In March of 1959, Charles Van Doren was a name that stirred deep emotions in the people of America.
Van Doren was a likeable young man who had made the cover of TIME magazine as the star of something relatively new in American culture — a television quiz show.
Charlie came from a distinguished family. He was the son of Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and nephew of Carl Van Doren, a great historian. Charles Van Doren himself was an outstanding academic, having studied at the Sorbonne and at Columbia. He became a professor of English.
Then came his undoing. At age 30, he appeared on a television quiz show called “21” and won the affection of a national audience. His boyish looks, his apparent modesty and his intellect made him attractive to millions.
What none of us knew was that he was being fed the answers to the questions. He quickly racked up $100,000 as he competed with other intellectually gifted contestants.
Then, the scandal broke. It was charged that the show was a sham, that Van Doren had been coached on how to answer questions. Van Doren denied that the show was fixed. “It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows,” he said.
Van Doren protested repeatedly that he was innocent.
It was around that time that I met him. I was one of a group of reporters waiting outside the DA’s office on Leonard Street when Van Doren went before the grand jury. It seems to me that we met him several times and he repeated his denial of wrongdoing to us.
I remember how impressed we were with his personality. He was warm and friendly. And I was young, I guess, and impressionable, as were some of my colleagues. We couldn’t believe that this person could be guilty of such deception.
I was a Columbia graduate myself and I couldn’t think ill of a fellow Columbia man. Was there some kind of a vendetta going on here against an academic whiz?
Parked on the sidewalk outside of the DA’s office, we got to know Van Doren a little and we grew to like him.
It wasn’t that we condoned a fix, if indeed there was a fix. We just couldn’t accept the fact that this Charles Van Doren guy could be facing perjury charges. The producer, it emerged later, had persuaded Van Doren to participate in the deception by arguing that quiz shows were entertainment and fixing was commonly practiced.
Finally, Van Doren confessed.
“I was involved, deeply involved in a deception,” he told a Congressional committee.
“I have deceived my friends and I had millions of them.” Also, Van Doren believed that he was promoting the “intellectual life” in America by becoming the star of a quiz show.
Van Doren was fired by Columbia and NBC. Forty-nine years later, in 2008, Van Doren confessed his sins in an article in The New Yorker. He wrote: “Papa, forgive me! Mama, forgive me! Uncle Carl, forgive me!”
Looking back at the story now, I am struck by how tragic it was. And how it revealed not only how corrupt the people were who were exposed in this scandal — but how America itself had been corrupted by false values.
Gabe Pressman Dean, NYC Journalism