Cover image for Merv : making the good life last
Title:
Merv : making the good life last
Author:
Griffin, Merv, 1925-2007.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2003]

©2003
Physical Description:
vi, 226 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
ISBN:
9780743236829
Format :
Book

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PN1992.4.G77 A3 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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PN1992.4.G77 A3 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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Summary

Summary

In this brilliant, funny, gossipy, and revealing memoir, full of great stories and even better advice, one of America's most beloved and popular show business and television figures tells the story of his "retirement" years, in which he made billions and became an even bigger celebrity than ever.


F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous observation that "there are no second acts in American lives" only goes to show that he never met Merv Griffin, whose life is proof positive that not only can you have a smashing second act, but that a brilliant third act is quite possible as well.

"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.

And then he retires and does it again.

Now, at seventy-seven, he is doing it still, reinventing himself and his life in new and extraordinary ways, and enjoying it more than ever.

For millions of Americans, the life of Merv Griffin "defines" success -- a life lived first on stages all over the world as a band s


Author Notes

Television personality, game-show producer, and real estate magnate Merv Griffin was born in San Mateo, California on July 6, 1925. After graduating from San Mateo High School in 1942, he registered for some classes at San Mateo Junior College and the University of San Francisco, but dropped out to focus on his music. He had many careers in this lifetime including a singer with a hit song, I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts; a movie actor, and finally he moved to television. His longtime television career included variety-show appearances, game show host, talk show host, and the creation and production of the game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. After leaving the television business, he focused on real estate. He wrote two memoirs and won 17 Daytime Emmy awards including a lifetime achievement award in 2005. He died from prostate cancer on August 12, 2007.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Merv Griffin, one of America's most famous and enduring entertainers, shares stories from his long career in this good-humored and gossipy autobiography. From fairly humble beginnings that included writing songs and singing on a local radio station and touring America with Freddy Martin and his orchestra, Griffin steadily rose through the ranks of the entertainment industry. He candidly recounts his adventures as a recording star (famous for the hit "I'sve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts"), a contract actor for Warner Brothers who appeared in a number of films, a legendary talk-show host and creator of some of the most successful game shows, including Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, and finally, as a wealthy and respected businessman. Griffin details the trials and tribulations of his early years as well as how he followed his dreams and took advantage of opportunities that yielded his ultimate success. Includes tasty anecdotal morsels about the many celebrities Griffin has worked with in his life. A light read that fans of Merv Griffin or anyone interested in the entertainment industry as a whole will enjoy. --Kathleen Hughes


Publisher's Weekly Review

Griffin, a self-described "Depression baby," lost his home to the bank as a kid and admits that as an adult "I've placed far too much value on material things." Yet his entrepreneurial nature is the dramatic wheel that drives this autobiography. The book's chatty style is reminiscent of a talk show, and beneath its light tone are suggestions of a complex, enthralling person. Dubbed the "Merv of All Trades" by Larry King, Griffin mowed lawns, put out a newspaper and sold Christmas wreaths as a child in California. Early exposure to such stars as Errol Flynn came through his uncle Elmer, a national tennis doubles champion and founder of the Beverly Hills Country Club. Admittedly resentful of being told what to do, Griffin pursued a career as a band singer and eventually made a screen test, which resulted in the disastrous So This Is Love (1953). When Hollywood stardom didn't materialize, Griffin turned to TV; the book presents numerous profiles of the guests he hosted on his own show, from 1962 to 1986, including the temperamental Peter O'Toole and the hostile Al Pacino. Such diverse personalities as Rosalind Russell, Ronald Reagan (who actually liked peanut brittle, not jelly beans), Whitney Houston and Peter Ustinov fill these entertaining pages. The final portion covers Griffin's years as a hotel magnate, bout with prostate cancer, psychoanalysis, divorce and weight problems. He conveys his upbeat outlook most effectively when he comments, "I don't watch Survivor. If something requires cheating, lying and cruelty to other people to stay on top, it's nothing I want any part of." Photos. Agents, B.G. Dilworth and Bill Klemm. (Jan. 10) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

