NOAH GRIFFIN HAS a lot to say. The 73-year-old, who’s often referred to as a Renaissance man, was born in San Francisco, graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and earned a doctorate in jurisprudence from Harvard Law School. Griffin then served in an administrative capacity to such luminaries as former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and investment guru Charles Schwab. He’s also hosted talk radio shows on KGO, KFRC and K-101; written op-ed pieces for the San Francisco Examiner, the Boston Globe and the Marin Independent Journal; and sung with the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the Philadelphia Philharmonic and Duke Ellington’s band. Oh, and at one time he was a competitive tennis player.
But Griffin’s life hasn’t been a bed of roses. In his early 30s, recognizing that alcohol was ruining his life, he committed himself to a hospital rehabilitation program, and he’s been sober ever since. In 2006, after his weight reached 265 pounds, he suffered a mild stroke, and he has since eliminated all sugar and processed foods from his diet. Now his 5-foot-10-inch frame easily handles 175 pounds. He endured two divorces before meeting and marrying Meredith, a former Calvin Klein model and current publisher of Marin Arts and Culture magazine, in the mid- 2000s. Between them they have five children.
For the past 14 years, Noah and Meredith Griffin have made their home in an inviting, book-lined Tiburon apartment with a baby grand piano and a splendid hillside view. Previously he lived in San Anselmo and Mill Valley; in all, he’s resided in Marin County for over 44 years. These days he’s president of the San Francisco–based Cole Porter Society, which he founded in 2014.
After living for many years in Southern Marin, why did you get involved in the Dixie School District name change controversy?
Well, I was first involved with this matter in 2003 and it’s been an issue since the name Dixie was first adopted some 155 years ago. I’ve long believed the name is basically offensive to a certain part of the overall community and should be offensive to all the people who live in that district. My theory as to why it took so long to change is that many people simply don’t like change; also there’s been a little bit of creative revisionism as to how the name was arrived at in the first place. Whatever: the name is just wrong. All the rest of the country is taking down statues and taking down Confederate flags. Meanwhile, we have folks saying for them the word “Dixie” simply means a good school district and it doesn’t mean much of anything outside of their district. Well, that’s wrong; it does mean something. And so the LA Times and the Washington Post have done pieces on this controversy, as have several magazines. I’m grateful the courageous efforts of Trustee Marnie Glickman, social activist Kerry Peirson and a host of others helped to finally change the name and bring Marin into alignment with its professed values. It is a victory for our children, social justice and the truth.
Over the years you’ve worked with many highly accomplished people. Can you name the three you most admire for the way they worked?
Joe Alioto, San Francisco’s mayor from 1968 to 1976, was extremely effective; he was brilliant and singularly focused and didn’t let things bother him. During his time in office, he had numerous personal and legal crises but never lost a day of work. He was a mayor who did a lot of good for the city. And I love Nancy Pelosi. She’s been the same Nancy for the 50 or so years I’ve known her. By way of full disclosure, my daughter is one of Speaker Pelosi’s press secretaries and travels with her. Nancy is both thoughtful and strategic and she gets things done in a relatively quiet way; she’s not bombastic nor is she self-aggrandizing and wanting to be seen as a powerful leader. Nancy’s father was Tom D’Alesandro, who was a congressman and then the mayor of Baltimore, so politics have always been in her blood and she has shown an amazing capacity for growing politically. She’s not only history’s first woman speaker of the House; I think she may be the best speaker in history. I also have great respect for two other people I had the honor of working with: Dianne Feinstein, mayor from 1979 to 1987, who left office with a 72 percent approval rating while accomplishing a lot, and Frank Jordan, San Francisco’s mayor in the 1990s, was a very decent man who kept the Giants in San Francisco and balanced the city’s budget every year he was in office. I think the world of him.
Have you ever run for elective office?
In 2005, I ran for the District 3 seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors against the late Charles McGlashan. Andrew Thompson was also in that race and the three of us had a very convivial relationship, no hard feelings. When all the ballots were counted, I wound up fourth. Also, as a very young and inexperienced politician, I ran for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the early 1970s. I was one of only two African Americans in the field of 33 candidates and wound up getting over 33,000 votes, which was considered pretty good for being so young at the time.
Money doesn’t seem to be a driving influence for you.
No, money isn’t a motivator for me — and it never has been. As long as I have enough to live on, I’m fine. I must say, however, I’ve been thinking about money a bit more as I get older. Because of my role as an entertainer, I have memberships in clubs where the people have lots of money and nice cars and travel a lot. But really, there’s no envy. When Meredith and I go on a vacation, we find ourselves coming home a few days early because we miss our home and our routines. So I measure my successes by being fit, by not doing alcohol and by not involving myself in things that would make my life unmanageable.
For one as sociable and gregarious as you appear to be, has abstaining from alcohol been a constant challenge?
No, it hasn’t been, and yes, Meredith and I are out a lot at social and civic events. Initially it was a struggle. But over a period of time I was eventually no longer being tempted; I realized I didn’t have to drink to enjoy myself. As Thoreau said, “You are rich in proportion to what you can do without.” I’ve found that I can do without alcohol. For me, it’s a much better way to live. What caused you to quit drinking? I’ll tell you what happened. When I was 32, I went to a party down on the Peninsula and got so drunk I couldn’t drive home. I woke up the next morning, still drunk, then started driving down the freeway at 95 miles an hour not caring if I lived or died. Once home, I heard a TV commercial that said something to the effect of “If someone you love is becoming someone you hate, don’t be driving a car, as you’ll be sure to kill yourself.” That day, it was August 13 of 1978, I checked myself into Alta Bates Hospital in Oakland and from then until now I haven’t had a drink. Three times a week I go to 12-step meetings.
What about keeping off that 90 pounds of extra weight you once carried?
My extra weight — plus my blood pressure being 165 over 135 — resulted in me having a mild stroke that caused me to change my entire way of life. For the past 13 years I’ve followed a rather strict routine and diet. As often as possible I go to bed at eight and wake up at four in the morning. Then I meditate for half an hour and read spiritual material for another half hour. My primary form of exercise is walking. As for my diet, for breakfast I have an ounce of oatmeal, a sliced banana with Saigon cinnamon and eight ounces of low-fat yogurt with blueberries. Lunch is four hours later and I have so many ounces of protein, of salad and of fruits and vegetables. Dinner is pretty much the same and I have it four hours before going to bed. I weigh myself every day and my weight has been 175 pounds and blood pressure 107 over 70 for almost 13 years now. I stay away from sugar and flour and drink only water. Well, maybe I’ll have ginger ale two or three times a year and that’s only for special occasions.
When you look back over your life, at your various pursuits and careers, what high point first comes to mind?
It would probably be in 2015, when a group I was with planned a celebration for what would have been Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. At first I thought I would only be asked to sing a Rat Pack retrospective of one of Sammy Davis Jr.’s songs like “I’ve Gotta Be Me.” But I wound up being the producer of the entire event. We rented and filled the Herbst Theatre. We had a 17-piece orchestra, we found a 1978 video of Sinatra singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and ran it on a large screen, and I sang eight or nine of his favorite songs. And it all worked; we got three pages in that weekend’s Chronicle Datebook section. For me, the highlight was not only putting the show together and singing Sinatra’s songs, but also proving that a black man could do all of this. That definitely was a highlight.