GALL IT A LOUSY SPIN ON THE WHEEL of fortune—one of the few in Merv Griffin's life. For four decades, the genial entertainer turned entrepreneur, who drilled into such game-show gushers as Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, had come up a winner. In his earlier years, as a daytime talk show host with a winsome smile and a warmth that set hearts aglow, Merv was proud to proclaim himself a "constant companion to housewives." He seemed to find success effortlessly, by pressing his thumb on the pulse of Middle America. In his personal life, too, Merv seemed to hew to a traditional path: He married Julann Wright, a secretary turned comedian, in 1958, and with their son, Anthony, now 31, lived a simple life on their farm, brewing homemade wine and riding horses. Even when Griffin divorced in 1976, he delighted his largely female fans by offering Julann a generous settlement, a reportedly—and then unheard of—$5—$10 million, half his worth at the time. Later, with more than $250 million in his pocket from the sale of Merv Griffin Enterprises and with glamorous Eva Gabor—regularly rumored to be his fiancée—at his side, the bubbly, gray-haired bachelor thrived, wheeling and dealing as a hotel and casino tycoon.

Then, on April 11, the wheel took an unexpected turn. Griffin, 65, was hit with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by former employee Brent Plott, 37, who claims to have been not only Griffin's business consultant—selecting Vanna While to spin the Wheel of Fortune, for example—but his lover. "We lived together, shared the same bed, same house," Plot said to NBC News. "He told me he loved me."

In a statement issued by his attorney, Griffin denied everything: "This is a shameless attempt to extort money from me," he said. "This former bodyguard and horse trainer was paid $250 a week, lived in one of two apartments underneath my former house as part of his security function, and left my payroll six or seven years ago. His charges are ridiculous and untrue."

The story, as told by Plott and his Florida-based lawyer, Ellis Rubin, goes like this: In 1976, the same year Griffin and Julann were divorced, Griffin met Plott in Monte Carlo. Plott had been stationed in Germany for most of his three-year hitch in the U.S. Army. Griffin was smitten, they claim, and he pleaded with Plott to come live with him. But Plott refused. "He wanted to become an antiques dealer," explains Rubin. "He wanted to continue his education." Griffin persisted for years, saying, as Rubin tells it, "Look, Brent, you give up your career, your schooling. Come with me. I want you to be my secretary, to screen people, give me advice on some of my enterprises. And in exchange for that, I agree to take care of you for the rest of your life." Thus tempted—by what Rubin now calls an "oral agreement"—Plott agreed to join Griffin in 1981. He lived with him in Los Angeles, Plott says in his lawsuit, providing "advice, consultation, solace and other emotional support" until 1985, when Plott moved to Florida. Later, Plott decided to marry Gloria Diana Manzorro, 46. At the same time, says Rubin, Griffin, in an alleged breach of contract, broke off relations with Plott, saying, "It's all through. You're on your own."

When Plott showed up in Rubin's office last January, he was, says the lawyer, angry, confused and unsure of his rights. "He didn't even know he had a palimony suit," says Rubin. But the media-savvy lawyer did and was soon asking Griffin to resolve the dispute with a fat settlement or risk unseemly revelations about his private life. "I didn't want to do this to Merv Griffin—you know, make it public," Rubin says of his failed attempts to settle out of court. "I kept telling [his lawyers] You better think about this long and hard.' " But it took no time flat, say Griffin's people, for Merv to reach a conclusion. "It's just absolute garbage," says Tom Gallagher, Griffin's lawyer, of Plott's suit. Explaining Griffin's decision not to discuss the suit, he says, "Why would anybody dignify what Plott and Rubin are trying to do by commenting? There's going to be no settlement of this case."

And so, charges Rubin, Griffin will pay with his privacy. "I'm going to open up every day of his life," he threatens. "I go for the jugular." Already Griffin has suffered exposure and embarrassment. "I'm flabbergasted," says a shop owner in Carmel Valley, where Griffin owns a 41-acre ranch near his friend, Clint Eastwood. "I always figured he was an upstanding type of citizen." And yet, compared with the mid-'80s (when, for example, a similar scandal that exposed Rock Hudson's homosexuality, as well as his illness with AIDS, stunned the public), reaction today has mellowed. Yes, say some of those who know Griffin, both casually and better, he is thought to be gay—and so what? "It was common knowledge," says a former Los Angeles associate. In Carmel, too, some of the community suspected. "There was always an entourage of muscle-boy, weight-lifting types with him," says a local merchant. A former waiter at the nearby swank Lodge at Pebble Beach remembers serving the bathrobe-clad celebrity early morning breakfasts on several occasions—each time in the company of a different, handsome young man.

But open as the supposed secret may have been, it was, people understood, a secret. "Merv has always been fairly low key," says San Francisco publicist and Griffin acquaintance Ken Maley. Rumors of romance with Eva Gabor helped preserve the "secret," some say, and bolstered Griffin's public image. "In the old days," offers Randy Shilts, author of the best-selling AIDS chronicle And the Band Played On, "they called someone like that 'a beard.' " Until now, those with occasion to see Merv have willingly looked the other way, and the lawsuit will not change that acceptance. Says Carmel art dealer, Adam Kramer: "It's just not a big deal."

What may end up being a bigger—and more costly—deal is Plott's alleged financial relationship with Griffin. Rubin claims Plott guided Griffin to various investments and that Plott's input was a key factor in Griffin's ability to sell his Merv Griffin Enterprises to Coca-Cola in 1986. "Right there I think we can show Brent is entitled to at least $100 million," says Rubin. But Griffin's business acquaintances question Plott's claims. "It's conceivable that he advised Merv on business," says one associate, "as a husband or wife would." Insists friend Donald Trump, once an adversary with whom Griffin wrestled for control of Resorts International, Inc. in 1988: "I don't believe that he helped him in his business whatsoever. During the course of a year when I was dealing extensively with Merv, this man never came to a meeting, never gave any suggestions, was never seen or alluded to at all. In my opinion, as far as his being a great help to Merv in a business sense, you can forget it!"

In the end, what happens legally—whether Plott is found to have been, in fact, Griffin's lover or his financial consultant or both—will fall to lawyers and jurors to decide. What happens to Griffin's public persona is another question. Some are hoping Plott's charges will encourage the entertainer to talk openly about his supposed lifestyle. "Someone like Merv Griffin has nothing to lose and a lot to contribute by being open, because he's got such a positive public image," says Shilts. But, he concedes, "No one should be forced out of the closet."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
MEG GRANT in Miami
LIZ McNEIL in Carmel
ROBIN MICHELI in Los Angeles
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Meg Grant,
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Robin Micheli,
  • Maria Speidel.