Charles Van Doren

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Charles Van Doren
Vivienne Nearing, Jack Barry, Charles Van Doren NYWTS.jpg
Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One
BornCharles Lincoln Van Doren
(1926-02-12) February 12, 1926 (age 88)
New York, New York, United States
Known forQuiz show scandal
ParentsMark Van Doren
Dorothy Graffe
 
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Charles Van Doren
Vivienne Nearing, Jack Barry, Charles Van Doren NYWTS.jpg
Charles Van Doren (right), with Vivienne Nearing and Jack Barry on Twenty One
BornCharles Lincoln Van Doren
(1926-02-12) February 12, 1926 (age 88)
New York, New York, United States
Known forQuiz show scandal
ParentsMark Van Doren
Dorothy Graffe

Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926) is an American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. In 1959 he confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.

Background[edit]

The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and literary critic/teacher Mark Van Doren and novelist and writer Dorothy Van Doren, and nephew of critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Carl Van Doren, Charles Van Doren was a committed academic with an unusually broad range of interests. He graduated from The High School of Music & Art and then earned a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts (1946) from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a master's degree in astrophysics (1949) and a doctorate in English (1955), both at Columbia University. He was also a student at Cambridge University in England.[1]

Quiz show star[edit]

Twenty One was not Van Doren's first interest. He was long believed to have approached producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman, originally, to appear on Tic-Tac-Dough, another game they produced. Van Doren eventually revealed—five decades after his Twenty One championship and fame, in a surprise article for The New Yorker—that he did not even own a television set, but had met Freedman through a mutual friend, with Freedman initiating the idea of Van Doren going on television by way of asking what he thought of Tic-Tac-Dough.

Enright and Freedman were impressed by Van Doren's polite style and telegenic appearance, thinking the youthful Columbia teacher would be the man to defeat their incumbent Twenty One champion, Herb Stempel, and boost the show's slowing ratings as Stempel's reign continued.

In January 1957, Van Doren entered a winning streak that ultimately earned him more than $129,000 (more than $1 million in 2009 dollars)[2] and made him famous, including an appearance on the cover of TIME on February 11, 1957. His Twenty One run ended on March 11, when he lost to Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer whose husband Van Doren had previously beaten. After his defeat he was offered a three-year contract with NBC.

Numerous writings since have suggested Van Doren was offered a job as a special "cultural correspondent" for The Today Show almost at once—but Van Doren subsequently reminded people that his first job was as a newswriter, short-lived, before he began doing small pieces for Today host Dave Garroway's weekend cultural program, Wide Wide World—pieces that led quickly to Garroway's inviting Van Doren to join Today. Van Doren also made guest appearances on other NBC programs, even serving as Today's substitute host when Garroway took a brief vacation.

Quiz show scandal[edit]

When allegations of cheating were first raised, by Stempel and others, Van Doren denied any wrongdoing, saying "It's silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." But on November 2, 1959, he admitted to the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, a United States Congress subcommittee, chaired by Arkansas Democrat Oren Harris, that he had been given questions and answers in advance of the show.

I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. The fact that I, too, was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol. There may be a kind of justice in that. I don’t know. I do know, and I can say it proudly to this committee, that since Friday, October 16, when I finally came to a full understanding of what I had done and of what I must do, I have taken a number of steps toward trying to make up for it. I have a long way to go. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them. Whatever their feeling for me now, my affection for them is stronger today than ever before. I am making this statement because of them. I hope my being here will serve them well and lastingly.

I asked (co-producer Albert Freedman) to let me go on (Twenty One) honestly, without receiving help. He said that was impossible. He told me that I would not have a chance to defeat Stempel because he was too knowledgeable. He also told me that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz contests was a common practice and merely a part of show business. This of course was not true, but perhaps I wanted to believe him. He also stressed the fact that by appearing on a nationally televised program I would be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances. In fact, I think I have done a disservice to all of them. I deeply regret this, since I believe nothing is of more vital importance to our civilization than education.[3]

Authorities differ regarding the audience's reaction to Van Doren's statement.

