While we may know him now as a trash TV news host, Geraldo Rivera actually started out covering real stories—ones that actually mattered. It seems that the moment it all went south for Rivera was when he was in the basement of a very old hotel in Chicago looking into Al Capone’s mystery vault. Since that day, Rivera has been making much ado about nothing—and incidentally, millions of dollars as well. And when Rivera’s not writing the headlines, his own uncensored mouth is often making them.
Geraldo Rivera was born on July 4, 1943, in New York City, but his birth certificate has something different on it. Instead of “Rivera” it says “Riviera”. And instead of “Geraldo” it reads “Gerald”. Mom later explained that when she was filling out the birth registry she had forgotten how to spell her husband’s last name. The truth, however, was much darker.
Rivera’s mom was Jewish, and his father was from Puerto Rico. Mom was sick and tired of the prejudice that her family was facing with a name like Rivera. To shield young Gerald from this intolerance, she thought the name Riviera would sound more generic and stop the harassment she assumed her son would face when he got older. Well, in that sense, mom was completely wrong—it was his name that made him a star.
Rivera survived West Babylon High School on Long Island and made the move to State University Maritime College in the Bronx. This he followed with a bigger move to the University of Arizona where he got a degree in business administration. If Rivera was now expecting to start an illustrious career in business, he’d be sadly mistaken.
He ended up finding work as a cook and as a clerk at a clothing store. That’s when he made a disturbing realization.
Geraldo Rivera realized he needed more than his business degree, so it was back to school for him. In 1966, he entered Brooklyn Law School and by 1969, he was a full on lawyer in New York City. But then he took a twisted turn. Rivera joined a gang. The Young Lords, however, was no ordinary gang.
They fought for the rights of Latinos and other marginalized people—and they did it mostly on the right side of the law. When a news outlet interviewed Rivera about why the Young Lords had occupied a church, he caught someone’s attention.
New York Journalist Al Primo saw Rivera’s interview about the church occupation, and it intrigued him. You see, Primo was developing a new format of news, which he called “eyewitness news”. Before Primo, anchors reported the news behind a big desk in a studio and didn’t cut to the reporter at the scene as they often do now. Primo was at the center of a big change in news reporting, and he wanted Rivera to be part of it.
One thing that Al Primo liked about Geraldo Rivera was that he was Latino. Just in case the viewing audience didn’t get that Rivera had Latin roots, he asked Rivera to change his first name from “Gerald” to “Geraldo” and to take out the “i” in Riviera. It turns out that all of mom’s attempts to remove his Latino background had backfired. There was, however, one little problem.
Al Primo worked for ABC and he knew that there was one important thing that Rivera was missing—any experience in journalism. Well, Primo convinced executives there to send Rivera to a boot camp for journalism. Columbia University offered a summer program for “Members of Minority Groups”.
I’m sure Rivera was thanking his lucky stars that his dad had a Latin background. It seemed that it was opening all kinds of doors for young Geraldo Rivera.
Once Rivera had finished his summer at journalism camp, he got a job with his mentor Primo at WABC-TV. It didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself. In 1972, he received a Peabody Award when he did a story on the neglect of intellectual disability patients at a State School in Staten Island. The story may have helped the poor residents of the school, but it also had an unexpected side effect.
Ex-Beatle John Lennon had seen Rivera’s story about the horrible conditions at the school in Staten Island and he felt moved. He contacted Rivera and together the two of them put on a benefit concert at Madison Square Gardens. The name of the concert was “One to One” and it took place on August 30, 1972.
Rivera was smart, compassionate, and good looking—and unfortunately for the women in his life, he knew it.
By the late 1960s, Geraldo Rivera had already married and divorced his first wife, Linda Coblentz. In 1971, Rivera tied the knot with his second wife: Edith Vonnegut, daughter of the acclaimed writer. But there was a twisted side to their relationship. At one of their parties, one guest remembers seeing Rivera with several women first in the bed and later in the bathtub. Still later in the night, the same guest saw Rivera running out of the bedroom screaming that he would kill the man who was with his wife.
Well, with bigger fame came even more scandalous behavior.
Geraldo Rivera soon moved up from WABC-TV to national programs. ABC was at this time, trying anything it could to compete with the juggernaut of late-night TV: NBC’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. ABC realized that they needed a lot more than just a charming host to take viewers away from Carson.
Rivera soon became part of a master plan: they called it ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment.
ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment was going to do it all. They had comedy, sports, talk shows and for Rivera, they had a news magazine. The show was Good Night America—and it had a controversial twist. The theme song came from Ringo Starr and it set the tone: this show was going to tackle the contentious issues of the day.
Rivera did stories on anything from draft dodgers to marijuana. He also was the first to show a very controversial piece of footage.
