Merv Griffin

updated 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

He'd like to forget October. That month one of his four residences—the one outside Palm Springs—burned to the ground. Next, a private jet he owns, with actress Sally Field and family aboard, crashed on takeoff. When told there were no serious injuries, a relieved Merv Griffin recalls, "I started to laugh the most nervous laugh I've ever had. Then I tiptoed around until October was over, hoping November would be better."

Month by month, after all, things have been getting better for Griffin for a long time. This year, at 63, the man known to millions simply as Merv, the shmoozy talk show host who was a TV staple for a quarter century, stood revealed as a secret tycoon, an economic superman who shed his mild-guy disguise to flex some serious financial muscle. And in November, as he hoped, things were better yet: On the 15th he had the pleasure of overtrumping Donald Trump, seizing control of Resorts International with its flagship hotel and casino in Atlantic City and four more hotels in the Bahamas. Already tabbed by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest entertainer in the U.S., Griffin now confirms reports that his personal worth has passed $1 billion. His skyrocket into the financial stratosphere has sometimes been unsettling. "When I started hearing things like 'Where's your subordinated debt?' I thought, 'God, I don't want them to think I'm stupid, but what the hell does that mean?' " says Griffin. "You really have to learn fast."

He is a good student. Aside from the long-running talk show that he gave up two years ago, Griffin developed—and kept the rights to—such wildly successful game shows as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, from which Merv Griffin Enterprises built an empire that included production facilities and prime real estate. In 1986 he sold most of these holdings to Coca-Cola for $250 million. Yet it was Griffin's nervy corporate raid on Trump this year that had Wall Street doing the "ooooohs" and "aaaaahs" that had long been Merv's own trademarks. "If I've learned anything in interviewing," he says, "I've learned body language. In my first meeting with Trump, I sized him up in two seconds. He sat scrunched up the whole time." In the end Griffin got all of Resorts, excluding only its unfinished Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, for about $300 million.

Despite all that money changing hands, Merv remains his amiable but restless self. Though his L.A. mansion (left) is lavishness itself, he's building a new place on the 16 highest acres in Beverly Hills. Divorced in 1976 from Julann, his wife of 17 years, he often spends weekends with Eva Gabor at his ranch in Carmel. His preferred entertaining is low-key: quiet at-home dinners with friends such as Clint Eastwood and Mel Brooks (with whom Griffin has formed a film company). In at least one respect, however, his billionaire status has souped up his life. For years an accountant has sent him $150 every week as pocket money. Merv recently upped his weekly allowance to 300 smackers.

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