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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
In October 1956 the twenty-nine-year-old scion of an illustrious American literary family took up a suggestion that countless Americans were then making to their more erudite friends and relations. He could use some extra money; Columbia University paid him meagerly enough to teach English alongside his famous father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren. So why not try to get on one of those new television quiz shows? If he happened to get lucky, he might win a few thousand dollars. From this innocuous impulse flowed a complex moral tale.
By 1959 a boiling scandal would rage with terrifying fury around the tall, lanky figure of Charles Lincoln Van Doren. It would come to seem the symptom of a deep moral rot in the nation largely because of Van Doren himself. But in the autumn of 1956 this charming, gifted young man was merely one of numberless would-be contestants gravitating toward midtown Manhattan, the quiz-show capital of a quiz-crazed country. Among those whom the scandal would eventually envelop was the Reverend Charles (“Stoney“) Jackson of Tullahoma, Tennessee, who was desperately trying to get on “The $64,000 Question,” to repay debts incurred while working with youths, and become what he called the “protestant Father Flanagan.” Another aspirant was young Eddie Hugemeier, Jr., part-time actor, part-time comic, part-time butler, who wangled his way onto so many quiz shows in this age of quiz mania that contestanthood was his chief source of income. Then there was the quiz world’s nemesis, chubby Herbert Stempel of New York, aged twenty-nine, who was winning prize money hand over fist in the autumn of 1956 on a quiz show called ‘Twenty-One.” Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions and answers in advance from the show’s producer, Daniel Enright, “one of the nicest people I ever met before he got greedy enough to enter into such an unholy alliance,” as Enright’s publicity agent was to testify before a congressional committee in October 1959. Truly these television quiz shows inspired greedy dreams—inside the television industry especially. The main fact is this: When “The $64,000 Question” made its debut on June 7, 1955, over the CBS network, it became, almost at once, the mass-media equivalent of the Klondike gold strike. In the space of ten dizzying weeks, forty-seven million Americans were watching the likes of Redmond O’Hanlon, a New York City policeman, win $16,000 as an amateur expert on Shakespeare, and the lovable Gino Prato, a soft-spoken immigrant cobbler, win $32,000 as an expert on Italian opera. No entertainment program in mass-media history, not “Amos ‘n Andy” in radio days or Milton Berle in the first years of video, had ever acquired so huge an audience so quickly or inspired so many stories in the press, including one on the front page of the frosty New York Times when a U.S. Marine captain, expert in food and cookery, became the first contestant to ask for and answer a $64,000 question.
Stempel’s winning technique was simplicity itself: He got all the questions in advance.
“The $64,000 Question” would “set back by at least a season, if not by years, TV’s already enfeebled yearning to leaven commercialism with culture.” So Time magazine predicted with scornful accuracy that August while independent television producers, rushing forth to the Klondike, concocted “The Big Surprise” (top prize $100,000), “Do You Trust Your Wife?” ($100 a week for twenty years), “The $64,000 Challenge” (graduate school for winners on “The $64,000 Question”), and dozens of others. The quiz mania even leaped across national boundaries. Italy thrilled to its 5-million-lire quiz (about $8,000). Mexico had its 64,000-peso question ($5,120).
Formats varied greatly, but nearly all quiz shows had this in common: secret manipulation by the quiz-show producers, who made sure that popular contestants were asked questions they would answer correctly and unpopular ones were asked questions they were likely to miss. The favored winners were more or less innocent —at least in the first year or so. And then there was “Twenty-One,” a quantum leap deeper into fraudulence and corruption, which made its debut over the NBC network on the evening of September 12, 1956, sponsored by the makers of Geritol, relief for “tired blood.” The handiwork of Enright and his longtime partner, Jack Barry, the show’s master of ceremonies, it was modeled after the card game, pitting two contestants against each other, the winner being the one who stopped with the higher point total or with twenty-one points outright, the points acquired by answering questions ranging in difficulty from one to eleven. There was no limit to how much a contestant might ultimately win, but alas for Barry and Enright Productions, it could not get a single convincing winner. “Twenty-One” did not call for narrow expertise, which made the tricks of favoritism easy to work. It drew its questions from 108 separate categories of information, which is to say, it needed talking encyclopedias and human almanacs. What it got in its first dismal weeks were contestants floundering in failure and tie scores of 0 to 0—in short, a complete, humiliating fiasco.
