Thursday, May 31, 2012

Here, Have a Graham Cracker!

During my fairly recent trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and nearby Sevierville, I couldn't resist the opportunity to browse through a local thrift store, ever on the lookout for something unusual. I came upon an old paperback book penned by someone I had only the very vaguest knowledge of, one of those old television fixtures who blazed a trail in her field which others could then follow. I forked over the hefty sum of fifty cents, primarily because the book featured a photo in it of the author with Miss Joan Crawford, thinking “oh, what the hell, maybe there will be something interesting in it.”

Imagine my surprise when I later picked up “There Goes What's Her Name: The Continuing Story of Virginia Graham” and found that I could hardly put it down! Virginia Graham was an ebullient, amusing and amused, unusually forthright woman who went from being a caring (but creatively unfulfilled) housewife and mother to a radio writer to a charity spokesperson to a television hostess to a household name. All the while, she endured a roller coaster of challenges that would have done in anyone less resilient. Two things, really, saw her through; her faith and her never-ending sense of humor.

As I pawed through the opening chapter or two (never once knowing what was in store since, as I said, the woman was almost completely unknown to me!), I knew I was going to enjoy her style of writing and, in particular, her sense of what was funny. We share practically the exact same idea of comedy; a self-deprecating take on one's self and a sturdy appreciation for the absurd. Ironically, I had recently told my best friend (who is female if that matters) that the reason we have been so close for so long and can laugh together to the point where everyone around us is jealous and wants us dead is because we both have a very strong sense of the absurd and can laugh at practically anything at any time. We also have always, ALWAYS, been able to laugh at ourselves. (Trust me, this trait can get one over many a devastating hurdle!)

Graham was born Virginia Komiss on the fourth of July (!), 1912 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a clothing store owner who saw the humor in everything and her mother was an exasperating woman who expected doom at every corner and who had immense trouble dealing with anything out of the ordinary. Virginia (who had an older brother named Justin) gave her mother plenty of reason to worry, whether it be due to her health or to her insistence on dancing to the beat of her own drummer. Virginia , as a youth, had survived typhoid, appendicitis, multiple broken bones and an accident that wound up robbing her of one ovary and a Fallopian tube.

She was born weighing ten pounds (four pounds heavier than her two years older brother) and had trouble maintaining the standard of beauty set by her slender mom. A cheerful overachiever and a tomboy, she put herself in peril in order to keep up with her brother and make her parents proud (though she did sublimate any and all negative feelings by eating.) At sixteen, already a grade school playwright, she had won a place on The Chicago Tribune as a cub reporter and was one of the first people on the scene of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre! Chicago at the time was a very violent city, riddled with crime and gangsters.

It surely won't be as funny to read this next story cold as it was for me to come upon it in the midst of all her other hilarious adventures and anecdotes (told in a conversational style that immediately envelops the reader.) When I got to this next tidbit while eating lunch in a local restaurant, I began to completely lose it and in trying to stifle myself (in order to avoid embarrassment!), I grew even more tickled to the point where choking grunts of laughter were joined by convulsions and pulsating tears streaming down both cheeks.

Having graduated early from high school, Virginia was too young yet to attend the University of Chicago and so was sent to a finishing school (National Park Seminary) where her lack of ladylike charisma and elegance stood out. When meeting boys in the lobby, an attendant would ring a little bell if a subject was brought up that was considered inappropriate. According to her, whenever she met a young man, it sounded like there was a fire drill in the building! She wrote that: “They even taught us how to eat a roll. You were never supposed to put a piece of bread into your mouth; you were supposed to get it close to your lips and then toss it in gently. Never having good aim, I had such a pile of bread in back of me the pigeons used to knock on the windowpane to come in.” In any case, the place taught her the importance of remembering people's names, a skill that would come in more than handy later.

While at the aforementioned finishing school, she slimmed down and then shocked everyone by having her hair bleached platinum blonde, like Jean Harlow. This changed her entire life by giving her the confidence to express her personality while also attracting lots of boys, something that had never happened to any great extent before. She eventually did earn a BA in anthropology from the University of Chicago (and ultimately a Masters Degree in speech and journalism from Northwestern University.) Her father had lost nearly everything during the Depression, but his optimistic outlook (and her mother's nest egg) saw him through. She helped him promote a new cosmetic product by going door-to-door to sell it, her effervescent personality doing most of the work for her.

