Charles Van Doren obituary | Michael Carlson

Academic at the centre of a quiz-show fixing scandal in America in the 1950s

Charles Van Doren, who has died aged 93, was at the centre of a huge quiz-show fixing scandal that shocked America at the end of the 1950s. His victory over Herbert Stempel on the Twenty-One game show in 1956 drew a huge audience, but within two years America would discover that reality television was not in fact real, a lesson the nation seemed to forget some decades later.

Van Doren, a lecturer in English at Columbia University in New York, had agreed to become a contestant on Twenty-One under false pretences. The programme’s producers, Dan Enright and Al Freedman, groomed him not only with the questions, but on how to build suspense while answering, and how to get the occasional answer wrong. In the manner of professional wrestling, they built suspense by engineering two draws before Van Doren eventually won.

Stempel was given bad haircuts and cheap suits, even a loudly ticking watch that could be heard in his soundproofed box. He was encouraged to wipe away sweat without damaging his makeup, and in contrast to Van Doren’s confident, comfortable backstory, was billed as a hungry working-class student, as if it were City College of New York versus the Ivy League.

Stempel took the dive, and Van Doren stayed as champion for four months before himself hitting the canvas for Vivienne Nearing, a New York lawyer whose husband had already lost to Van Doren. Van Doren won a total of $129,000 on the show, the equivalent of $1.1m today. He was besieged by fans and, because he was billed as being a single man, received a number of marriage proposals, even though he had by that point wed his fiancee, Geraldine Bernstein. Twenty-One reached No 26 in the 1956 TV programme ratings.

Van Doren’s star established, NBC subsequently offered him a contract at $150,000 a year, at first assigning him to their Washington news bureau but eventually using him on arts features programmes for Dave Garroway’s Sunday show Wide Wide World. He eventually joined Garroway presenting similar material on the early morning Today show, while continuing to lecture at Columbia.

By 1958, however, stories about the fixing of quiz shows had become public. Under questioning from the Manhattan assistant district attorney, Joseph Stone, Van Doren lied to cover up the scandal, but in 1959 Richard Goodwin, later a speechwriter for John F Kennedy, questioned him for a congressional investigation. This time Van Doren read a prepared statement confessing to everything. “I was foolish, naive, prideful and avaricious,” he said. “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.” He resigned from Columbia and NBC fired him. In 1962 he was convicted of misdemeanour perjury, and given a suspended prison sentence. Sixteen others involved in the hoax were also prosecuted.

Van Doren was born in New York into a prominent literary family. His father, Mark, was a Pulitzer prize-winning poet who taught at Columbia, while his mother, Dorothy (nee Graffe), was a novelist and editor. He attended the progressive City & Country school in Greenwich Village, then New York’s High School of Music & Art, where he studied the clarinet. He also studied great books at St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, interrupted by service in the Air Corps where, he said, he “learned to play poker”.

After graduating in 1947 he earned an MA in mathematics and physics at Columbia, then took a fellowship at Cambridge University and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before returning to Columbia to earn his doctorate in English literature and to begin lecturing, sharing an office with his father.

It was around this time that Van Doren met Freedman, a producer for Barry & Enright Productions, the company that made Twenty-One. The show’s sponsors, Geritol (a tonic), had become unhappy with Stempel’s series of wins, wanting more drama and a more attractive champion. Although Van Doren did not even own a television, or perhaps because of that, Freedman thought he would be perfect for the role of Stempel’s erudite challenger. It was not hard to understand why.

After his public confession and exposure, Van Doren, through family friends, was able to find work as a senior editor with the Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago, eventually becoming the company’s vice-president. With Britannica board member Mortimer Adler, a popular philosopher, he co-wrote a new edition of the bestselling How to Read a Book (1965), and on his own wrote other non-fiction works, among them The Joy of Reading (1985) and A History of Knowledge (1991).

In 1982 he retired to his parents’ cottage in Cornwall, Connecticut, where he continued to write and where he and his wife taught at a nearby branch of the University of Connecticut. He steadfastly refused to discuss the scandal and would not cooperate with Stone’s book about it, nor with a 1992 documentary on the topic by the producer Julian Krainin (although his name mysteriously appeared at the top of the credits list).

Krainin’s documentary prompted the 1994 film Quiz Show, which was directed by Robert Redford and starred Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and John Turturro as Stempel. Krainin and Goodwin were among its producers, and offered Van Doren $100,000 to participate, but again he turned them down. He realised only later that Fiennes had stopped by his house to ask directions; Fiennes later said he found Van Doren “sad”.

Van Doren finally broke his silence in a 2008 article for the New Yorker, in which he admitted that he had enjoyed hearing Turturro’s Stempel refer to him as “Charles Van Fucking Moron”. He also wrote that he felt he had been “acting a role for 10-15 years, maybe all my life ... thinking I’ve done far more than I’ve done, accomplished more than I’ve accomplished. It has, in a way, something to do with my family, I suppose.”

He is survived by Geraldine, a son, John, and a daughter, Elizabeth.

• Charles Van Doren, broadcaster and academic, born 12 February 1926; died 9 April 2019


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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