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?
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.
Between November 28, 1956, and March 11 of the following year, Charles Van Doren was by far the most popular, the most lauded, the most talked-about person on television. Twenty thousand admiring letters poured in on him. He gave out press interviews to some five hundred reporters and appeared frequently as a guest on other television shows. He had to hire a secretary—whom he later married—to handle his mail and a talent agency to cope with all the book, lecture, and movie contracts that were waved in his face. He was the pride of the nation’s teachers, a model for schoolchildren, “so likeable,” wrote a Chicago television critic, “that he has come to be a ‘friend’ whose weekly visits the whole family eagerly anticipates.”
There was not the slightest shadow of a doubt about the honesty of the program. “A nation breathed each breath with Charles,” wrote Gould of the Times, “and went out and bought another vial of Geritol.” Here was “a new kind of TV idol—of all things, an egghead … whom many a grateful parent regards as TV’s own health-restoring antidote to Presley.” So Time put it in its ultimate accolade to Charles Van Doren, a cover story on the “wizard of quiz” in its issue of February 11, 1957. “Clamped in a vise of earphones, the eyes roll heavenward and squeeze shut, the brow sweats and furrows, the teeth gnaw at the lower lip” as the nation sits enthralled by “the fascinating, suspense-taut spectacle of his highly trained mind at work”—coming up with answers Al Freedman had given him the day before.
How could Van Doren bear such grotesquely unmerited renown—unmerited except for his histrionic skills? The falsity of his position pained him —“made me terribly uncomfortable,” he said years later. The fraudulence frightened him. “I didn’t know what to do nor where to turn and, frankly, I was very much afraid. I told Freedman of my fears and misgivings, and I asked him several times to release me from the program.” From the wild roller coaster he was riding, however, there was no ready escape until Enright had squeezed every last drop of “entertainment” out of him.
Ashamed and fearful, on the one hand, and powerfully tempted, on the other, Van Doren took refuge in high-minded humbug. Over and over he told himself “that it did not matter what I was doing because it was having such a good effect on the national attitude to teachers, education, and the intellectual life.” Nor did he spurn the immense rewards of venality: $129,000 in prize money after his prearranged defeat at the hands of a woman lawyer—“more money than I had ever made or ever dreamed of making”—followed three weeks later by a $50,000 annual contract with NBC, a magnificent stipend in 1957, and withal a chance to make amends (in his own mind) by appearing each morning on the “Today” show to offer genuine culture and learning to the millions. A few weeks after that, Enright, too, reaped the rewards of his daring plunge into fraud when NBC bought all Barry and Enright “properties”—quiz and game shows—for approximately two million dollars.
Everything was going splendidly. The “quiz empire,” as the Times called it, seemed impregnable, although behind the scenes the manipulations of the producers were growing steadily more crude, the favored winners correspondingly less innocent. There was a momentary stir of peril when a showgirl named Dale Logue, posing as an astronomy expert, sued “The Big Surprise” because a question she had missed in the warm-up session was used again to trip her up on the air—the quiz-show equivalent of the old vaudeville hook. But the suit made no real mark. There was “showmanship” on many of the quiz shows, Time conceded in April 1957, but “without collusion with the contestants.” Look magazine in August was equally reassuring: there was “control” but “no TV quiz shows are fixed in the sense of being dishonest.”