Later, having moved to New York City, she met a man who ran a top costume business. Harry Guttenburg would become her husband from 1935 until his death in 1980. (That's them together in the above paragraph.) Having been under the belief that children weren't possible thanks to that prior operation, she was stunned to find out that she conceived a child while on her honeymoon! Her daughter Lynn (shown here) would be the pride and joy of her life, but while in the maternity ward, she was saddened to witness another child born with cerebral palsy and that feeling of great empathy and concern would stick with her.

Too restless and extroverted to exist solely as a wife and mother (with both a maid and a nurse on staff already!), she began to write radio commercials, eventually segueing into an on-air talent who provided recipes to listeners. The advent of WWII saw her volunteering for service in the Red Cross motor corps, where she learned to drive an ambulance and other vehicles (freeing the male drivers for service of their own.) After the war, thanks to a chance remark by a friend, she found herself helping to found the charitable organization United Cerebral Palsy, which began with only fourteen women and her.

She then proceeded to work as the hostess of fashion shows, her devastatingly wry and amusing commentary winning her countless fans (if not always the svelte, self-important models.) A fortune teller informed her that she should go by the name Virginia Graham rather than Guttenburg and she decided to use that moniker professionally.

Her own health was in danger, however. During her father's illness and subsequent death, she had put off some nagging symptoms and then, after having gone to several doctors who were unable to diagnose anything wrong, discovered that she was pregnant again. Following a miscarriage and the resultant examination, she was informed that she had cervical cancer! In the late 1940s, cancer basically equalled one thing: death. It was hardly ever mentioned aloud in mixed company and the very word struck terror in people. Virginia prepared for the worst, hilariously obtaining a release prior to surgery in order to have her nails done and her hair bleached because she refused to be laid out at her funeral service with hair “dark at the roots.”

She underwent lengthy surgery and thirty-five rounds of radiation treatment. Somehow, through her deep faith and never-faltering sense of humor, she emerged from the ordeal with remarkable ease. She forever after considered herself reborn on that day in 1951 and vowed to life her life with purpose. That would have to wait a while yet, though, because she wasn't even over her bout with cancer when her husband Harry's long-held family costume business was wiped out in a fire and a recent mishandling of the insurance meant that there would be no significant settlement. He had also endured a very severe and complicated operation of his own on his right hand. He then lost his beloved mother.

This was one blow too many and Harry had a complete nervous breakdown. It was up to Graham to see to the rebuilding and resurgence of his family business, something she knew next to nothing about. With the help of many friends and associates, the company was eventually restored and her husband was able to overcome his series of setbacks and run it successfully again.

Graham then did something that practically no one (certainly no one with any pubic persona) had ever done. She stood up before countless throngs of people and revealed her battle with cancer. She frankly explained and put a face on the disease which made so many people uncomfortable. She was so heavily involved in charities that she became a fixture on various telethons. Even though she received no monetary reimbursement for local telethons, she endured barbs from some of the media types who felt that she was far too emotional during them and that she was somehow making a living out of the diseases that she was actually raising millions of dollars for! In time, not because of lack of interest, but due to the backlash against them, she refrained from doing many (or perhaps any!) telethons.

Her tireless charity work led to an installment of This is Your Life, the broadcast of which led to 12,000 positive letters being mailed to the creator, Ralph Edwards. (Only one other guest, alcoholic singer Lillian Roth, had generated more.) She then became the host of a daily, syndicated, TV talk show called Food for Thought from 1956 to 1961. Simultaneously for part of that time, she also worked on a radio show called Weekday with Mike Wallace (later of 60 Minutes fame.) Wallace, weary of previous female cohosts, took delight in trying to mess her up during her segments on the program. He'd make noises, hit her cleavage with spitballs or paper clips and play any number of tricks on her right up to lighting her script on fire! Despite all this, they actually got on quite well and she, having always possessed a mighty sense of humor, would frequently break into giggles on the air. One time, with the aid of some of the technicians, she got Mike back.