David Halberstam writes in his book The Fifties that

"Aware of Van Doren's great popularity, the committee members handled him gently and repeatedly praised him for his candor. Only Congressman Steve Derounian announced that he saw no particular point in praising someone of Van Doren's exceptional talents and intelligence for simply telling the truth. With that, the room suddenly exploded with applause, and [Congressional investigator] Richard N. Goodwin knew at that moment ordinary people would not so easily forgive Van Doren."[4]

By contrast, William Manchester, in his narrative history The Glory and the Dream, recounts a diametrically opposite response:

"The crowd at the hearing had been with Van Doren, applauding him and his admirers on the subcommittee and greeting Congressman Derounians's comment with stony silence."[5]

An Associated Press story, dated November 2, 1959, seems to verify Halberstam's version of events. As quoted from the November 3, 1959 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"While there was a burst of applause when Mr. (Oren) Harris dismissed Mr. Van Doren with a "God bless you", there was applause, too, when Rep. Steven B. Derounian, Republican, New York, declined to go along with compliments that other committee members showered on the witness for telling the truth. 'I don't think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth,' Mr. Derounian declared in severe tones. Mr. Van Doren winced, flushed, and ducked his head."[6]

Steven Derounian (R, NY) and the Congressional Subcommittee that investigated the 1950s Quiz show scandals are presented in Robert Redford's 1994 film Quiz Show where Derounian dissents saying:

"I'm happy that you've made the statement. But I cannot agree with most of my colleagues. See, I don't think an adult of your intelligence should be commended for simply, at long last, telling the truth."

His actual remarks, taken from the published transcript, were: "Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don't think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth."[7]

Aftermath[edit]

Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the popular-market text A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored a well-received revision of How to Read a Book with its original author, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, and co-edited with him a 1,771-page anthology entitled Great Treasury of Western Thought (1977). He had already worked with Adler on an 18-volume collection of documents covering American history, entitled The Annals of America (1968), which was accompanied by a two-volume, 1,300-page "topical index" organized around twenty-five themes and entitled Great Issue in American Life: A Conspectus.[8]

In his eventual article in The New Yorker, Van Doren revealed he had actually been contemplating the Britannica job even at the height of his celebrity: taking a long walk with his father around the farmlands they both loved, the elder Van Doren mentioned to his son that Mortimer J. Adler, the philosopher and a member of Britannica's board of editors, had spoken of making Van Doren Britannica's editor-in-chief. Van Doren eventually accepted the job, he would write, by way of intercession from a former college roommate. Van Doren retired from Britannica in 1982.

Van Doren also revealed he had been offered an opportunity to do a PBS series on the history of philosophy but that its tentative producer, Julian Krainin, might actually have had in mind Van Doren's explicit cooperation on a planned PBS program recalling the quiz show scandals. When that did not occur (though the program thanked Van Doren explicitly, among other credits), Van Doren wrote, Krainin later sought his cooperation and consultation when Robert Redford was beginning to make Quiz Show—even conveying that Van Doren would be paid in six figures for it. After wrestling with the idea—and, he wrote, noting his wife's objections—Van Doren rejected it. It would be five decades before Van Doren finally broke his silence on the quiz show scandal to New Yorker magazine.

Today, both Van Doren and his wife, Gerry, are adjunct professors of English at the University of Connecticut, Torrington branch. They live in a "small, old house" (his words) on the land his parents bought near Falls Village, Connecticut over eighty years earlier.

Film version[edit]

The story of the quiz show scandal and Van Doren's role in it is depicted in the film Quiz Show (1994; he was portrayed by British actor Ralph Fiennes), produced and directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio. The film made $24 million by April 1995, and was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay.[9] The film earned several critiques questioning its use of dramatic license, its accuracy, and the motivation behind its making.

The critics have included Joseph Stone, the New York prosecutor who began the investigations; and Jeffrey Hart, a Dartmouth College scholar, senior editor of National Review, and a longtime friend of Van Doren, who saw the film as falsely implying tension between Van Doren and his accomplished father.