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 (his scandalous trial on statutory rape charges wouldn't take place until the following year). Like a sponge with ears, I absorbed everything that I heard during my brief stay. I particularly remember Flynn talking scathingly about his then boss, the powerful (and often punitive) studio chief, Jack Warner. Although Flynn always credited Warner with having the vision to cast him in his first starring role as the swashbuckling hero of Captain Blood, it was no secret that the two men had a tumultuous relationship, due primarily to Flynn's alcohol-fueled escapades off the screen. Flynn's absolute fearlessness in dealing with Warner was fascinating to me. I couldn't possibly imagine that in little more than ten years I would also be under contract to Warner Brothers, and that what I'd learned from Flynn would one day prove quite useful in my own dealings with the tyrannical "J.L." Since early childhood my fantasy had been to do what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did in the movies, which was to clear out a barn and have it became the stage set of a Broadway musical. I never could figure out how they did it; they would get this old barn, and then out would come this million-dollar set. Happened every time. But my secret dream was really to play opposite Judy. In the darkened theater, while she was singing "Dear Mr. Gable" up on the screen, I always imagined that the face in the picture frame was mine, not Clark's. In truth, I didn't yet have any ambition to be on center stage myself. I just wanted to make things happen. You have to remember that at the time I didn't think of myself as a singer at all. I knew that I had a talent for playing piano, but in the beginning that was as far as it went. At this point in my life, having only studied classical music, I admit that I was something of a musical snob. I had little awareness of pop music until I was twelve and my family went to visit my sister, who was spending part of the summer at Camp Imelda up on the Russian River, north of San Francisco. They had a camp show every night where the campers sang or put on skits. One of the kids sang a brand-new Rodgers and Hart song called "Where or When." We didn't use the phrase back then, but I was blown away. I'd never heard a song that sounded so beautiful to me. As soon as we got home I taught myself to play it. Shortly after that I had my first -- and ill-fated -- singing experience with the choir at St. Matthew's Church, which I attended every Sunday with my mother, Aunt Claudia, and Aunt Helen. When I first joined the choir, I was often asked to do the solos, because I had a high soprano voice. One day, without warning (and in front of the entire congregation), puberty struck. I was a soprano no more. Instead I was stunned to hear a croaking sound coming from my throat that sounded like someone was strangling that frog-voiced kid from the Little Rascals. From then on I was only a piano player. I certainly never planned on singing in public again. In the summer of '42 (wasn't that a movie?), I graduated from San Mateo High School. I was seventeen. At 5'9" and 240 pounds, I would fail ten consecutive physical examinations before the military finally decided to give up on me. During the last physical they even detected a slight heart murmur for which I had to be hospitalized. When they released me, the induction officer (whose name, fittingly, was Grimm) said, "That's it, son. You're done. We ain't gonna pay you no veteran's benefits for some heart condition. You ain't goin'." I may have been 4F, but I was determined to make some kind of contribution to the war effort. So I took a job at the big naval shipyard out on Hunters Point in San Francisco. They put me to work in the supply depot, helping to organize provisions that were being loaded on giant transport ships bound for the Pacific Theater. At the same time (and only to please my parents) I took a few classes at San Mateo Junior College. Although I was still very confused about my future, I did know one thing for certain -- I was not cut out for academic life. After twelve years of school, that may have been the only lesson that I'd learned well enough to merit an A+. Unfortunately for me, they didn't give out grades for a lack of interest in school. Don't get the wrong idea. I love to read and I'm willing to match the depth and breadth of my knowledge against anyone with a college degree. Heck, I invented that game -- it's called Jeopardy! But I'm also someone who's always resented being told what to do, particularly when someone says "it's for your own good." I honestly believe that's one of my greatest strengths. Making my own choices has allowed me to be more creative than I ever could have been if I was simply following someone else's lesson plan or job description. More than that, it's meant that I've always had to take responsibility for my own decisions. If it works, I can take pride in knowing that the achievement is truly my own. Should I fail -- and believe me I have -- then I certainly can't blame anyone else for it. Creativity and responsibility. Shouldn't we be encouraging those things in school? Okay, I'll get off of my soapbox. July 6, 1943. My eighteenth birthday. It was a Tuesday afternoon and I'd just taken the commuter train home from my new position in the checking department at the Crocker Bank in San Francisco. Just in case you're wondering about my credentials for the job, let me clear that up for you: my father taught tennis to the Crocker family. Instead of