America’s most notorious quiz-show contestant was 93
He seemed a very nervy contestant. Standing in the soundproof glass booth on the set of “Twenty-One”, NBC’s flagship quiz show during the winter of 1956-57, he’d bite his lip, furrow his eyebrows, blow out his cheeks. “Oh my goodness!” he would sigh, and then pull out a big white handkerchief and mop his face all over, taking care to pat not smear, as he’d been instructed.
Week after week he returned to grapple with questions that seemed to get ever harder: about explorers and boxing and the American civil war, about newspaper history, the boundaries of the Black Sea and what happened to the six wives of Henry VIII. As his winnings grew—to $129,000 (worth $1.2m today), more than anybody had ever won on this new Klondike, the television quiz show—America became transfixed. Nearly 50m people tuned in each week. Geritol, manufacturers of a tonic for “tired blood” and the show’s sponsors, came to believe their own punchline: “Feel stronger fast.” Women wrote to him in their thousands, more than a few proposing marriage. He appeared on the cover of Time.
The next public part he played, three years later, was even more nerve-racking. It was in Washington, DC, rather than New York. Instead of the nation, it was the eyes of the House special subcommittee on legislative oversight that were on him. “I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” he told the congressmen. “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them…I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception.” The road to perdition and back would be a long one. Charles Lincoln Van Doren was clever; no one doubted that. Few had known how deeply flawed he was.
He was born into America’s intellectual aristocracy. His mother was a novelist and former editor at the Nation; his father a beloved and respected teacher who won a Pulitzer prize for poetry and praise for a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His uncle also won a Pulitzer, and his aunt was the influential books editor of the Herald Tribune. Over summer lunches at the long table in their country garden in Connecticut, young Van Dorens fought to be the first to identify lines from Shakespeare. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (“Measure for Measure”); “To do a great right, do a little wrong” (“The Merchant of Venice”).
Young Charles was a speed reader, getting through two or three books a day. His parents gave him free rein—and he ran. The High School of Music & Art in New York, a masters in astrophysics, a PhD in English, both from Columbia. “I believe nothing is of more vital importance to our civilisation than education.” He would follow his father and teach at Columbia, where they would share an office. . .
When his own promised future in television failed to materialise, he began telling anyone who would listen that the shows were rigged with the contestants given the questions in advance. No one believed him, at least not at first.
But eventually the questions grew louder. Van Doren panicked. He lied to his family, even to his lawyer. He dissembled before his superiors. He sent a telegram to the congressional committee declaring his innocence, and then for a week he vanished. He took his car up to New England and drove round aimlessly from one town to another before holing up in his parents’ country house in Connecticut. There he pondered a letter from a complete stranger, a woman who’d seen him on television. “She admired my work there. She told me that the only way I could ever live with myself and make up for what I had done—of course, she, too, did not know exactly what that was—was to admit it, clearly, openly, truly.”
Through his father (again), he found work as a jobbing editor at the “Encyclopedia Britannica”. He refused to co-operate with “The Quiz Show”, the film Robert Redford made nearly 40 years after the scandal broke. It was a long time before he taught again, but the lesson he took away lasted his whole life.
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “American Icarus”