Until recently Van Doren had refused interviews or public comment on the subject of the quiz show scandals. In a 1985 interview on The Today Show—his only appearance on the program since his dismissal in 1959, plugging his book The Joy Of Reading—he answered a general question on how the scandal changed his life. He has revisited Columbia University only twice in the 40 years that followed his resignation: in 1984, when his son John graduated; and, in 1999, at a reunion of Columbia's Class of 1959. The graduating class of 1959 entered the university when Van Doren first became a teacher there in 1955.

During the latter appearance, Van Doren made one allusion to the quiz scandal without mentioning it by name:

Some of you read with me 40 years ago a portion of Aristotle's Ethics, a selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of all kinds and ages. In case you don't remember, then, I remind you that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on "whole," a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last part, the part you're now approaching, was for Aristotle the most important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn't it?[10]

"All the Answers"[edit]

The July 28, 2008 issue of The New Yorker included a personal reminiscence titled "All the Answers," written by Van Doren, in which he recounted in detail the scandals and their aftermath.[11] Other than very occasional and often very abbreviated references to it, Van Doren had never before spoken publicly about the scandal, his role, and its effects on his life.

He referred to the film, saying he was bothered most by the closing credits' reference that he never taught again: "I didn't stop teaching, though it was a long time before I taught again in a college." But he also said he enjoyed John Turturro's portrayal of his Twenty-One rival, Herb Stempel.

The article also contradicted many impressions of Van Doren that the film had created: the film portrayed him as a bachelor when he was actually engaged; it suggested he had a fascination with the burgeoning, popular television quiz shows when in fact he did not even own a television set; that the only reason he became even mildly acquainted with Twenty-One was because co-producer Al Freedman shared a mutual acquaintance with one of Van Doren's friends; and, that he had been offered his job with Today promptly after losing to Vivien Nearing when, in fact, NBC was not sure at first what to do with him, until he did work for Dave Garroway's Sunday afternoon cultural show, Wide Wide World, which then led to the invitation to join Today.

Van Doren also addressed and denied the film's insinuations that he had been friends with Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin while Van Doren was Twenty One's reigning champion (and during and after the start of Herb Stempel's efforts to expose the show's being rigged). According to Van Doren, the two men had not met until August 1959, when the subcommittee to which Goodwin served as counsel had begun investigating the quiz shows and Van Doren was already established on The Today Show.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Charles Van Doren. Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  2. ^ "Inflation Calculator". S. Morgan Friedman. Retrieved 2010-11-29. 
  3. ^ "Charles Van Doren testimony". History Matters. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  4. ^ David Halberstam, "The Fifties" 1993, Ballantine Books, div. of Random House, chapter 43, page 663.
  5. ^ William Manchester, "The Glory and the Dream" 1973, 1974, Little, Brown & Company (Boston—Canada), Volume 2, chapter 26, page 1043 (chapter notes reference The New York Times, 11/5/59 and 11/6/59).
  6. ^ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Google News Archive Search
  7. ^ "Text of Van Doren's Testimony at House Hearing on Fixed Television Quizzes; Subcommittee Is Told of Rehearsals and Coaching for the 'Twenty-one' Show". The New York Times. November 3, 1959. 
  8. ^ In the "Editor's Preface," Mortimer Adler says that Charles Van Doren, as his "closest associate and executive editor," was the person who "coordinated and supervised the varied and complicated editorial operations involved in producing this set of books." Van Doren was also the main author of the historical essays that accompany the index as well as the period sketch that accompanies each volume of the document set. Mortimer Adler, "Editor's Preface," The Annals of America: Great Issues in American Life: A Conspectus, Vol. I (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1968), p. vii.
  9. ^ IMDb.com
  10. ^ "The Biggest Challenge of All". Columbia University. Archived from the original on 2008-03-09. Retrieved 2008-08-13. "In June, an invitation from the Class of 1959 to speak at its reunion brought Charles Van Doren back to Columbia for only the second time in 40 years." 
  11. ^ "All The Answers". New Yorker. July 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-08-12. "For fourteen 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. 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. And then—well, this is what happened ..." 

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