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The Quiz Show Scandal | Article

Charles Van Doren

Quizshow Van Doren corbis.jpg
Charles Van Doren, Corbis

Perhaps no other figure involved in the television quiz shows of the 1950s had a more meteoric rise and fall than Charles Van Doren, a Columbia English professor who became a celebrated winner on the quiz show "Twenty-One."

The well-bred Van Doren, only 30 years old when he first appeared on the program, came from a family of intellectual achievers. Charles’ father was the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist and writer, and his uncle, Carl Van Doren, was a noted historian who had written a biography of Ben Franklin.

Van Doren himself was a serious and successful academic with a broad range of interests. He earned his B.A. at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland studying a "great books" curriculum. He finished early, studying astrophysics at Columbia University’s graduate school. Van Doren also acted in a play by James Thurber, a Connecticut neighbor to the family.

In graduate school, Van Doren switched his concentration to math. But believing his abilities equipped him for nothing more than teaching that discipline, he began studying for an English Ph.D.

After spending time traveling in Europe and studying at the Sorbonne, Van Doren came back to Columbia to join the faculty as a professor of English, earning an annual salary of $4,400. A friend of Van Doren’s, who had appeared on another quiz show "Tic Tac Dough," told him of the money to be made from quiz shows. Van Doren applied. At that time, producers for the quiz show "Twenty-One" were looking for ways to bolster faltering ratings. In Van Doren, a charming and very presentable academic with name recognition, producers saw the kind of attractive winner who could popularize the show.

Producers scripted the program so that Van Doren and Stempel would have a string of ties to build the drama for Van Doren’s eventual victory. The clean-cut Van Doren, playing his part to perfection, became the new champion of "Twenty-One."

Ratings for the show began to rise. In mid-January of 1957, Van Doren went on a streak that earned him $90,000. He crossed the $100,000 mark by outscoring a former college president, Edgar Cummings. Van Doren, fed with answers and coached on how to act during the show, appeared to television audiences to know about topics as diverse as George Washington and Broadway musicals.

By the end of the streak, Van Doren was better known than every game-show contestant who had preceded him. "Time" magazine pictured him on their cover. The stardom sifted into his personal life: He received about 500 letters a week. So many people -- journalists, Hollywood producers and single women -- telephoned Van Doren that he got an unlisted number.

By the evening of February 11, Van Doren had amassed a staggering $138,000. The second challenger that evening was Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer, whose husband Victor had lost to Van Doren in January. Nearing and Van Doren tied that evening and two more times, but in their fourth contest, Nearing beat Van Doren.

Although his reign on national television had ended, Van Doren was still a sought-after television commodity. In April of 1957, the quiz show celebrity signed a $150,000 three-year contract with NBC, which committed him to appearances as a guest on Steve Allen’s show, a guest host on the "Today Show," and a panelist on NBC radio’s "Conversations."

When the quiz show scandals broke, Van Doren repeatedly asserted his innocence, repeating the lie to his lawyer, the district attorney, and even to the grand jury. Van Doren told the press: "It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows."

Van Doren went so far as to offer to appear in front of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, which was investigating the quiz-show scandal, to assert his innocence. Calling his bluff, the committee subpoenaed him.

Van Doren, after what appeared to be much soul-searching, finally confessed. "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception," Van Doren told the committee on November 2, 1959. "I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them." Van Doren asserted that producer Albert Freedman had persuaded him to participate in the deception by saying that quiz shows were entertainment and that fixing was a common practice. However, the argument that apparently convinced a reluctant Van Doren to play along was that his success would bring prestige to the pursuit of knowledge. Van Doren said he told himself he had been promoting "the intellectual life" to young watchers everywhere. In the press conference that followed his testimony, Van Doren reported that he had been "living in dread for almost three years."

NBC ended its contract with Van Doren, and his resignation was accepted by Columbia University. For some time he wrote books under a pseudonym and later edited works for Encyclopaedia Britannica. Only as an author in the mid-1980s did he use his real name again, his scandalous involvement in the quiz show deceptions then a quarter century behind him.

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