Nowadays, most people are pretty familiar with what’s called the Zapruder film. This was a handheld 8mm film taken of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963. Over the years, different people had made the 8 mm into 16 mm and even 35 mm formats. They had even managed to reduce the shakiness of the handheld camera. In spite of these improvements, the general public had only had a few chances to see the film. Well, Geraldo Rivera was about to change all that.
On March 6, 1975, Rivera and ABC became the first ones to show the Zapruder film on a US network television show. The reaction was swift and brutal. Because of Rivera’s airing of the film, the Church Committee investigated the CIA and the FBI and there was a House Select Committee that looked into the murder of Kennedy.
That’s a lot of fallout from a single new story—and Rivera was at the center of it. Soon enough, people wanted to hear more from him.
At this time in history, news programming was becoming something different. It was a hot commodity and people like Rivera were making it hip. America had quickly gone from 30-minute news programs at 6:00 to full-hour episodes aired at prime time. In the late 1970s, Rivera was soon reporting on hot new shows such as 20/20 and Nightline. What was happening behind the scenes, however, was even hotter.
By the late 1970s, Rivera was onto his third wife. Her name was Sherryl Raymond and in 1979, the pair had a son. You’d think it would be time for the amorous Rivera to settle down a bit. Not a chance. To celebrate the birth of Gabriel Miguel, Rivera did something reprehensible. He went to the boiler room of the news station and had a threesome with two workplace subordinates.
If you think this is just a rumor, think again. He told this story himself, in his own memoir. And that wasn’t all he revealed.
In 1983, HIV was a new thing in America. In fact, it was so new that no one really knew what to call it. Rivera, always one to want to be first, called it AIDS for the first time on a US network. Rivera also wanted to put a face to AIDS and was soon looking for an interview subject—but what ABC wanted from the segment was absolutely shocking.
Producers for 20/20 wanted to put a face on the AIDS crisis, but their method for finding one was gruesome. There is a rumor that 20/20 executives went out looking for "the most debilitated people with AIDS they could find” for Rivera’s interview. They finally found lighting designer Ken Ramsauer and put him on the show.
Four days after the airing of the interview with Rivera, Ramsauer passed on. He was just 27 years old. And this wasn’t the only time that Rivera and ABC clashed.
In 1985, Rivera’s fellow broadcast journalist at 20/20, Sylvia Chase, had a story. She wanted to expose a romantic link between the ex-president of the US and his brother to Marilyn Monroe. It was now over 20 years after the murder of both Kennedys, but it seemed as though the American people weren’t yet ready to deal with the fact that the brothers may not have been the angels everyone thought they were.
ABC thought the same thing: they told Chase to bury the story. When Rivera found out, he went ballistic.
Geraldo Rivera quickly came to the defense of Chase and her story about the Kennedys and Monroe. He went further by suggesting that ABC executive Roone Arledge was squashing the story for a scandalous reason—he was too close to the Kennedy family. Arledge’s only connection, however, appeared to be a Kennedy aide that he’d hired at ABC. The consequences were chilling.
Arledge didn’t like Rivera’s accusation and promptly fired him. Rivera suddenly found himself free of his ties to a major network. So, what would he do on his own?
Within a year, Rivera had come up with an idea for a show that would blow all his previous reportage out of the water. He’d heard that infamous prohibition-era gang leader Al Capone had kept a safe under the Lexington Hotel in Chicago. Rivera thought it would be amazing if they opened the vault on live TV. He gathered the experts he thought he needed to give the show legitimacy. This included an excavation team, some IRS agents—in case there was money—and even a medical examiner, on the off chance there were bodies down there.
Close to 30 million viewers tuned in as Rivera went to discover what was down there.
As each minute passed, the tension built. Finally, nearly two hours into the program, Rivera went for it. His crew, experts, and 30 million pairs of eyes were all looking at the safe in the basement of the Lexington Hotel. When they opened it, what they found was brutal. There was nothing but dirt and a few empty bottles.
Rivera apologized to the live audience, left the hotel and entered a bar. He wasn’t going to face this disappointment without a drink—maybe several.
So what was the fallout of The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults? Well, Geraldo Rivera did have the highest-rated syndicated special in TV history. That surely was a bright side. But there was a huge backlash to it all, and Rivera basically faced it alone. Now, when an overhyped event leads to disappointment, people call it an “Al Capone’s Vault”.
Rivera’s career would certainly survive the backlash. His next disappointment, however, was very personal.
In the midst of the debacle that was Al Capone’s vault came another, more personal heartbreak. Rivera’s parents had moved to Florida and it was there where they would spend Thanksgiving in 1987. While they were celebrating the holiday, tragedy struck. Rivera’s father had a heart attack and passed. Later, Rivera would name a son of his after his father: Cruz.
Rivera, however, was not one to let a tragedy keep him down.
