Charles Van Doren, central figure in 1950s quiz show scandal, dies at 93
Charles Van Doren, one of the first intellectual stars of the television era as a contestant on the NBC show “Twenty One,” who quickly became the country’s leading villain after admitting that his winning streak on the popular game show had been rigged, died Tuesday. He was 93.
As many as 50 million Americans tuned in to watch who they thought were ordinary people hitting it big on the show. But in fact “Twenty One” had been scripted down to the dramatic pauses and theatrical stutters as Van Doren “struggled” to recall the answers that producers had fed him beforehand.
In a 90-minute confession before a congressional committee, the charismatic Van Doren — whose popularity in the late 1950s had been compared to Elvis Presley’s — admitted, “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.”
The fallout was nothing short of a morality play acted out on a national stage.
President Eisenhower called the deception “a terrible thing to do to the American public.” The writer John Steinbeck raged against “the cynical immorality of my country.” Editorial writers wondered about the moral fiber of America.
Some saw the quiz show scandal, in which about 100 contestants and producers lied under oath, as the first major crack in the façade of a more trusting era. A public that had believed in the integrity of the fledgling TV industry became uniformly skeptical, a trait that would be honed in the turbulent 1960s. Not since members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to fix the 1919 World Series had there been such a widespread violation of public faith.
An extensive investigation of the game show industry found that cheating was commonplace and almost all prime-time quiz shows were pulled from the air in the late 1950s. Congress held full-scale hearings and federal regulations of quiz shows were instituted.
The day in 1959 that Van Doren came clean on Capitol Hill, he lost two jobs. NBC fired the 33-year-old from his $50,000-a-year position as a “Today” show correspondent, and Columbia University asked the assistant professor to resign.
Van Doren and nine other contestants who had appeared on one of three NBC shows — “Twenty One,” “Tic Tac Dough” and “High Low” — pleaded guilty to perjury but were given suspended sentences. Almost all of the quiz show producers lost their jobs and were unofficially blacklisted for years.
The judge, who could have sent them to jail for a year, said that their exposure to national scorn was punishment enough.
When asked outside a courtroom what he planned to do after the legal proceedings were over, Van Doren responded, “For me it will never be over.”
Van Doren slipped into obscurity and moved to Chicago. He used a family connection with philosopher Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books series, to land a job as an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica. He stayed for more than 20 years.
Many saw Van Doren as deliberately withdrawing from life but Robert McHenry, editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1990s who worked for Van Doren earlier in his career, took issue with that notion in 2005.
“It doesn’t seem to me, any more than any other person of intellectual bent — and bookish to begin with — that he had sheltered himself,” said McHenry, who pointed out that Van Doren frequently traveled for Britannica, led seminars on philosophy and returned to teaching. As of 2008, Van Doren was teaching English at the University of Connecticut.
“So much with Charlie began with the fact that he was the most charming man in the Western Hemisphere,” McHenry told The Times. “He was gracious, kind and awfully easy to work for.”
Although Van Doren wrote under a pseudonym for years, he eventually reclaimed his own name and wrote and edited a number of well-regarded books, including “The Joy of Reading” (1985) and “A History of Knowledge” (1991).
With his wife, Geraldine, whom he met at a party and hired to help manage his “Twenty One” fan mail, he raised a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son, John. He spent the final years of his life at a retirement community in Canaan, Conn.
In 1994, the feature film “Quiz Show” revived interest in the scandal. The movie, directed by Robert Redford, starred the rakish Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and used as its advertising tag line: “Fifty-million people watched, but no one saw a thing.”
Charles Lincoln Van Doren was born Feb. 12, 1926, in New York City into a family of intellectual achievers. His father, Mark, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and his mother, Dorothy, was a novelist and an editor of the Nation. An uncle, Carl Van Doren, won a Pulitzer for his biography of Benjamin Franklin.
As a child, Van Doren played word games with the philosopher Adler and humorist James Thurber, who lived near the family’s 150-acre farm in Cornwall, Conn.
At Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, Van Doren was a serious clarinetist who considered music as a career. Instead, he attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., known for its “great books” curriculum.
His college years were interrupted by service in the Army Air Forces at the end of World War II. He graduated from St. John’s with a bachelor’s degree in 1947.
Partly to escape the shadow of his father and uncle, Van Doren started out studying math at Columbia but switched to English and worked toward a doctorate. He won a fellowship to Cambridge University but dropped out, attended the Sorbonne and hitchhiked around Europe.