In the complacency of the Eisenhower era, the country was extremely loath to think ill of the quiz shows, as the Reverend Mr. Jackson discovered to his wonderfully comical dismay. On December 29, 1957, he appeared on “The $64,000 Challenge” as an expert in “great lovers” of literature (after weeks of diligent cramming). To his righteous dismay he found himself asked on the air the same obscure question to which he had been given the answer in the rehearsal session. For a split second he thought he would shout out the truth to the world, the garrulous cleric later told members of Congress, “but I could see my bullet-riddled body as I passed an alley somewhere.” Instead, he sent a wire to Time, “thinking that I wouldn’t have to wait but a few minutes until the phone rang. …” It never did. He wrote to The New York Times, but nothing came of it. Closer to home, Jackson urged his story on the publisher of the local semiweekly to which “Stoney” himself contributed a sports column. “Don’t be an idiot,” the publisher replied. He told his tale of fraudulence to his congregation; nobody cared. He told it to local civic groups; nobody cared. “Will you keep your mouth shut and let it go,” was the general Tullahoma consensus.
Far grimmer and fiercer than Stoney Jackson, and with a far more scandalous story to tell, Herb Stempel, too, knocked on newspaper doors. A few reporters were intrigued, but libel lawyers look askance at the unsupported allegations of frenzied hysterics, and Stempel was truly hysterical. He “would stop people in the streets and tell them the sad story,” recalled Enright’s publicity agent. Tormented by envy and jealousy, Stempel was obsessively—and dangerously—persistent. Enright took steps to neutralize him. With the promise of a job as a “program consultant” dangling in the air, Enright invited Stempel for a meeting in his office. There, with a tape recorder secretly running, Enright got the distraught Stempel to say he was emotionally deranged, financially embarrassed, and guilty of blackmailing Enright.
Just to clear the air, said the producer, “I want you to write a piece of paper now to the effect that contrary to what you have said in the past, or written in the past, Dan Enright has at no time disclosed questions, answers, points, anything like it.” Poor, hapless Stempel, longing to reenter the television Eden, duly complied. Enright, triumphant, was kindness itself. “Herb, you’re sitting at home in the evening and something starts to gnaw you. …”
“Call you up.”
“Call me up.” And “go to a psychiatrist five days a week, not twice”—at Barry and Enright’s expense. All through the interview, however, the envy-racked Stempel could see displayed on Enright’s desk Time’s cover portrait of Van Doren, mocking the mock kindness of Enright. Nor did any “consultant” job ever materialize. With the incriminating tape locked in a bank vault, Enright felt he had nothing further to fear from Herb, whom he evidently regarded, with some justification, as little more than an ungrateful wretch. Nobody else gave the show’s producers trouble. Out of twenty or so contestants singled out for collusion on “Twenty-One,” Freedman later boasted to his congressional questioners, not one ostensibly respectable citizen ever turned him down.
It was not until May 20, 1958, that the quiz empire suffered its first wounding blow, the weapon forged in the dressing room of a new daytime quiz show called “Dotto”—“the game that turns dots into pictures and pictures into dollars.” The show’s current winner was stealthily peering into a notebook and being stealthily watched as she did so by the show’s current “standby,” the veteran contestant Eddie Hilgemeier. A few minutes later Hilgemeier’s practiced eye noted how genially the staff greeted its winner and how readily she trounced her latest challenger, an Osage Indian “princess.” In a trice Hilgemeier doubled back to the dressing room, opened the notebook, and found on the last page, which he duly tore out, the answers to the questions the winner had just been asked. “This is a fixed show,” he called out to the defeated princess, and the two of them stalked out of the studio, incriminating page in hand, to hire a lawyer and get what they could from the producers of “Dotto,” a certain Frank Cooper Associates. The princess (who was married to an atomic scientist) wanted justice, more or less, and quietly settled for four thousand dollars. Living on the humiliating margins of show business, Eddie Hilgemeier wanted something more: a place in the limelight. Thus, on August 7, executives at the Colgate-Palmolive Company, the sponsors of “Dotto,” were stunned to read an authoritative missive from Hilgemeier describing corrupt practices at “Dotto” and the hush money offered by its producers.
What turned the “fuss” into a boiling scandal was, at bottom, the Democrats’ determination to regain political power.
On August 16 the frightened sponsors and a frightened CBS abruptly canceled the show, hoping that nobody would ask why a hugely successful quiz program should be pulled off the air without a word of explanation. Alas for the quiz empire, New York County’s district attorney, Frank Hogan, was about to become the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. On August 25, 1958—the very eve of his nomination—the DA’s office announced that it was investigating “Dotto.” The Times put the story on page 59—a mere video trifle. Nevertheless, as Time magazine saw at once, the whole quiz lineup “was suddenly suspect.”