She told him she was going to read a letter from a listener, something she always did anyway, but that this one was about a woman who feared her husband might be losing interest in sex. Wallace was highly reluctant to allow the piece, but she insisted it had been cleared by the station. As she began to read the letter (from someone to whom she gave the identity of Mrs. C. S.), Mike began his pranks once again and this time she called him a son of a bitch and proceeded to howl with laughter, making a mockery of the program while he struggled to hang on and turned white. What he didn't know was that the station was actually broadcasting a previously recorded (earlier that morning) version of her segment and that all of the shenanigans in the studio were completely contained therein. The pranks stopped after this! The whole thing is preserved in a hysterical audio tape that is available for listening below. If can you listen to this three-minute recording without at least smiling, you must be dead inside. Her laughter is utterly infectious!!

Virginia Gets Mike Back (on

 She claimed in her book that Wallace was making choking and gagging sounds during the prank, but I can't escape the feeling that he also somehow, through mouthing the words or writing it in front of her, suggested that Mrs. C. S. stood for “Mrs. Cock Sucker!” Don't ask me why... I just think that's what got her going so much. It's probably just my own dirty mind.

She also began to appear on The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, even working as a fill-in host for him at a time when having a female host on a late night talk show was completely unheard of. (Decades later, Joan Rivers would become embroiled in a huge debacle when she, after having filled in many times for Johnny Carson on the very same Tonight Show, opted to host her own show on another network when she discovered that she would not be considered as the host when eventually retired. The resultant failure of that show helped lead to her husband's suicide.) Graham is shown above left out on the town meeting up with a young Rock Hudson.

Incidentally, Jack Paar, a wildly popular host and conversationalist who penned several amusing books of his own, is someone who also shared my same basic sense of humor and who I was told more than once that I remind people of. I used to love seeing and listening to him on old game shows or other clips until I read one of his books and was disappointed to find an entire scathing and vitriolic chapter devoted to thoroughly trashing homosexuals. After that, I understandably lost most of my affection for him.

As an emerging talent, Graham now was invited as a guest panelist on To Tell the Truth, sitting alongside Tom Poston, Johnny Carson and our Miss Kitty Carlisle. Sitting sidelong with her gravity-defying hair taking up much of the airspace, she lobbed amusing questions at the contestants, one of whom was the man who invented the dance sensation “The Twist.” (She asked if there had been a lot of mosquitoes the summer he composed the ditty and developed the accompanying dance!)

Graham's next exercise was the most successful of all, though even it took a while to make it to the airwaves. She filmed a pilot episode in 1961 for a chat fest to be called Girl Talk, produced by a man from The Tonight Show. It's format included Graham hosting three other women, usually famous and from varied backgrounds and fields, who would discuss feminine viewpoints on a wide range of issues. Graham deliberately selected guests who might not ordinarily be found in the same room together, knowing that some zesty repartee would likely be the result. Sound at all familiar? The View is a modern-day approximation of the same general concept, only expanded by an additional half-hour in order to provide more information and entertainment. Barbara Walters, incidentally, was a guest on Girl Talk back in the day.

Girl Talk, which was finally picked up and put into first-run syndication in 1963, was a big hit, providing real-life catty sparks and interpersonal drama as opposed to the many scripted soap operas that were on during the same time frame. The program was taped at night, deliberately, with the belief that guests had a tendency to let their guard down a bit more in the evening than during the daytime hours. Graham occasionally had to deal with skirmishes if two women appeared on the same broadcast who had stringently different viewpoints or even, on an occasion or two, might be dating the very same man! (Seen below is Graham with guests Inger Stevens, Abbe Lane and Dr. Joyce Brothers.)

At left are Carol Channing, Marge Champion and the show's producer with Graham. One memorable episode pitted eclectic actress Hermione Gingold (Mrs. Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn of The Music Man) against Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique.” Gingold expressed her inability to follow the plot of the (non-fiction!) book and complained that she'd wasted a good box of chocolates, devouring them as she prepared to enjoy a good mystery novel that wasn't. Zsa Zsa Gabor also created her share of theatrics, raging on and on for a half hour only to realize that the laughs being generated by the audience were for a co-guest who, unable to get a word in, had managed to knit the better part of a baby sweater and was making all sorts of faces throughout! Below are Luise Rainer, Olivia de Havilland and June Havoc having a swell time.

