Far and away the most notorious quizling was Charles Van Doren, a contestant on NBC's Twenty One, a quiz show based on the game of blackjack. Scion of the prestigious literary family and himself a lecturer in English at Columbia University, Van Doren was an authentic pop phenomenon whose video charisma earned him $129,000 in prize money, the cover of Time magazine, and a permanent spot on NBC's Today, where he discussed non-Euclidean geometry and recited seventeenth century poetry. He put an all-American face to the university intellectual in an age just getting over its suspicion of subversive "eggheads."
From the moment Van Doren walked onto the set of Twenty One on 28 November 1956 for his first face-off against a high-IQ eccentric named Herbert Stempel, he proved himself a telegenic natural. In the isolation booth, Van Doren managed to engage the spectator's sympathy by sharing his mental concentration. Apparently muttering unself-consciously to himself, he let viewers see him think: eyes alert, hand on chin, then a sudden bolt ("Oh, I know!"), after which he delivered himself of the answer. Asked to name the volumes of Churchill's wartime memoirs, he mutters, "I've seen the ad for those books a thousand times!" Asked to come up with a biblical reference, he says self-depreciatingly, "My father would know that." Van Doren's was a remarkable and seductive performance.
Twenty One's convoluted rules decreed that, in the event of a tie, the money wagered for points doubled--from $500 a point, to $1000 and so on. Thus, contestants needed to be coached not only on answers and acting but on the amount of points they selected in the gamble. A tie meant double financial stakes for each successive game with a consequent ratcheting up of the tension. By pre-game arrangement, the first Van Doren-Stempel face off ended with three ties; hence, the next week's game would be played for $2000 a point, and publicized accordingly.
On Wednesday, 5 December 1956, at 10:30 P.M., an estimated 50 million Americans tune in to Twenty One for what host and co-producer Jack Berry calls "the biggest game ever played in the program." A pair of twin blondes escort the pair to their isolation booths. The first category is boxing and Van Doren blows it. Ahead sixteen points to Van Doren's zero, Stempel is given the chance to stop the game. Only the audience knows he's in the lead and, if he stops the game, Van Doren loses. At this point, on live television, Stempel could have reneged on the deal, vanquished his opponent, and won an extra $32,000. But he opts to play by the script and continue the match. The next category--movies--proves more Van Doren friendly. Asked to name Brando's female co-star in On the Waterfront Van Doren teases briefly ("she was that lovely frail girl") before coming up with the correct answer (Eve Marie Sainte). Stempel again has the chance to ad-lib his own lines, but-- in an echo of another Brando role--it is not his night. Asked to name the 1955 Oscar Winner for Best Picture, he hesitates and answers On the Waterfront. Stempel later recalled how that choice was the unkindest cut. The correct answer--Marty--was not only a film he knew well but a character he identified with, the lonesome guy wondering what he was gonna do tonight.
But another tie means another round at $2,500 a point. "You guys sure know your onions," gasps Jack Berry. The next round of questions is crucial and Van Doren is masterful. Give the names and the fates of the third, fourth, and fifth wives of Henry the Eighth. As Berry leads him through the litany, Van Doren takes the audience with him every step of the way. ("I don't think he beheaded her...Yes, what happened to her.") Given the same question, Stempel gets off his best line of the match up. After Stempel successfully names the wives, Berry asks him their fates. "Well, they all died," he cracks to gales of laughter. Van Doren stops the game and wins the round. Seemingly gracious in defeat, in reality steaming with resentment, Stempel says truthfully, "This all came so suddenly...Thanks for your kindness and courtesy."
The gravy train derailed in August and September of 1958 when disgruntled former contestants went public with accusations that the results were rigged and the contestants coached. First, a standby contestant on Dotto produced a page from a winner's crib sheet. Then, the still bitter Herbert Stempel, Van Doren's former nemesis on Twenty One, told how he had taken a dive in their climatic encounter. The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass, who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted in advance. Most of the high-drama match-ups, it turned out, were as carefully choreographed as the June Taylor Dancers. Contestants were drilled in Q and A before airtime and coached in the pantomime of nail-biting suspense (stroke chin, furrow brow, wipe sweat from forehead). The lucky few who struck a chord with audiences were permitted a good run before a fresh attraction took their place; the patsies were given wrist watches and a kiss off.
By October 1958, as a New York grand jury convened by prosecutor Joseph Stone investigated the charges and heard closed-door testimony, quiz show ratings had plummeted. For their part, the networks played damage control, denying knowledge of rigging, canceling the suspect shows, and tossing the producers overboard. Yet it was hard to credit the Inspector Renault-like innocence of executives at NBC and CBS who claimed to be shocked that gambling was not going on in their casinos. A public relations flack for Twenty One best described the implied contract: "It was sort of a situation where a husband suspects his wife, but doesn't want to know because he loves her."
Despite the revelations and the grand jury investigation, the quiz show producers, Van Doren, and the other big money winners steadfastly maintained their innocence. Solid citizens all, they feared the loss of professional standing and the loyalty of friends and family as much as the retribution of the district attorney's office. Thus, even though there was no criminal statute against rigging a quiz show, the producers and contestants called to testify before the New York grand jury mainly tried to brazen it out. Nearly one hundred people committed perjury rather than own up to activities that, though embarrassing, were not illegal. Prosecutor Joseph Stone lamented that "nothing in my experience prepared me for the mass perjury that took place on the part of scores of well-educated people who had no trouble understanding what was at stake."
When the judge presiding over the New York investigations ordered the grand jury report sealed, Washington smelled a cover up and a political opportunity. Through October and November 1959, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, chaired by Oren Harris (D-Arkansas), held standing room only hearings into the quiz show scandals. A renewed wave of publicity recorded the now repentant testimony of network bigwigs and star contestants whose minds, apparently, were concentrated powerfully by federal intervention. At one point, committee staffers came upon possible communist associations in the background of a few witnesses. The information was turned over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a move that inspired one wiseacre to suggest the networks produce a new game show entitled Find That Pinko!
Meanwhile, as newspaper headlines screamed "Where's Charlie?", the star witness everyone wanted to hear from was motoring desperately through the back roads of New England, ducking a congressional subpoena. Finally, on 2 November 1959, with tension mounting in anticipation of Van Doren's appearance to answer questions (the irony was lost on no one), the chastened professor fessed up. "I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception," he told the Harris Committee. "The fact that I too was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol." In another irony, Washington's made-for-TV spectacle never made it to the airwaves due to the opposition of House Speaker Sam Rayburn, who felt that the presence of television cameras would undermine the dignity of Congress.
- Thomas Doherty