going directly home from the station, for some reason I decided to take a long walk along the railroad tracks. Loosening my tie, I draped my jacket over my arm and headed south toward -- where was I going? Boy, was that ever the $64 question. (Believe it or not, that was still the top prize on one of the most popular radio quiz shows of the forties, Take It or Leave It. Ten years later it moved to television. The show's producer added three zeroes to that figure and The $64,000 Question was born.) My thoughts were jumbled that day, but running through my head -- almost like the soundtrack of a movie -- were the words to "Where or When," the Rodgers and Hart tune that was the first pop song I'd ever learned to play. The lyrics seemed to carry a special significance that day: When you're awake, the things you think Come from the dream you dream Thought has wings, and lots of things Are seldom what they seem Sometimes you think you've lived before All that you live today Things you do come back to you As though they knew the way Oh the tricks your mind can play Perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me that afternoon, because I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sensation unlike anything I've ever experienced in my entire life -- before or since. With a clarity and power that caused me to stop right there on the tracks, a thought -- actually it was more of an awareness -- came into my head: "You will never again be a private person." I began to cry. The pent-up emotions of eighteen years were released in that single transformative moment. When you're awake, the things you think, Come from the dream you dream... All my life I've been a dreamer. But from then on I knew that my dreams weren't just childish fantasies. Something clicked inside me that day. My dreams -- both waking and sleeping -- were no longer mere abstractions; I now understood that I had to act on them. Sometimes that's meant trusting my hunches and taking large risks, despite the odds. Other times I've literally followed the dream itself. And I'm not talking here about grandiose dreams like "someday I'm going to buy the Grand Canyon" (or, as Donald might call it, "Trump Canyon"), but actual precognitive dreams. Dreams that cause me to wake up in the middle of the night and write down every detail I can remember. Even today, when I'm on the phone and doodling abstractedly, I find myself writing down the words, "Where or When." But I do it in a very odd way. All the letters are connected like this: WHEREORWHEN. I have no idea what that means, but it gets weirder. A year after my epiphany on the railroad tracks, I was given a chance to sing on a nationally syndicated radio program called San Francisco Sketchbook that was broadcast from our local station, KFRC. The very first question that Lyle Bardo, the orchestra leader, asked me was, "Do you know 'Where or When'?" That was on a Friday. On Monday, the name of the program was The Merv Griffin Show. I was exactly twenty years old. While I was at KFRC I made it into the record books in a rather interesting way. With my friend Janet Folsom, I formed my own little record label, Panda Records. We chose four songs and I recorded them at a studio in San Francisco. It just so happened that the recording engineer there had recently returned from the war in Europe, where he had been doing experimental recording with something called magnetic tape. In 1946, Songs by Merv Griffin became the first American album ever to be recorded on tape. (If you're looking for a copy, you can find it in the Ampex Museum.) After three years on the air, the first Merv Griffin Show developed something of a following. I had no way of knowing that one of my regular listeners also happened to be one of the most popular orchestra leaders in the country, Freddy Martin. That all changed one morning in 1948 when a young woman (she couldn't have been any older than I was) named Jean Barry called the station and asked to meet me for lunch. She identified herself as Freddy Martin's secretary. Over lunch she told me that Freddy's singer, Stuart Wade, was leaving the band after its current stand at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Then she dropped her bombshell: "Freddy wants you for the job, Merv." At first I didn't believe her. I realized that she was serious only when she invited me to come see the band's show at the St. Francis and meet Freddy in person. Even before I walked into the elegant Mural Room of the St. Francis Hotel, I had pretty much made up my mind to say yes. At twenty-three, I was eager to expand my horizons beyond San Francisco -- and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do exactly that. If I had any doubts about whether I was making the right choice, they were forever dispelled that night. Before I even told him that I had decided to accept his offer, Freddy asked me to come up to the microphone and do a guest song. I went up on stage and, whispering in my ear, he asked me if I could sing -- you guessed it -- "Where or When." You betcha, Mr. Martin. The next day I walked into the KFRC manager's office and said, "Sir, we don't have a contract and I've been here three years. I think that I've done my job well, and you've been very generous, but I quit." The manager, whose name was Bill Pabst (no relation to the Blue Ribbon), was amazed. He said, "You quit?" "Yes, sir. I have an offer to go with the Freddy Martin band as their singer for a hundred fifty dollars a week." Despite the realization that he was about to lose his star, Pabst couldn't help