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Charles Van Doren, who became a nationwide celebrity in 1956 as a contestant on the NBC quiz show Twenty One only to be shamed two years later when a congressional investigation revealed the contest had been rigged, has died. He was 93.
Van Doren died Tuesday in a retirement community in Canaan, Connecticut, his son, John, told The New York Times.
The son of Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and literary critic/teacher, and novelist/writer Dorothy Van Doren, Charles also was the nephew of Pulitzer-winning biographer Carl Van Doren. With a master’s degree in astrophysics and PhD in English from Columbia University, where he was a professor, he was no intellectual slouch himself.
His academic pedigree and cool, sophisticated manner made Van Doren, then 30, an appealing candidate for the game show in which players tried to amass 21 points by answering questions assigned a number value up to 11. Higher-numbered questions were more difficult.
“For 14 weeks in the winter and spring of 1956-57, I came into millions of American homes, stood in a supposedly soundproof booth and answered difficult questions,” Van Doren recounted in a 2008 first-person article for The New Yorker. “I was considered well spoken, well educated, handsome — the very image of a young man that parents would like their son to be. I was also thought to be the ideal teacher, which is to say patient, thoughtful, trustworthy, caring. In addition, I was making a small fortune.”
As Van Doren revealed in the piece, he didn’t own a TV at the time, and it was merely by chance that he was swept up into the frenzy that brought him fame and then infamy. He happened to meet television producer Albert Freedman at a dinner party, and the more they talked, the more Freedman liked what he saw in Van Doren.
Herb Stempel, the reigning champ of Twenty One, was wearing out his welcome. The longer his run, the more the ratings dipped. The show’s producers, Dan Enright and host Jack Barry, and sponsor, Geritol, wanted an appealing candidate to dethrone Stempel. Freedman knew about Van Doren’s background and thought viewers would embrace this urbane intellectual.
Van Doren was coaxed into trying out for the show, and all agreed he was perfect. He was obviously smart enough to be a contender, and Freedman showed up at his Manhattan apartment to help coach him.
“He came right out and said it: ‘I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it,'” Van Doren wrote in the New Yorker. “He held up his hand. ‘I swear to you, no one will ever know. It will be just between you and me. Jack Barry won’t know and Dan Enright won’t, either. Stempel won’t know — I’ve got a way to handle that. The sponsors won’t know — anyway, they’ll be so happy they won’t give a damn. And the audience will never know, because I won’t tell them, and you won’t, either.'”
Freedman said he would feed Van Doren the questions in advance. The producer won over Van Doren by convincing him that this was merely entertainment and that he stood to win thousands of dollars. So, Van Doren made his first Twenty One appearance Nov. 28, 1956.
Stempel and Van Doren finished a few games in a tie — as the producers had planned — and the two returned the following week to battle again. This time, Van Doren outscored Stempel to become the new king as an estimated 50 million people tuned in to witness the battle of the brains.
In the ensuing weeks as he fended off challenger after challenger, Freedman never stopped coaching Van Doren, he wrote in the New Yorker, not only giving the contestant answers but also instructing him how to deliver them for the best dramatic payoff. Van Doren became so popular, Time magazine featured him on its Feb. 11, 1957, cover with the caption “Brains Vs Dollars on TV.”
After several games on Twenty One with attorney Vivienne Nearing ended in a tie, Freedman signaled to Van Doren that it was time for him to go home. He stumbled when asked to name the kings of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Jordan, Iraq and Belgium and departed with a check for $128,000 (more than $1.1 million in today’s dollars) on March 11, 1957.
For a time, life was good. Van Doren married his fiancee, Geraldine Bernstein, and signed a three-year contract with NBC as a consultant on public service and educational broadcasting at a substantial salary.
After a few unimpressive on-air assignments, including a stint as a White House correspondent, Van Doren found his niche doing segments for Dave Garroway on a Sunday afternoon cultural show, Wide Wide World. He then joined Garroway on the Today show, where his pieces usually focused on cultural and literary happenings.
In summer 1958, stories started to surface about corruption on TV quiz shows. In October, Van Doren was approached by Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joseph Stone and asked to sit for questioning about what he knew about alleged tampering on Twenty One. Van Doren held fast at first, telling Stone he never was fed answers.
Van Doren next found himself lying to a grand jury, repeating the story he had told Stone. In August 1959, Richard Goodwin, an investigator for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, called upon Van Doren.
As Van Doren remembered in the New Yorker, “What Goodwin said scared me. He told me that his subcommittee planned to hold hearings on the matter of the television quiz shows; clearly, the grand jury’s work had made its way to Washington. Goodwin opened a folder and pointed to part of a transcript of the grand jury proceedings. In the page or two that I read, Herb Stempel was testifying. I had thought the testimony was sealed, but evidently not. He went on to tell me that my testimony contradicted what Stempel said and, worse, that Freedman and Enright had returned to the grand jury and confirmed what Stempel had said.”
On Nov. 2, 1959, Van Doren appeared before the subcommittee and came clean. He pleaded guilty to perjury in the second degree for lying to the grand jury, a misdemeanor (he served no jail time). NBC opted not to renew his contract, and he was forced to resign from Columbia.
Other producers on other shows were eventually found to be messing with their programs as well.
As the new decade began, Van Doren secured a position as an editor-in-chief at the Encyclopedia Britannica with the help of Mortimer J. Adler, a friend of his father’s. In 1965, he and his wife and two kids relocated to Chicago, and during his 17 years at Britannica headquarters, he wrote and edited a number of books and co-authored the 1972 revised edition of Alder’s renowned 1940 publication, How to Read a Book.
After retiring from Encyclopedia Britannica in 1982, Van Doren wrote or co-authored several books himself.
In 1994, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show, a fictional retelling of the scandal. Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren and John Turturro portrayed Stempel. Van Doren was approached to consult on the project but declined. He never spoke publicly about his Twenty One experience until his story in the New Yorker ran in 2008.
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