Far worse was that hysterical Herb Stempel was suddenly credible. On August 28 two New York afternoon newspapers at long last blazoned forth Stempel’s story of collusion and fraud on “Twenty-One” and the launching of Charles Van Doren through his rival’s compulsory dive. Stoney Jackson’s lesser story saw daylight, too, a few days later.
Behind the scenes panic swept through the ranks of Barry and Enright. Van Doren was terrified. “The news of Stempel’s charges was like a blow, I was horrorstruck.” Stempel’s charges, moreover, set deadly machinery in motion. “Twenty-One,” too, would be investigated, Hogan announced at once; a special grand jury would be convened, he announced two weeks later.
A time bomb had begun ticking, yet strange to say, it would take a full year before it finally exploded. Talk of a scandal was slight, national soulsearching nonexistent. The Reverend Mr. Jackson’s neighbors mainly regarded him, he said, as “an unmitigated traitorous bum.” Sinking deeper and deeper into a moral quagmire, Van Doren denied Stempel’s charges at once on the “Today” show. He then told the United Press flatly that “at no time was I coached or tutored.” Reassured by the persuasive Enright, NBC declared Stempel’s charges “utterly baseless and untrue.” On September 2 the indignant producer invited the press to the Hotel Biltmore to hear Stempel exonerate kindly “Dan Enright” and admit to attempted blackmail. With the deceivers closing ranks, Gould of the Times, normally a caustic critic, spoke blithely of “the present fuss over quiz shows” and saw nothing of consequence in the “flurry” save the welcome “fall of the quiz empire.” Not a single quiz-scandal story appeared on the front page of the Times in 1958. A year later scarcely a single quiz story would appear anywhere else.
What transformed the “fuss” into a boiling scandal was, at bottom, the Democratic party’s determination to break the national crust of complacency and regain its lost political power. One major breach was actually made just as the quiz “fuss” was fading into seeming oblivion. On September 23, 1958, revelations of favoritism and bribery unearthed by the House Special Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight had driven the President’s self-righteous assistant Sherman Adams from his White House post. Irregularities at the Federal Communications Commission had started the subcommittee on Adams’s trail; television, in any case, was one of its favorite topics. And here, in mid-1959, was the tainted quiz empire tantalizingly stuck in judicial limbo. On June 10, 1959, after nine months of hearing testimony, the New York grand jury had handed up a lengthy report on quiz rigging, which the presiding judge promptly “expunged” from existence to protect the dubious reputations of the not-so-innocent. Such haughty complacency no longer ruled. The public had a right to know “how much it had been duped,” Frank Hogan protested with uncommon vehemence. On July 30 the chairman of the oversight subcommittee, an Arkansas Democrat named Oren Harris, duly announced that he was going to uncover the facts about crooked quiz shows. Not a local DA and a local erand jury, but Congress in all its might, was going to train its spotlight on the murky quiz empire, by now virtually a thing of the past.
“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years.”
How many hearts must have frozen in fear when that announcement appeared on the front page of the Times! The very placement of the story was portentous. A few days later it was revealed that Chairman Harris planned to hold public hearings as well. “I had been living in dread for nearly 3 years,” Van Doren was to testify on November 2. “Now I became almost panic stricken.” No one had profited as spectacularly as Charles Van Doren from quiz-show fraudulence. Of those who profited, none were more esteemed than he; none were held to higher standards; none had protested innocence as often, as adamantly, or as publicly. No one. perforce, found the truth so crushing. “I could not bear to have my family, my friends and the general public know I had deceived them.” The truth stuck like a bone in his throat, while with each passing day the public eye turned more and more intently upon him until nobody else seemed to matter.