but be amused. "Let me see if I understand this, Merv. You make a hundred dollars per show here and you do eleven shows a week. So you're talking about a weekly salary cut of almost a thousand dollars. You don't understand very much about economics, do you, son?" What he didn't understand was that money by itself was never that important to me. Don't get me wrong, I was glad to have it. But I never dreamt about it. I still don't. What I did dream about was being able to perform on the glamorous stages all across America that I'd only read about or seen in the Movietone newsreels. The Starlight Roof in New York. The Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles. Even the Mural Room in the St. Francis seemed like a distant and exotic world to me. My parents were very proud of me. Still, I don't think they believed it all right away; it took a while for my success to sink in. First they had to cope with the fact that I had become a local celebrity who was now making more money in a week than my father made in a month. And they had to accept that their youngest child would be leaving home to travel all over the country as the featured singer of a famous orchestra. To their credit (and my great fortune) none of that ever changed how they treated me. To them, I was just Buddy. I took my mother to opening night with Freddy Martin at Ciro's nightclub in Los Angeles. I was terrified. The shaking of my legs was clearly visible through my pants. The celebrity audience thought this was hysterical because while I was singing these romantic ballads, my legs were keeping their own separate beat. Of course, whenever people know you're a newcomer, they're extremely forgiving and very generous with their applause. Afterward, all my mother could say was, "They really like you, don't they?" The exhilaration of performing in front of an orchestra is something that, even today, I have trouble describing in words. This much I can tell you -- after doing it for more than fifty years, I still feel it. The moment those violins come in I get a physical sensation of...I suppose the only word for it is joy. That wonderful feeling passes right through my body, the way Judy Garland's voice passed through me whenever I saw her perform. It was also during this time -- for better or worse -- that I began my lifelong association with coconuts. In those days, the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel was the hottest nightspot in Hollywood. And when we were in town, the Freddy Martin Orchestra was the Cocoanut Grove. I sat in front of the band every night -- occasionally I'd shake the maracas -- watching with amazement as every movie actor I'd ever seen on the screen came through those doors. Say a name and they'd appear, as though conjured up by some musical magic -- Elizabeth Taylor, Bing Crosby, Lana Turner, Doris Day -- it was a nightly parade of stars. Of all the celebrities who came into the Cocoanut Grove, perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most unusual, was Howard Hughes. When we played there he was in the audience every night, and I really do mean every night, of what were sometimes three-month-long engagements. He always had a fabulous girl with him, although it was rarely the same girl twice. And although his date was dressed to the nines, Hughes always wore beat-up old sneakers and a tattered sport coat. A creature of habit, he would first order a dish of vanilla ice cream and then he would invariably request the same song, a rhumba that I sang in Greek called "Miserlou." (Down the road it would become clear that these habits were the first inklings of Hughes's obsessive-compulsive personality, but back then he only seemed like a harmless eccentric.) For someone so famous and powerful, Howard Hughes was almost painfully shy. Maybe it was because I was so young, but for some reason he felt comfortable with me. I can't say that we ever became friends, yet night after night he'd see me out front and he'd stop to request his song. I liked him. Years later, Noah Dietrich, who was Hughes's assistant for twenty years, wrote an extensive biography of his former boss. When he appeared on my talk show, I hadn't yet read the book. With great seriousness, as if he was telling me something of extreme importance, Dietrich said, "Merv, do you realize that you were Howard Hughes's favorite singer?" After Dietrich made this shattering pronouncement, he clearly expected me to be impressed. I wasn't. Puzzled, he asked, "You're not thrilled?" "Well, not really," I replied, knowing that would inevitably lead to the next question: "Why not?" "Noah, the man was deaf. Maybe he liked me because he couldn't hear me." In 1950, I recorded a novelty tune called "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." I sang the whole silly song in a cockney accent and, don't ask me why, but it shot to number one on the Hit Parade. All of a sudden I had real fans, not just people who enjoyed my singing. The song was so popular that when we got to Los Angeles, rather than doing our usual stand at the Cocoanut Grove, we were booked into the Palladium, a ballroom with a capacity of 10,000. I will never know Excerpted from Merv: Making the Good Life Last by Merv Griffin, David Bender All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 Dreamsp. 1
2 Allways Bet on Yourselfp. 31
3 Play Your Hunchesp. 62
4 The Eye and the Tigerp. 74
5 The End of the Beginningp. 95
6 Do You Want That in Cash, Mr. Griffin?p. 122
7 He Forgot to Buy the Beachp. 143
8 Healthy, Wealthy, and Wisep. 167
9 Making the Good Life Lastp. 189