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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
It was like a gift from the gods to the producers when Van Doren turned up at their offices to try out for a show.
The sad, irretrievable answer came on November 26, 1956, when Freedman invited Van Doren to his apartment, took him out of the Freedman family’s earshot, and told him, flatly, that Barry and Enright Productions wanted Van Doren to defeat Stempel for the good of the show. A series of dramatic tie games (which greatly increased the stakes) would be arranged for their first encounter. For the second show Stempel would be told to make way for Van Doren. A little dismayed, Van Doren asked Freedman why he could not beat Stempel fairly. Impossible, replied his tempter. Stempel was “too knowledgeable,” and the rigging of quiz shows was “common practice.” In any case, they were “merely entertainment.” Do it, Charles, as a favor to me, urged Freedman, as Van Doren would testify to Congress in the climactic hour of the entire quiz scandal. “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.” Clutching that straw of high purpose proffered by Freedman, Van Doren took the last hurdle. Less swiftly than Stempel but just as surely, Charles Lincoln Van Doren had taken the leap into fraud. The next day Freedman supplied him with a complete script to memorize —questions to answer, questions to miss, points to amass for the three concerted tie games that were to launch Van Doren’s television career.
And what of Stempel? According to the script, Van Doren’s name and lineage would be harshly rubbed in his face. Did “Herb” dare risk his $69,500 against this formidable new challenger?, Jack Barry asked at the start of the show. Did Herb and the national audience fully realize who this cultured young gentleman was? “Just out of curiosity, Mr. Van Doren, are you in any way related to Mark Van Doren, up at Columbia University, the famous writer?”
“Yes, I am. He is my father.”
“He is your father!” Feigned ecstasy overwhelmed Barry. “Are you related to any of the other well-known Van Dorens?”
“Well, Dorothy Van Doren, the novelist and author of the recent The Country Wife, is my mother, and Carl Van Doren, the biographer of Benjamin Franklin, was my uncle.”
Was “Herb” still willing to risk his prize money? Herb was undaunted, suspecting nothing. Surely the well-bred scion was being built up so that he, the common man triumphant, could knock him down all the more dramatically when they met the second time. Stempel had faith in the formula.
Not until six days later did Enright “very bluntly” break the bad news to Stempel. The show needed a new champion, said Enright. “You are going to have to go.” The careless cruelty of Enright’s plan for Herb’s demise would play no small part in the scandal to come. Leading Van Doren 16 to 0 the next night, he needed only to answer one easy five-point question to add $42,000 to his total winnings. The question was, Which movie won last year’s Academy Award? The answer was Marty, Stempel’s favorite film, the story of another “little, short, squat guy” so much like himself. Enright instructed him to miss it, fall into a tie, lose 18 to 10 (which meant forfeiting $20,000) in the next game, and then adieu to Herb Stempel, $49,500 richer than he had been pre-Enright and nothing to complain about, right?
Less swiftly than Stempel but just as surely, Charles Van Doren had taken the leap into fraud.
Wrong. Stempel was stunned, heartbroken, utterly inconsolable. To be “dumped on the program,” as he put it, to lose the brass ring, to fall back into drudging obscurity, above all, to appear before the entire country as the mental inferior of his social superior, “a guy Van Doren that had a fancy name, Ivy League education,” was more than Stempel could bear. “Tomorrow I take a dive,” he told a friend. He then told his barber, then the local druggist, then Enright’s own publicity agent, Al Davis, on the day of the show. “He had almost broken completely down and was crying,” Franklin recalled years later. Nevertheless, he did as instructed; Enright still dominated him completely. Van Doren’s meteoric rise had begun. Stempel began seeing a psychiatrist.