A one-of-a-kind life that began with a lovely bunch of coconuts, skyrocketed during conversations with presidents, global icons, and Hollywood heavyweights, intertwined itself into our culture via game shows, and rode off into the sunset on the backs of racehorses and world-class hotels has ended. Merv Griffin died last weekend after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 82, and he was my great-uncle.
A bandleader and singer who hit the national limelight with his rendition of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in 1950, Merv found his calling as a television talk-show host, interviewing everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Nixon, and Bobby Kennedy to Orson Welles, John Wayne, and Grace Kelly during 25 years on The Merv Griffin Show. For the gifted storyteller and master conversationalist from San Mateo, a talk show was the perfect fit, winning him dozens of Emmys and the rapt attention of the American public. He simultaneously pursued his other passion-trivia and wordplay games-inventing Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, two enduring facets of American culture.
Merv then turned to the hospitality business-“hotels are like talk shows with beds,” he liked to quip-buying, renovating, and selling more than 20 hotels and resorts, from casinos in Atlantic City and a castle in Ireland to Paradise Island in the Bahamas and the iconic Beverly Hilton on Wilshire, which became home to the Golden Globes. He also dabbled quite seriously in horse racing, winning a Breeder’s Cup race and qualifying for the Kentucky Derby this past year. His self-made fortune is estimated at more than $1 billion.
That, in short, is why the world knows him simply as Merv. But I always knew him as Uncle Buddy, a nickname from his childhood that’s a nod to his love of family, his playful nature, and his generous humility. Fittingly, my first memories of my great-uncle center on the family reunions he hosted at his hilltop ranch above the Carmel Valley, where hundreds of distant cousins-Merv somehow knew all their names-would don Western attire for a wild hoedown. I remember his trademark smile and guttural chuckle making frequent appearances on those weekends as he basked in the glow of everyone else’s happiness.
While too young to grasp what fame or fortune was, I surely knew what “fun” was, and going to Uncle Buddy’s always meant there’d be tons of that. Times spent in his presence were unequivocally joyous, never bogged down by the pomp and circumstance we’ve come to equate with the rich and famous.
As I grew older, the nature of his cultural impact started sinking in: hearing the Jeopardy! tune (which he claimed to have written in 15 minutes) at baseball games; seeing his name in headlines as battling against Donald Trump in Atlantic City; waiting every night for his name to grace the TV screen after Wheel and Jeopardy!; hearing big stars-such as Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Jay Leno-thank him for their success, and talk show hosts such as Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen Degeneres credit him with perfecting the interview format. Sure, the parents of my friends were more impressed with his name than the people of my generation, but a simple mention of Wheel or the Beverly Hilton usually made even the youngest cultural know-nothing perk up.
Nonetheless, he remained accepting of all people. Once when I arrived on a private jet at his La Quinta ranch, he began immediately hugging the flight attendant, whom he assumed was my girlfriend. At the same ranch, a Moroccan-themed equestrian spread complete with artificial lake and racetrack, he would often invite his employees and their children to join us for Easter and Thanksgiving dinners, a gesture far exceeding the appreciation expressed by many poorer souls. He was a mogul of the people.
Most of my times with Uncle Buddy were spent amongst my large family. But one weekend in 2003, I went to the desert to cover the Coachella music festival, and his ranch was just minutes from the venue. He happily let me stay in one of his guesthouses, and over our shared meals, Uncle Buddy regaled me with celebrity-laden stories. But unlike the many he’d told me before, there seemed to be an urgency in his voice, as if he finally had started to accept that he might not live forever. It was on this trip that I learned he’d been in a great deal of pain over the years since he first beat prostate cancer in the late ’90s, and that he’d been undergoing cutting-edge medical procedures in hopes of extending his life.
Despite the pain, his work ethic remained unshaken; he kept writing puzzles for Wheel and developing new games, such as Merv Griffin’s Crosswords, which comes out on NBC this fall. His unflinching compassion was also apparent, as he spoke daily with his good friend Nancy Reagan, offering her support as her husband-whom my great-uncle always called “Mr. President,” although they were longtime chums-died from Alzheimer’s.
Uncle Buddy’s compassion was not solely for humans, either. He loved his dog Charlie Chan and, in the past decade, delved deeply into horseracing, which also made him a sucker for the miracle of life. I witnessed this firsthand when, one Easter morning in La Quinta, we watched a horse giving birth. Uncle Buddy was silent, which was curious for such a joker, so I looked his way and saw tears in his eyes. That said more than he ever could have-I saw, at that moment, the true nature of my great-uncle who, even after interviewing the shapers of the 20th century and making more money than small countries, still saw magic in the world.
I’m happy to say he was also proud of me, the oldest grandson of my grandmother Barbara-his sole sibling, who died in 2001 and to whom I was very close. Uncle Buddy would gleefully recount the tales of my birth, how my two grandmothers almost crashed into each other’s cars in the parking lot of the San Jose hospital where I was born. He enjoyed my career choice of journalism-that made us both able storytellers-bragged about my writings to his colleagues, and competed with me while watching Jeopardy! (I swear I beat him once, but he never admitted it.)
In the days since he died, I’ve been watching the tributes on television. It’s bizarrely comforting to watch my Uncle Buddy alive as ever, even though he’s moved into the big resort in the sky. It seems he’s being remembered properly, and even though he died with a whimper and not the bang he would have preferred, he seemed satisfied, telling Larry King last year, “I talked to all the people I wanted to.”
On Sunday, the day he died, I was atop a tall Marina del Rey hotel for a wedding. The view was of the entire Los Angeles basin, from the shores of Santa Monica to the downtown skyscrapers to the hills of Beverly and Hollywood. It was surreal, overlooking this physical and cultural landscape that my great-uncle helped shape during its golden years, when celebrity was reserved for the talented, when the public desired informed conversation, and when good-natured competition of wits was the best entertainment.
As a good friend of mine emailed me Monday morning, “I am sorry for your loss. One hell of a run, though.” And that’s the most we can ask for in this life. If Uncle Buddy taught me anything, it was to enjoy what you’ve got while you got it, and that’s the biggest lesson of all.
Merv Griffin is survived by his son Tony; his daughter-in-law Tricia; two grandchildren, Donovan and Farah; a sprawling extended Irish Catholic family; and more friends and fans than anyone could possibly know. A private memorial service is planned for Friday, August 17, followed by a wake at the Beverly Hilton.