Morgan was born Henry Lemer von Ost, Jr., the son of the German Jewish Henry von Ost (né Henry Ost), vice president of a New York bank, and Eva Lerner, a homemaker. He had a younger brother and was a first cousin of the songwriter Alan Jay Lerner. His parents divorced when he was fourteen.
Morgan attended elementary school at New York’s P.S. 169, then the High School of Commerce. For his last two years of high school, his mother sent him to Harrisburg Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Upon his graduation in 1931, he went to work as a page at radio station WMCA in New York. After two years, he was given an announcing job, but shortly thereafter he was fired for insubordination, a theme that would recur in his career.
In the 1930s he moved around the country, working for radio stations. In 1933 he was let go by WCAU in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for including the name of the radio station’s owner in a missing persons story. From there, he went to Duluth, Minnesota, where he was chief announcer, program director, and host of a WEBC show called Strictly Masculine, and then to Boston, Massachusetts, and House Party on WNAC. While working there, Morgan took courses at Suffolk Law School. One day in 1940 he insisted that be excused from work to take a law exam. He was fired instead.
He returned to New York City, where he became a staff announcer with WOR. He was soon given his own Saturday morning show, Meet Mr. Morgan. In 1942 the show was renamed Here’s Morgan and moved to the evenings, first three times a week, then six. In these jobs he honed his trademark approach of mocking his show’s sponsors. Of a namesake candy bar, he said, “Oh! Henry is a meal in itself. But if you eat three meals of Oh! Henrys a day, your teeth will fall out.”
Morgan’s broadcasting career was interrupted by World War II. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, underwent flight training, and was discharged in the fall of 1945. He returned to civilian life and switched radio stations, to WABC, in 1946. On 17 August of that year he married the actress Isobel Gibbs. The marriage soon ended in divorce.
In 1946–1947, Here’s Morgan was a weekly half-hour show, sponsored by the Eversharp Company, a manufacturer of razor blades. On one show, he asked parents to leave the room and then encouraged the children in the audience to run away from home and become smugglers. At the end of 1946 Morgan was named “Most Promising Star of Tomorrow” by Motion Picture Daily and “Outstanding Radio Star of the Year” in Billboard’s poll of radio editors. But Eversharp tired of his remarks and fired him in December 1947.
Morgan was also a popular actor in summer stock, in such plays as The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Teahouse of the August Moon. In 1948 he starred in his first movie, So This Is New York. In 1952, however, Morgan was named in “Red Channels,” a list of supposedly communist or procommunist performers, and he soon was all but unemployable. Morgan insisted that he was apolitical and that if he had appeared at any communist-front rallies, it was only because he thought they were good causes. (In his book Here’s Morgan, he mentions that his first wife was friendly toward some communist or communist-front organizations.) Eventually, he was cleared, and in the late 1950s he began appearing as a guest panelist on the game show What’s My Line.
In 1963 he stepped into the role he is best known for, as a panelist on I’ve Got a Secret, a game show in which celebrity panelists questioned guests in an attempt to guess their “secrets.” He remained with the show for fourteen years, also finding time to appear in summer stock and do voice-overs for commercials. In 1969 he played a supporting role in the television comedy series My World, and Welcome to It, a critical success that did not last long. On 31 March 1978 he married Karen Sorenson, and they remained married until his death.
In his later years, Morgan was ill and out of the public eye. Having smoked three packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life, Morgan stopped making cigarette commercials in 1969 and began imploring others to give up smoking, while admitting that he could not. Suffering from heart trouble and lung cancer, he wrote an obituary for himself, ascribing his demise to, among other things, 3,000 quarts of beer, 7,000 quarts of liquor, and 1,296,000 cigarettes. He died of lung cancer at his home in New York City, survived by his wife and by Steve Robinson, a son from another liaison.
Morgan’s greatest contribution was his insouciant and irreverent wit. Proudly basing his approach on that of his friends Robert Benchley and Fred Allen, he was given to remarks like, “There came the time, as it must in every organization, for the man with the money to fire the man with the idea.” Since Morgan, there has been a school of advertising that uses frankness and self-mockery to sell its products, an approach almost unknown before him, although, unlike him, others have rarely given the impression that they might actually mean the mockery.
Morgan told his own story in Here’s Morgan, published shortly after his death in 1994. The book is a rambling account, filled with nostalgia for the New York of his childhood, irritable complaints about the general decline of the world around him, and the settling of old scores, particularly with his first wife. It also contains much of the wit for which he gained his reputation. An obituary is in the New York Times (20 May 1994).
Arthur D. Hlavaty