Graham claimed that her hefty weight went a long way in making her accessible and non-threatening to female viewers as well as many female guests. Potentially prickly guests from Gloria Swanson to Dolores Gray to Agnes Moorehead made multiple appearances with the aforementioned Joan Crawford leading the way with at least seven stops at Girl Talk in all. Still, Graham was in no way a shrinking violet. She said all sorts of things that went against the conventional mores of the times including spouting the word “orgasm” on the air.

She seemed to know everyone on the planet and would only continue to meet and know new people, famous or not, as the years went on.  Graham spoke before thousands upon thousands of people in person and reached millions more through television.
She wrote another book, on beauty and self-improvement, called “Don't Blame the Mirror” in 1968.
If we're being honest, she was a drag queen's dream come true. The porcine face, spackled with as much make-up as it could hold, and the tidal wave of big hair paired with a raspy, brusque voice, statement clothing, over-the-top accessories and a plus-sized personality... If anyone today knew who she was, she'd be a perfect subject for an entertainer to imitate. Perhaps some do already in many cases and just don't realize who it is they look and sound like! (Catherine O'Hara did do an impersonation of her on SCTV back in the day.)

Graham also penned a celebrity cook book called “Tonight or Never,” which helped women win their husbands over through their stomachs. (As a college girl, she had used perfume called Tonight or Never and, according to her it was always “never” during a date until she turned blonde when suddenly it was “tonight!”) It is my belief that the negative for this shot of her was reversed.  I have included a version that is "corrected" on the right and now that I look at it it is clearly the way it should have been all along!

She left Girl Talk in 1969 while it was still successful in order to launch The Virginia Graham Show in 1970. Betsy Palmer took over the reins in her wake, though it was off the air within a year. Her own show was more a conventional talk show rather than a four-pronged chat fest. It ran until 1976. Here, she did more personalized interviews with everyone from Peyton Place's Ed Nelson (seen with her here) to Family Affair's Johnny Whitaker (seen with her below.) Below that, she interviews Darren McGavin (of Kolchak: The Night Stalker) and his wife Kathie Brown. 

That year, she appeared in a played called “Let's Hear it For Miss America,” appearing as the overbearing mother of a pageant contestant (played by real-life former Miss America Laurie Lea Schaefer.) Graham had first appeared on stage in 1964 in a play called Late Love and did many others over the years, including the musical Irene (program below.)

There was a local program called Virginia Graham's Famous Faces in which she interviewed celebrities on location or in large banquet halls, always with an eager studio audience and with her done up with lacquered, red nails, the wave of frosted hair, heavy makeup and plenty of chunky costume jewelry.

She was everywhere including magazine covers, though I am practically positive that this Ladies Circle cover shot is also reversed because I have never seen a photo of Virginia Graham from this period in which her hair was swept to that direction. People who are addicted to a certain look and who worship Aqua-Net the way she did rarely alter the overwhelming tide of their hair follicles by suddenly flopping it all in the opposing direction!

Graham also appeared on a local (and quite tacky) show called Celebrity Cabaret, singing the praises of Australian vocalist Samantha Sang, a protegee of The Bee Gees, who had one hit song (“Emotion”) in the U.S. in 1977. In 1980, her beloved Harry died, leaving her without her best friend and constant companion who she treated like a king and who loved her back like a queen. She would relate her challenging experiences with widowhood eight years later with the yet another book “Life After Harry: My Adventures in Widowhood.”

In 1982, she landed a recurring role on the daytime soap opera Texas, as an exuberant gossip television journalist named Stella Stanton. The series was short-lived (only airing from 1980 to 1982), but she was present for the finale, which centered around a gala New Year's party. (The series' cornerstone star, Beverlee McKinsey playing Iris Cory Carrington Delaney Bancroft Wheeler, left in '81 and a million viewers departed with her!)

In 1989, she popped up on Another World as herself, a sudden life-long family friend of Rachel Cory's who attends a big shindig and gives Rachel's enemy Iris (now played by Carmen Duncan) a piece of her mind. Look at all the Pepto-pink chiffon and crinoline in this shot!

As Miss Graham aged, she slowed down somewhat in her work, greatly enjoying the grandchild Jan that her grown daughter Lynn and son-in-law Sy had given her. In true, dramatic Komiss family style, Jan had been born after much pain, agony and suffering by Lynn as an “rh negative” baby and had to be given a complete blood transfusion before finally being permitted to head home from the hospital, but grew up normally and healthily. (Seen below is Graham, from years before of course, with her daughter and granddaughter.)

