Charles Van Doren, 1926–2019
The quiz show fraud who fooled America
For a few years in the late 1950s, Charles Van Doren was considered by many TV viewers to be the smartest man in America. An English instructor at Columbia University, Van Doren trounced 13 competitors in a row on NBC’s big-money, general-knowledge quiz show Twenty-One. Van Doren, 30, dazzled viewers with his smarts. He named the second, third, fourth, and fifth wives of King Henry VIII—and their fates; listed the four Balearic Islands; and gave the common names for caries, myopia, and missing patellar reflex. He took home $1 million in today’s money. But it was all a fix: The educator had been fed answers by producers who scripted the hit show for maximum entertainment value. When the ruse was revealed in 1959, Van Doren went from public hero to villain. “I have deceived my friends,” he said in an apology, “and I had millions of them.”
Van Doren was born in New York City “into a family of intellectual achievers,” said the Los Angeles Times. His father won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and his mother was a novelist and editor of The Nation. Van Doren studied at Columbia, Cambridge University, and the Sorbonne and seemed destined for academic stardom when he was spotted at a party by NBC producer Al Freedman in 1956. Freedman decided the tall and handsome Van Doren would be a guaranteed ratings winner, and coached him to dramatically mop his brow and bite his lip while he searched his mind for answers he already knew, said The New York Times. When Van Doren finally faltered on his 14th appearance—“missing the name of Belgium’s king”—viewers’ hearts were shattered.
But suspicions were soon “aroused about game-show cheating and Congress convened hearings,” said The Washington Post. Van Doren, who’d previously denied wrongdoing to a grand jury, confessed all before lawmakers in 1959. He was fired from Columbia, lost a lucrative NBC contract, and received a suspended sentence for perjury. Van Doren went on to work for Encyclopaedia Britannica and to write fiction and nonfiction books. He stayed silent about the Twenty-One scandal—made famous again by Robert Redford’s acclaimed 1994 movie Quiz Show—until 2008. In a New Yorker article that year, the 82-year-old told his story, and explained how he tried to avoid people who’d ask, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” That’s my name, he wrote, “but I’m not who you think I am—or, at least, I don’t want to be.” ■