On Tuesday, October 6, the quizshow hearings began in the cavernous caucus room of the Old House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Herbert Stempel, looking notably trim, led off what Time later described as “a tawdry succession of fixers and schlockmeisters, corrupters and corrupted.” Triumphant at last, Stempel coolly exposed, among other matters, the cunning of Dan Enright. Then a “Twenty-One” contestant named James Snodgrass, an artist from New York City, unsealed in the caucus room a registered letter he had sent himself on May 11, 1957, describing exactly how he would name Disney’s Seven Dwarfs on the May 13 show. “I shall answer in this sequence — Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey, Happy (pause) the grouchy one, Grumpy (pause) Doc (pause) Bashful.” A kinescope recording of the show played at the hearing confirmed just how minutely rehearsed a ‘Twenty-One” show could be. TWO TESTIFY “21” QUIZ WAS FIXED was the Times’s front-page headline the next day.
Then Van Doren’s collaborator in fraud, Al Freedman—who had relocated to Mexico City—described in closed session how he had persuaded ‘Twenty-One” contestants to lie to the New York grand jury, suborning perjury, a serious crime. Art Franklin, Enright’s publicity agent, supplied a telling glimpse into Enright’s own captivity to quiz-show greed. Confronted by Franklin with Stempel’s teary story of the dive he was going to take, “Enright blinked his eyes at me almost as if he were a schizophrenic. Just looked and said there was nothing he could do about it.” Enright, too, testified mainly in secret session: CONCEDES FIXING QUIZES FOR “MANY YEARS.” After such testimony Gould of the Times was no longer blithe. The former quiz “fuss” was now, in his view, “symptomatic of the age of corner cutting.” A Columbia philosophy professor was soon to call it a “parable” of the time.
In public no one as yet had called Charles Van Doren a quiz-show cheat, but that would come. On Wednesday, October 7, the subcommittee invited Van Doren by telegram to testify voluntarily the next day. NBC warned him that he faced suspension if he failed to appear. “My life and career, it appeared, were being swept away in a flood,” Van Doren later testified. Instead of appearing, however, he vanished. “I simply ran away. There were a dozen newsmen outside my door and I was running from them, too.” With his wife he fled to New England, seeking “some conclusion,” he said, in the lovely fall foliage and driving “aimlessly from one town to another.” But he found no solace in the woodland’s heartless beauty, no courage in New England’s self-respecting little towns. “I still could not face up to what I had done.” All through that sad and pitiful flight, Van Doren still tried to persuade himself that confession would “betray” all the teachers and students who had expressed their faith in the former “wizard of quiz.”
Meanwhile, Van Doren’s absence was becoming increasingly suspicious. “In New York efforts to reach Mr. Van Doren tonight were unavailing,” the Times reported on Friday. On Saturday it offered a “Man in the News” portrait of the “Now Silent Quiz Star.” More bluntly, a Washington newspaper headline demanded to know: WHERE’S CHARLIE? When Van Doren failed to appear on Capitol Hill—or anywhere else—on Monday, questions about his whereabouts turned into a national uproar and set off a frenzy in the press. An appalling thought was beginning to form in the minds of millions of Van Doren’s well-wishers: “TV’s own health-restoring antidote to Presley” seemed to be in headlong flight from Congress, from the light, from the truth. Van Doren and the quiz scandals were becoming as one.
That Monday evening, October 12, Van Doren telephoned his lawyer (who privately feared for his client’s sanity) and learned that the Harris subcommittee had issued a subpoena ordering him to testify on November 2. The string had finally run out. Van Doren returned to New York, held an evasive news conference before an angry, shouting press corps, eluded pursuing reporters in midtown traffic, and eventually retired to his father’s country place in Connecticut. There he sat down to write at length the true story of what he had done from the fateful day when he took a test for “Tic-Tac-Dough” until two days after his return from New England, when he finally found the courage to speak the truth.
“I would give almost anything 1 have to reverse the course of my life in the last 3 years.” So Charles Lincoln Van Doren began his ninety-five-minute recantation before an audience as large as any the caucus room had ever held. Looking at the speaker’s haggard face and red-rimmed eyes, few in the audience could doubt the sincerity of Van Doren’s remorse or the tears it had cost him to compose his account of fraud and venality, self-delusion and cowardice. It is “the stuff of an electronic-age morality play,” wrote a young New York Times reporter named Russell Baker for the next day’s paper. It was “the most soul-searching confession I think I have seen in a long time,” said one of the many committee members who rushed forward to welcome the repentant sinner back to the fold, while the caucus room audience loudly applauded. “There but for the grace of not having been asked to appear on “Twenty-One’ may go all together too many of us,” said the editors of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, expressing the good-natured sentiments of countless millions of Americans.