Of course, to a celebrity journalist, disappointments like The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults are just a bump in the road. By the next year, Rivera already had his own show. He became the host and producer of Geraldo. Something, however, had clearly changed after the vault debacle. Rivera now just seemed to focus on anything that would provoke a passionate response.
Soon critics had given the show a name that at this time was rather new. They called it “Trash TV”, and Rivera was up to his eyeballs in it.
To up the controversy on Geraldo, Rivera specialized in getting guests on the show that hated each other. But on a 1988 episode, he went too far. Rivera invited people from both sides of the race divide in America—this included white supremacists and Black and Jewish activists. Once they all got on the stage together, you have to wonder what Rivera expected to happen?
It didn’t take long for the arguments on this very special episode of Geraldo to get aggressive. One guest began it all by grabbing another by the neck. By the end of it, both members of the crew and of the audience somehow got into the melee. And what about Rivera? Where was he hiding for safety?
Actually, Geraldo Rivera got into the commotion front and center, and actually had the most injuries of anyone else involved. He got hit in the face with a chair, which caused a nasal fracture. So was the great lawyer going to sue the perpetrator? No, Riviera said that he didn’t want to be “tied up with the roaches”.
Besides, he’d already got his reward: before the episode aired, the story of the fight got out and ratings soared.
Four years later, Geraldo Rivera was again in trouble with white supremacists. He took his show live to a KKK meeting in Illinois, where a completely predictable fight took place. Rivera ended up with multiple cuts and even a bite mark on his thumb. In the end, the authorities locked him up.
Situations like this were putting Rivera in the news instead of just being a reporter of it. By now, there were enough Rivera stories to fill a book. And as we'll see, this was something Rivera could not let happen.
One thing about Rivera is that he is instantly recognizable—and this is in part due to his distinctive mustache. Well, it seemed that many people had noticed his “crumb catcher” and an award was in order. The Mustache Hall of Fame decided to honor Rivera in 2015 in its film and television category. They even named his mustache: “wing tips”.
Here’s a “tip”, Rivera—watch out who you stand up for.
In a very moving report from the battlefield in Afghanistan, Rivera said the Lord’s Prayer on land where three American servicemen had lost their lives due to friendly fire. He said he considered the spot to be “hallowed ground”. There was something off though. Later, a newspaper in Baltimore pointed out that Rivera was nowhere near the actual site. When Rivera had to explain this error, he just got in more hot water.
To explain why he was reporting from the wrong location, Rivera explained that he had gotten the event mixed up. He had confused the friendly fire event with one that had happened at Tora Bora. Okay, Rivera, except Tora Bora actually happened three days after you made the original report. It seemed that Rivera was either a very sloppy reporter, or he was losing his grasp on reality.
Sadly, Rivera’s troubles with the army were just beginning.
It was in 2003 that Geraldo Rivera got in trouble while in Iraq. He was working as a correspondent for Fox News when he drew a map in the sand. There were two problems with this. The map showed exactly where he and the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army were—but that’s not the worst part. He did it while on live TV.
Rivera had basically given the location and operation details directly to the enemy. The US army was not happy with Rivera, so what did they do?
There are rules for embedded journalists, and Rivera had broken a very big one: Don’t give away your strategy and location to the enemy. As a punishment, the army took Rivera as far as the Kuwait border and just dumped him over it. When Rivera retold the story, however, he said that he voluntarily withdrew to Kuwait, which sounded a lot more friendly.
Rivera made his way out of the Middle East and back to the USA…and controversy.
In 2001, Geraldo Rivera met Erica Levy, who was working as a producer on Rivera Live. She was 26 years old. In spite of the 31-year age difference, a romance began that led to a marriage in 2003. Rivera later joked that his mustache was older than his wife. This comment seems like an innocuous joke, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that Rivera is quite open about his love for younger women.
Rivera once told Fox News that when it comes to relationships, women have very little to offer, especially when it comes to income. While Rivera admits that some women do work—thanks Geraldo—he still thinks that men are the primary earners. So what does a woman bring to a marriage?
Rivera claims she brings her youth—which he says is “a precious asset” but also “fragile and diminishing”. Maybe this explains why Rivera is in the habit of trading his old wives for new ones.
So, Rivera’s 2003 marriage to Levy was his fifth. Five marriages immediately make you wonder what he was doing wrong. Well, there’s a pretty disturbing reason why. His fourth wife, CC Dyer—who started as his assistant—said that Rivera was “incapable of being faithful”. And Rivera hasn’t denied the accusation. He says, though, that for wife number five, he’s sticking to monogamy. Sure Rivera, let’s see what happens when she gets her first wrinkle.
Up next? How to make a national catastrophe all about him.
