Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Merv Griffin

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like cemeteries to boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my photo library of interesting tombstones to good use.

Though many know him from his talk shows and game shows, Merv Griffin was a man of many talents. From novelty song hitmaker to real estate mogul and thoroughbred horse breeder, he did pretty much everything he felt like doing—and he did it all well. Given everything else he had a hand in during his life, it’s not too surprising that he even wrote his own epitaph. But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Long before Jeopardy! and even The Merv Griffin Show, Mervyn Griffin, Jr. was just a kid singing in his church choir in San Mateo, California. He was so good that he landed a job as a big band singer by the time he was 19. He was the vocalist for Freddy Martin and his Orchestra when they made this song a top 10 hit in 1949:

Griffin made enough money to fund his own record label and album, Songs by Merv Griffin; he was touring when Doris Day “discovered” him at a nightclub. She arranged for a screen test, and before he knew it, Merv found himself on the silver screen. He wasn’t crazy about it, though, so he bought out his contract and switched to TV, where he hosted game shows called Play Your Hunch and Keep Talking. He also guest-hosted on The Tonight Show in 1962 during the transition between Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. This led to his very own daytime talk show, which was a bit of a dud and was cancelled the next year.

Then Jeopardy! came along. Merv was mulling over a new game show while on an airplane with his wife, Julann. She asked if it was one based on knowledge and trivia. When Merv responded that the networks weren’t too keen on those shows after the Quiz Show scandal, Julann suggested that the host just give the contestants the answer. Merv didn’t get it. “OK, the answer is 5280,” Julann said. Merv considered, then realized that the question was, “How many feet are in a mile?” They played this game the whole way home, and by the time their flight landed in New York City, Jeopardy! was born. 

And if creating the world’s most famous game show wasn’t enough of a life achievement for Merv, he also composed the world’s most famous “thinking” music—the Jeopardy! song, originally called “A Time for Tony,” was written as a lullaby for his son. He once estimated that the little ditty had earned him more than $70 million over his lifetime. Here's an hour of it, just in case you really need to ponder something.

Of course, in the middle of all of this, Griffin launched a syndicated talk show called The Merv Griffin Show (exponentially more successful than the 1963 go-around) that was famous for its eclectic and sometimes controversial mix of guests. It was on the air for 21 years and won 11 Emmy Awards. It also became the plot of a pretty memorable Seinfeld episode. Here's Merv interviewing Salvador Dali in 1965.

After his show ended in 1986, Merv proclaimed himself bored and bought the Beverly Hilton Hotel from Barron Hilton. He also purchased an Atlantic City hotel from Donald Trump, and owned a resort in Palm Springs, a boutique hotel in Ireland, and an entire island in the Bahamas.

Oh, and he was also a big fan of horseracing. His colt, Stevie Wonderboy, won the $1.5 million Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in 2005. It may have been one of his proudest moments—“There’s a lot of excitement winning Emmy Awards and all of that stuff,” Griffin said after the win. "Then there’s the fighting with Donald Trump, which is fun. But this is extraordinary.”

Sadly, the multitalented entrepreneur died from a recurrence of prostate cancer two years after the Breeder’s Cup win, before he could realize his dream of having one of his horses win the Kentucky Derby. But don’t cry for Merv Griffin—he realized more dreams than most people can even imagine.

If you’re a fan of Merv’s incredibly varied work (including Wheel of Fortune), you can stop and tell him thanks the next time you’re in L.A. He’s at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, and as you can see, he had a sense of humor about his livelihood. He penned a couple of epitaphs in his 1980 autobiography, including “Stay tuned,” but ultimately, his family went with Griffin’s “I will not be right back after this message.”

See all entries in our Grave Sighting series here.

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History
The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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politics
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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