Van Doren the man and the sinner became Van Doren the symptom and symbol of a national venality.
Nevertheless, it was the stern and unforgiving voices that prevailed in what the Times called “the flood of reactions” to Van Doren’s confession. Columbia University, for one, fired its young professor before the day was over, “effective immediately.” NBC followed suit the next day. Arthur Krock, a political columnist for the Times, condemned “the soft bog of open condonement for the uncondonable.” Jack Gould, now thoroughly blitheless, condemned “the emotional wave of sympathy for Mr. Van Doren.” The Chicago Tribune spoke sternly of Van Doren’s “spectacular sell-out.” The Wall Street Journal called the confession a “crushing blow” to the country.
Having praised Van Doren too highly, Time was peculiarly savage now. It assailed without mercy Van Doren’s moving confession, described it as “riddled” with “pomposity, self-pity and self-dramatization.” The weekly magazine decried the “Senator Claghorn sentimentality” of the forgiving congressmen, as did much of the press around the country. Complacency was vanishing with a vengeance. “I’ve received hundreds of letters from all over the country,” District Attorney Hogan remarked to the press, “and speaking as a person I’m amazed at the great percentage that is vindictive and almost sadistic.”
Van Doren the man and the sinner quickly became Van Doren the symptom and symbol. “The Van Doren episode, bad as it is,” noted the Times on November 3, “is but symptomatic of a disease in the radio and television world. …” And of a malady far more widespread than that. According to the Atlanta Journal, Van Doren was the symptom of “the frantic urge to make a fast buck … a kind of disease that’s eating away at the moral tone of our nation.” The New Yorker marveled at how easily not only Van Doren but a throng of respectable Americans had been turned into “paid cheats.” It marveled, too, that “in all this multitude [there was] not one snag, not one audible bleat, not one righteous refusal that made the news.” On November 5 the district attorney offered still more shocking news about the state of America’s civic morality. Of the 150 witnesses who had testified under oath before the grand jury, about 100 of them, he estimated, had committed perjury (including Van Doren, who later pleaded guilty to the crime). Nevertheless, nobody involved with the scandal ever suffered formal legal punishment of any kind.
What kind of country had America become? What kind of people were we producing? A people who suffered from the the want of public spirit, said the Secretary of State, Christian Herter. A people who lacked sufficient institutions that “embody public purposes,” who despoiled their lives in getting and spending, wrote Charles Frankel, a professor of philosophy at Columbia, in the November 15 issue of The New York Times Magazine. We were a people who no longer adhered to “objective standards,” wrote the distinguished political scientist Hans Morgenthau as the debate and the self-examining raged on. “The Van Doren case is a great event in the history of America,” wrote Morgenthau in the harshest appraisal of all. Van Doren was “formed by a world which condones the betrayal of truth for the sake of wealth and power. …” By “refusing to condemn Van Doren [America] … convicts itself of a moral obtuseness which signifies the beginning of the end of civilized society.”
As it turned out, the extraordinary outburst of soul-searching brought on by the “Van Doren case” signified something far different from that. It helped put an end to an age of unmerited smugness and it helped usher in a new and difficult period when Americans tried, at least for a time, to live up to the stern standards of the American Republic. The quiz-show scandals were only a small black cloud in the late-afternoon skies of the Eisenhower years, but even small clouds have their silver linings.
As for Charles Van Doren, he was not to enjoy the “great future” that Chairman Harris, in the emotional wake of his confession, had fulsomely assured him he would have. Van Doren has lived a quiet life and an honorable one as an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as an executive of the company, and as a modest champion of educational reform. Given his native gifts and advantages, it has been, perhaps a diminished life, but not, I hope, too blighted by vain regrets.