embodied what they ultimately detested?”
Signorile concluded his article with a defense of outing Forbes. First, he noted that, “All too often history is distorted,” and the fact that one of the most influential men in America was gay should be recorded. Second, “it sends a clear message to the public at large that we are everywhere.” The third reason Signorile gave was that this story illuminated a choice made by many gay people. In researching the story Signorile tried to interview a gay man who had been close to Forbes and his family, someone who could have shed light on “the real inner workings of Forbes’ mind.”
The Outweek story set off a firestorm of controversy about outing, with most condemning the tactic. The L.A. Times, which also editorialized against outing, named only dead people: Forbes, Rock Hudson, Liberace, Roy Cohn, Terry Dolan, Perry Ellis and Oliver Sipple; Newsweek limited itself to Forbes (reproducing the OutWeek cover photo and headline) and Liz Smith, a “favorite target” of the outers who is quoted as saying, “I may be a gossip columnist, but I do respect the right of people not to tell me ‘everything,’ and I reserve the same right for myself.” The New York Times would refer only to “a famous businessman who had recently died.” Times spokesman William Adler took a hard line, saying that the paper would not print “hearsay” even if the subject is no longer living: “The thinking at the Times is that in most cases an individual’s private sex life should not be the subject of coverage by the newspaper unless the person wishes it to be so,” Adler said. “That perspective extends through their lifetime and even after their death.”
1 2 3 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: Put an Asterisk Next to Rove’s Name
Next item: Incompetent, Corrupt or Worse
New and Improved Comments