Obituary: Charles Van Doren, shamed academic at the centre of quiz show scandal

Host Jack Barry questions Charles Van Doren (Picture: NBC Television/Getty Images)
Host Jack Barry questions Charles Van Doren (Picture: NBC Television/Getty Images)
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Charles Van Doren, writer and editor. Born: 12 February 1926 in Manhattan, New York. Died: 9 April 2019, Canaan, Connecticut, US, aged 93.

Charles Van Doren, a dashing young ­academic whose meteoric rise and fall as a ­corrupt game show contestant inspired the movie Quiz Show – and which served as a cautionary tale about the staged competitions of early television – has died. He was 93.

The handsome scion of a prominent literary family, Van Doren was the central figure in the TV game show scandals of the late 1950s and eventually pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to a grand jury. He spent the following decades largely out of the public eye.

“It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on Twenty-One is still part of me,” he wrote in a 2008 New Yorker essay.

Before his downfall, he was a ratings sensation. He made 14 electrifying appearances on Twenty-One in late 1956 and early 1957, vanquishing 13 competitors and winning a then-record $129,000 – more than $1m today. NBC hired him as a commentator.

In 1957, a ­cover story on Van Doren by Time magazine marvelled: “Just by being himself he has enabled a giveaway show, the crassest of lowbrow entertainments, to whip up a doting mass audience for a new kind of TV idol – of all things, an egghead.”

Later, as the triumph unravelled into scandal, he denied he had been given advance answers, but finally admitted the show was rigged.

He retreated to his family’s home in rural West ­Cornwall, Connecticut, after telling a congressional committee in 1959 that he was coached before each show. After spending much of the 1960s and 70s in Chicago, Van Doren and his wife, Geraldine, returned to Connecticut. They did some teaching but largely lived in semi-seclusion, refusing interviews and even leaving the country for several weeks when ­Robert Redford’s film Quiz Show was released in 1994.

Van Doren refused to cooperate with the movie and declined to meet actor Ralph Fiennes, who ­portrayed him. Fiennes ­later told People ­magazine that after Van Doren brushed him off, he knocked on his door pretending to be lost so he could observe his movements and speech ­patterns.

Van Doren broke his silence in 2008, writing an account of his downfall in the New ­Yorker, that he was ­“foolish, naive, prideful and avaricious”.

“People who knew the entertainment business didn’t have much doubt about what was going on, although they didn’t speak out,” he wrote.

He also disclosed that he eventually did watch Quiz Show and laughed at an insulting reference that a character made about him. He said he had been tempted to take a consulting fee but his wife talked him out of it.

Van Doren’s family had a proud literary standing at the time. His father, Mark Van Doren, was a critic, biographer and poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1940. His uncle, Carl Van Doren, received a Pulitzer in 1939 for a biography of ­Benjamin Franklin. Charles Van Doren was a rising young academic at Columbia University when he became famous on the quiz show. He went on to win $129,000 after defeating ­Herbert Stempel, a New ­Yorker ­portrayed by John ­Turturro in the movie.

Stempel later went public and said contestants were fed the answers. He said he was told to lose because the ­producers thought Van Doren had star potential. In 1962, Van Doren and nine other winners from three NBC shows – Twenty-One, Tic-Tac-Dough and Hi-Lo – pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury investigating the scandal. They were spared jail by a judge who said the nation’s scorn was punishment enough. Van Doren lost the $50,000-a-year job NBC gave him when he defeated Stempel. He was also dropped from the faculty at Columbia, where his father had been a professor for ­decades.

Bucky Whitney, a longtime friend, said: “His father took it real hard. The old man was never the same after that.”

Van Doren later joined the Institute for Philosophical Research, a Chicago think-tank and worked at Chicago-based Encyclopaedia Britannica for many years. Among his books were The Idea of Progress and A History of Knowledge; Past, Present, and Future.

He and his wife had two children, Elizabeth and John.

“He was a loving husband and a terrific father, and he’s going to be deeply missed,” John Van Doren said.

In his New Yorker piece, Van Doren said he liked to avoid “people who say, ‘Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?’ Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am – or, at least, I don’t want to be.”

DAVE COLLINS