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Henry Morgan is a figure who existed in a bit of a haze for me. I’m unfortunately no exaggerating when I admit that for a long time, I assumed that these clips had typos, expecting to see Harry Morgan–who also went by Henry Morgan. Yes, I grew up watching Dragnet reruns… Probably too many, now that I think about it.
Henry Morgan… The other one… The ‘OG’ Morgan as he should also be called…rose to prominence as a radio presenter before eventually making the jump to television as a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret. The Goodson Todman series featured a panel of four personalities (game show presenting legend Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan) and a revolving group of ladies including Jayne Meadows, Bess Meyerson, Faye Emerson and Mrs. Vorhees herself Betsy Palmer trying to guess a guests secret. These ranged from facts, like the last survivor to see President Lincoln assassinated to facts not many would want to share, like the man who ate a peanut butter sandwich every day for twenty years.
Throughout the lengthy run of the show, Henry Morgan was a regular panelist–and sometimes host– bringing a dry and sarcastic –and perhaps some would even say dour- personality to the panel. His presence on screen is inherently complocated. The radio personality and humorist is all at once a personification of the conservatism of the era, but at the same time, Morgan was ahead of his time. His rather biting sense of humor stood in contrast to the heavily consumer and advertising driven industry in United States post-war culture.
Henry Morgan was born in New York in 1915 as Henry Lerner van Ost Junior. His autobiography describes a relatively middle-upper class upbringing. In his book, Here’s Morgan he references various private schools and maids in his early years. He writes,
My brother Rodger and I, known to the world as Junior, were sent to summer camp when I was 12 and he was seven. It cost $700 for the two of us for 8 weeks. Today, the same jaunt comes to about $16000 at a comparable place, so you can see how anxious my father was to impress the neighbors.
His parents divorced when he was very young. Morgan’s rememberances of his father are hardly complimentary. While it isn’t explicitly stated in his autobiography, there are repeated references to beatings, “I would get beaten up before dinner and it didn’t help the old appetite one bit…he stayed home, listened to Mama’s complaints and broke his favorite walking stick, ebony and Ivory, over me”.
Throughout life, Morgan supported his mother and shared a great relationship with her.
He bounced around throughout the first decades of his life. He admits in his book that he wasn’t really affected by the great depression– except in the winter. Morgan made the jump quickly onto the radio at the conclusion of his education. He started out as an announcer, working his way up through smaller markets before eventually coming back to roost in New York.
Morgan’s climb through the ranks was interrupted briefly by World War Two. His book describes his time in the Army Air Corps. Morgan’s description of his war service in his book is tinged with his personality… He probably wasnt the best taking orders. Morgan passes through various units before eventually ending up in a radio unit based out of California.
Morgan’s radio shows as they are best remembered were on the air in the years after the war, starting in 1946. The radio show, entitled The Henry Morgan Show, featured Morgan heading a cast of colorful characters like Arnold Stang and Pert Kelton.
Listening through the surviving episodes of the show, the writing is highly topical and as a result might be a challenge for some contemporary audiences. There are references to post war culture abound, which prove illuminating for understanding the country during this time. There are mentions of a post war housing shortage, veterans issues, movies of the time, and Margaret Truman’s budding opera career… Apparently picking on a First Child is not a new phenomena.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Morgan’s persona is his overt hostility towards his sponsors. It doesn’t take much to know how reliant shows were on sponsors during this time, with the show’s announcers (and sometimes stars) giving commercials themselves. Throughout Morgan’s run, he openly rebelled against this highly controlled structure. He went through sponsor after sponsor as they tired of his abrasive humor being directed at their product. Life Savers reportedly dropped him after he went on the air accusing the company of bilking the American public by drilling the holes out of the middle. Meanwhile, his best known sponsor was razor company Schick, promoting the “Eversharp Schick Injector Razor”. The gimmick was that it was one of the first razors on the market with an automatic blade changer and their tagline was the adorable – push pull click click. As you can probably imagine, Morgan took great joy in tearing down the sponsor.
Morgan’s topical brand of humor is deeply reminiscent of radio comedian Fred Allen, a figure who -like Morgan- had been largely lost to time as well. Morgan, who was rarely a complimentary person gushes over Allen in his memoirs, calling him “one of the few heroes in my Pantheon… Fred, Joe DiMaggio, Winston Churchill.” The two men shared a close relationship – according to Morgan- who also details Allen’s pivotal role in keeping Morgan’s struggling radio show on the air during his blacklisting. Allen passed away in 1956 and the description of learning about Allen’s passing is as outwardly emotional as Morgan let’s himself get.
Morgan’s career continued to develop. In 1948 he stared in the movie So This Is New York. The folksy comedy featured Morgan as a man who moves with his wife and her sister to turn off the twentieth century New York to find a husband for the younger girl. The movie came from a story by the legendary writer Ring Lardner and co-stared Virginia Grey, Donna Drake and Rudy Vallée.
However, Morgan’s career came to a screeching halt towards the end of the decade in much the same way as an untold number of others when his name was mentioned in Red Channels, resulting in his eventual blacklisting as a communist sympathizer. Perhaps it was partially his anti-establishment tendencies, but the accepted version is that Morgan has supported communist front organizations during his first marriage. Morgan maintained his a-political nature and was eventually allowed back into the industry, a privilege which wasn’t allowed a great many others. However, it wasn’t until he was brought onto the cast of I’ve Got a Secret in 1953 that he was fully allowed back into the industry.
Much of the next twenty years for Morgan were defined by his television work. He was a regular on I’ve Got a Secret through the beginning of the 1970s, he appears in a popular segment on To Tell The Truth, and he notoriously caused strife on the set of What’s My Line in the late sixties. He even pops up on Match Game into the 1970s.
It is from this point that Morgan’s career begins to slow down a bit. This seems to stem from long-standing problems in his personal life, namely a toxic first marriage which lead to long-standing legal fight with his first wife. The marriage led to substantial financial issues, as well as extended status as an ex-pat… in the enforced variety. The issues were long and drawn out and are detailed by Morgan in a strange segment on David Letterman’s talk show.
The segment as a whole is strange. However, Morgan’s wikipedia page is quick to turn it into the inane ramblings of an old man. However, a watch of the clip shows Morgan still sounding like his quick self, despite a graphic facial wound. However, it seems strange that the talk show host would start with this complicated and challenging topic when interviewing a broadcast legend.
Henry Morgan remarried late in life, and by all accounts lived a quiet and content life. He published his memoirs before passing from lung cancer in 1994 at the age of 79.
While his name had tragically been lost to many, Henry Morgan is a complicated and complex figure. A talented broadcaster and a smart comedian, he proved to be groundbreaking with his radio work in the post WWII era. He’s a figure with some intense personal demons, and many of his views have not aged well with time, but Henry Morgan is a name which should be remembered and his story should be told.
Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic popular culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find us on Twitter at GazeFemale. As always, if you like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.