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The Quiz-Show Scandal
Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions in advance.
May/June 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 4
Desperate measures were required, and Enright, shrewd, worldly, and audacious, was fully prepared to take them, although he decided to leave Barry in the dark. In early October Enright’s assistants had unearthed an Army veteran who was toiling through New York’s City College, the haven and hope of the city’s gifted poor. He boasted of a ‘Very retentive, if not photographic, memory,” and answered 251 of the 363 questions given as a test to would-be “Twenty-One” contestants. Here, it seemed, lay salvation for Enright and “Twenty-One.” The common man as “genius” had been the stock formula of the quiz shows from the start. The “fantasy of equality,” The Nation had called it. And who was more superbly commonplace than the ex-GI Herb Stempel of City College, this “little, short, squat guy,” in his own bitter self-description. Moreover, as Enright observed after two probing interviews, Stempel was intensely ambitious and unburdened by dangerous scruples.
On October 16, with his boring quiz program crashing around his ears and a show to put on the next night, Enright rushed out to Stempel’s home in the borough of Queens, pulled out a packet of cards, and went through every question and answer in the “Twenty-One” repertory. “After having done this,” Stempel later testified to Congress, “he very, very bluntly sat back and said with a smile, ‘How would you like to win $25,000?’” As he later explained, “I had been a poor boy all my life, and I was sort of overjoyed….”
The “unholy alliance” made, the quantum leap taken, Enright then instructed Stempel to appear on television the next night wearing a shirt with a frayed collar, an ill-fitting double-breasted suit, and an ugly “marinetype white-wall haircut.” He was to stutter before asking for a high-point question, to bite his lips, to pat his brow, and always to call the master of ceremonies “Mr. Barry.” He was to comport himself at all times with Uriah Heepish humility. And “woe betide you if you did not do it as had been planned by Mr. Enright,” who, for all his shrewdness, had no inkling whatever of the grapes of wrath he was storing in Stempel’s painfully class-conscious soul.
Coached down to the smallest detail by the dapper, domineering Enright, Stempel was triumphant as a matter of course—winning $9,000 in four dazzling minutes by trouncing his first rival 18 to 0; winning a total of $69,500 in the space of eight weeks. He was also winning something almost more precious to Stempel than money—the insidious joys of celebrity. “Suddenly when he walked down the street or walked into a restaurant,” recalled an Enright publicity agent, “people were offering him free steaks. It sort of threw him. Everybody asked for his autograph. He was not the same person.” To eat in smart restaurants, to hail members of the press, to savor the charms of the boulevard and the fringes of show business proved heady stuff indeed for the “little, short, squat” senior at New York’s grindingly unglamorous free college. The elated Stempel couldn’t know that Enright was already planning to tear the brass ring from his hot, clutching hands.
Like a gift from the gods to Enright, Charles Van Doren had turned up at the Barry and Enright offices to take the test for “Tic-Tac-Dough,” a modest daytime quiz show well suited to Van Doren’s modest pecuniary ambitions. It may be safely surmised that the illustrious name rang a bell at the office; that the departing Van Doren’s accidental encounter with the producer of “Tic-Tac-Dough”—a suavely handsome young man named Al Freedman—was no accident at all; that visions of sugarplums were already dancing in Enright’s busy head. In any case, a week later Van Doren was invited to appear on “Twenty-One” and a few days later he was asked to meet with Freedman (who was now producing “Twenty-One” for Enright), avowedly to learn the rules of the game, in fact to be subtly probed as a second potential partner in fraud. What the keen-eyed producer saw was a notably attractive young man, a “bona fide egghead with enough sex appeal, yet the right touch of wholesomeness to reassure mothers both in town and on farms,” as Jack Gould, the television critic of The New York Times, would later describe him. Quite likely Enright saw, too, a restless, dissatisfied spirit, for Van Doren had become an English instructor only after years of struggling to stay out of his famed father’s footsteps. Would lie follow in the footsteps of Stempel?