Geraldo Rivera headed down to New Orleans in 2005 to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Here, he saw an opportunity to make headlines. There was a woman in a wheelchair that needed lifting, and he thought it would be a great photo op if he was the one lifting her to safety. The only thing was that an Air Force rescuer was already helping her.
The New York Times alleged that Rivera nudged the rescuer out of the way so it looked like he was the hero. Rivera seems capable of doing anything for attention: or, as in this case, saying anything.
In 2012, controversy broke out after the slaying of Black teenager Trayvon Martin. And Rivera just had to make a comment. Unfortunately, he just didn’t think it through first. Rivera said that it wasn’t Martin’s race that caused the incident, it was his hoodie. This outrageous comment did not fail to create a huge stir, and even Rivera’s own son called him out on Twitter.
Right when the issue seemed to be over—a President weighed in with his opinion.
After the incident involving Martin, then-President Barack Obama said that America had some soul-searching to do. He added that if he had a son, he would probably look a lot like Martin. Rivera couldn't help himself. He tweeted that the President should have finished that sentence with a warning about not letting his hypothetical son walk around the capital city wearing a hoodie.
Did Rivera learn any lessons about keeping his mouth shut from the incident? Long story short: no.
One day in 2013, Rivera got home feeling wired. He was rather pumped from working on his show, but there was no one up in his household to talk to about it. Instead of hitting the sheets, Rivera hit the bottle, and I’d say he hit it more than once. When he woke up the next morning, he discovered he’d broken the internet: and not for a good reason.
It turned out that while Geraldo Rivera was tipping back the shots, he was feeling a little amorous. This led to him posing in front of his bathroom mirror wearing only a towel. Before he knew what he was doing, Rivera had taken a selfie of himself and posted it for all to see. To cap it off, he had written a caption: “70 is the new 50”.
The next day Rivera quietly removed the post, admitting that it “seemed like a great idea at the time”.
In 2017, the #metoo movement was in full swing. NBC had recently fired newsman Matt Lauer for inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Rivera didn’t waste a minute thinking about it. Instead, he went straight to Twitter and called Lauer “a real gentleman” and gave the excuse that “news is a flirty business”.
Of course, Rivera’s comments caused a maelstrom of counter-responses—none of them good.
When Rivera saw that he was getting heat for his support of Matt Lauer, he got back on his soapbox and just made things worse. He had somehow become an expert in # metoo-type cases and had his own recommendations. He said that the reports of workplace inappropriate behavior must come in within five years of the event and that they needed some kind of corroboration.
Okay Rivera, now it sounds like you’ve got something to hide. Rivera’s fame was soon flagging. It was time to do what all B-list celebrities eventually do: reality TV.
Back in 2015, Rivera tried to suck up to Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice. On the show, Rivera decided to go into full-on “jerk” mode. He later explained that he acted this way because he had a “big bullseye on his back”. Hmmm…you’re just noticing this now? Rivera came in a disappointing second on the show, but he’d made a new friend in Trump.
Now, what happens when two showboats become friends? Drama happens, that’s what.
Once Trump lost his second term, Rivera turns his back on his old “friend”. In post after post, he called for Trump’s impeachment. He also declared that his old buddy had indeed lost the election—even when Trump himself was claiming that the election had been rigged. Rivera even said that when Trump lost the election, “it made him crazy”.
Well, Rivera…at least he has an excuse.
In 1991, Rivera got word that someone was writing an unauthorized biography about his life. Rivera had concerns about what the author would air about him—so he came up with a plan. He went on the defensive and wrote his own book. Rivera’s plan was to air his dirty laundry himself and not let someone who didn’t know him do it. Well, things didn’t go quite as planned.
Many people—including his wife, agent, and producer—told Rivera that a book was a bad idea. He didn’t listen, and he quickly churned out 496 pages and called it Exposing Myself. Rivera didn’t hold back. He told his secrets including love affairs he had while married to other women. One of the more prominent affairs was with Liza Minnelli. He also claimed to have had an "encounter" with Bette Midler.
Well, as it turned out, his book was far more “tawdry” than the unauthorized one.
In his book, Rivera admitted that his "moment" with Bette Midler was scandalous, but maybe his description didn’t quite go far enough. He said that he and the Beaches star were in a bathroom before an interview and he put his hands on Midler’s chest. It was, however, a little more shocking than that. The same year that the book came out, Midler sat down and spoke to Barbra Walters and spilled the tea.
I guess Midler had read Rivera’s book and wanted to set the record straight. Milder told Walters and her viewers that the incident happened back in the 1970s when Rivera was “sort of hot”. Ouch. She said that Rivera and the producer on the show pushed her into a bathroom. The two men then shoved poppers, which relax your muscles and give you a head rush, under her nose. Midler had the strength to get out of the situation and later called Rivera “unseemly”.
“Unseemly” seems like a rather gentle insult from Midler.
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