He became an English instructor at Columbia and made $4,400 a year in the mid-1950s. He supplemented his income by helping edit a literature anthology and co-writing a biography of Civil War commander William B. Cushing.
Two stories circulated about how he became a game show contestant. One was that a friend who had appeared on “Tic Tac Dough” told him about the money that could be made. That show’s producers were also looking for a way to bolster the ratings of “Twenty One” when in walked Van Doren, a contestant with an intellectual pedigree and telegenic upper-crust looks.
The other was that Al Freedman, a deputy producer for “Twenty One,” met Van Doren at a dinner and, impressed by his intelligence and manner, thought he would be the perfect contestant to cast against Herb Stempel, the rumpled reigning champion of the game show, which was loosely based on blackjack.
To convince the reluctant Van Doren to appear on the show, Freedman told him that his heightened visibility would glamorize intellectualism, a transparent ploy that seemed to amuse Van Doren, David Halberstam wrote in his 1993 book, “The Fifties.”
Van Doren became more interested when he learned he could win prize money in six figures, but asked Freedman why he was so certain that he would succeed, Halberstam wrote. TV was show business, Freedman responded, and every show was controlled in some way.
“He always felt he was in the shadow of his father and family. There was this one shortcut, one direct route to move out quickly and get his own light,” said Julian Krainin, a producer who met with Van Doren while researching the 1992 documentary “The Quiz Show Scandal.”
“That shortcut involved a Faustian deal with the devil. It was to cheat,” Krainin said.
When Van Doren finally agreed to appear on “Twenty One,” he asked to play it straight but was told that no one did.
“Once I saw him, I knew my days on the show were numbered,” Stempel told The Times in 1994. “He was tall, thin and WASP-y, and I was this Bronx Jewish kid. It was as simple as that.”
Stempel and Van Doren first faced each other on Nov. 28, 1956, playing three tie games. Producer Dan Enright waited until the night before their second match to tell Stempel he would be taking a dive.
On Dec. 5, 1956, the script called for Stempel to flub a question: Which movie won the Academy Award for best picture in 1955? It was “Marty,” and Stempel had seen it three times but he answered “On the Waterfront.”
As Van Doren made a record 15 appearances on the show, his shy, gentle manner brought hundreds of letters a day praising him as America’s hope for a more cerebral future.
On March 11, 1957, after a series of tie games staged to heighten the drama, he lost to attorney Vivienne Nearing when he failed to correctly identify Belgium’s king.
He walked away with $129,000, a quiz show record at the time, the equivalent in 2019 of $1.15 million. NBC hired him to be a cultural correspondent on the “Today” show, where he discussed non-Euclidean geometry and recited 17th century poetry.
Stempel, bitter over losing to Van Doren in a fixed game and resentful that producers wouldn’t let him have an honest chance at beating the champion the country worshiped, sought out reporters to write about the scandal but could provide no corroborating evidence.
Finally, the notebook of a woman filled with answers was seen by another contestant, who complained. Another contestant mailed a registered letter to himself with an exact description of his coaching and the answers — evidence that could be used by the courts.
The New York district attorney’s office launched an investigation of quiz shows in 1958 that showed rigging was rampant, but for reasons that were never made clear, the judge impounded all the evidence.
On a hunch, Richard Goodwin — then a rookie lawyer for the House subcommittee on legislative oversight — reopened the case and pieced together the truth. His findings led to congressional hearings and the passage of laws regulating quiz shows.
While investigating Van Doren, Goodwin found him charming and admitted in his 1988 book, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties,” that Van Doren “almost got away. I wanted him to.” When Goodwin met with the House panel in closed session, he said he saw no need to publicly destroy Van Doren, since in his mind the networks were the villains and the sponsors benefited. The committee agreed.
Goodwin instructed Van Doren to avoid saying anything publicly but NBC gave him a choice: Send a telegram declaring his innocence to the committee or lose his job on the “Today” show. Van Doren sent the cable.
Goodwin sought advice from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who told him that Van Doren personified the quiz shows to the public.
“It would be like playing ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet,” he said. “You’re not pursuing an innocent victim, but a willing participant.”
Testifying before Congress in 1959, Van Doren’s confession began, “I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years.”
For the most part, Van Doren avoided publicly commenting about the quiz show controversy until 2008, when, at 82, he wrote a first-person piece on the affair for the New Yorker.
A mostly dispassionate recounting of events, the essay revealed little about why he took part in the televised deception. He imagined someone asking, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” and his response: “Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am — or, at least, I don’t want to be.”
Nelson is a former Times staff writer.
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