She found herself as a guest on that feisty little gnome/fireplug Dr. Ruth Westheimer's program Sexually Speaking, paired with, of all people, Nipsey Russell. It was a fitting tribute to the way she had arranged diverse guests on her own program, even though Russell had trouble shutting up and was constantly spitting out his little rhymes and “poems” that so few people were interested in hearing.

As a new dawn of TV talk shows evolved, many of the contemporary hosts and hostesses recalled how inspiring Virginia Graham had been. In the late-'90s, Rosie O'Donnell and Roseanne Barr (who was inexplicably Graham's favorite inheritor to the throne) had her on their shows, paying tribute to her genius for accessible conversation, pithy commentary and a pioneering attitude. In 1998, at eighty-six, Graham was still done up to the nines, nails, hair, jewelry and all, and was as sharp as a tack, tossing out bon mots at every opportunity.

On The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, an older, frail, but still pulled-together Virginia Graham recalled her beloved father and how his immense love allowed her to fail at times, but never once rubbing it in her face with an “I told you so...” This built her character and taught her the way to approach life. Sadly, she was dead herself of a heart attack two months later.

Joan Rivers, also by then a successful talk show persona, remarked upon how influential and significant a person Graham had been. Her advice, back when Rivers was a stand-up comedian in a male-dominated arena, was that any time she was performing on camera, she should perform as if she were speaking to one person and one person alone, never a general mass of people. You can see the influence, good or bad, of Virginia Graham in Joan Rivers when you note the stiff, blonde hair, the emphasis on style, important pieces of costume jewelry and the ever-present makeup along with, of course, the frank personality, though Miss Rivers obviously carries this to a whole new level!

I know that I will read this book again and again because it is just that interesting and entertaining. I found myself repeatedly giggling and then a few pages later choking back tears. I love books like that. We didn't agree on every single subject (and the book was, after all, close to half a century old!), but I have always respected alternate viewpoints. I expect people to have a right to theirs just as I wish for the right to mine. What a joy it was to discover (and then, of course, research) Miss Virginia Graham! She is the epitome of what Poseidon's Underworld is really about at its core: digging up celebrities who no longer get their due and trying to expose them to a new audience.

I have been busy not only lounging at the pool reading this and other books, but also preparing for a public singing engagement this weekend at which I am doing seven songs in a half hour! So I apologize for there being a gap between posts. You know I will always be back as soon as I can with whatever I can cough up.


John Gray said...

I am loving reading your blog... just enjoyed your TOWERING INFERNO entries ( I thought I was an expert but never knew facts like Natalie Wood being set for playing susan franklin

normadesmond said...

loved all the photos! i am an enormous fan of vg. the last time i saw her was on o'donnell's show. it makes me crazy that "girl talk" isn't available to rent/buy/see.

liked how you likened her to a drag queen. same thought crossed my mind years ago when i made this card. i though they looked like they'd come from the same egg.

Poseidon3 said...

Oh, yes, Norma... the Divine thing corssed my mind several times, especially with the large build, the deepish voice and the really big hair. Still, Virginia was quite ladylike.

It's great to hear from you and I'm glad you liked the pictures. There was SO MUCH more I could have written about her (including some very ironic happenings in her life, a near-fatal emergency plane landing and her being chosen as a teen to dance with The Duke of Windsor only to have him back out due to ill health AT the event!) What a remarkable life she had.

Thombeau said...

Oh my god you so totally rule for posting this!!

Poseidon3 said...

Thombeau, your enthusiasm about this post made me smile! Glad you like it (and glad I rule something besides my own banal household!)

Donna Lethal said...

YES! I have "Don't Blame the Mirror" and we post sections of it on The Hair Hall of Fame every now and then. I'm so glad you posted this...Thombeau immediately sent me here to read. Virginia was something else!

Poseidon3 said...

Donna, I'm glad you submerged into The Underworld for a visit! I reckon you probably knew most of this stuff about Miss Virginia, but hopefully there were at least a few new pictures of her you hadn't already seen. Best wishes!

David said...

I wonder if Mrs. Slocombe and Mrs. Fine were fans? Sounds like a smart cookie though, if she graduated from U of C!