Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Charles Van Doren in The New Yorker

I'm always catching up on a backlog of New Yorker magazines-- in the July 28th issue, there was a "Personal History" piece by Charles Van Doren, infamous for his role in the 1950s quiz show fraud scandal. I found the tone of the article a bit hokey and over-earnest, somehow, but of course I was interested in the role money played in Van Doren's troubles.

Here's what happens when he first meets the TV producer who gets him onto the show "Twenty One," the man who later tells him to lie about the outcome being rigged:

I told him that I was an instructor of English [at Columbia]-- a long way from being a professor. I was not comfortable talking about myself, especially when he asked me how much an instructor of English made. When I told him, he just looked at me.
Van Doren decides to do the show, and cooperates with the producers as they feed him answers and even tell him how to speak them. He plays the perfect, handsome, wholesome young man, and audiences eat it up as he appears to outsmart the unpleasant, nerdy Herb Stempel. He goes on to win $128,000 before the producers decide the next bit of drama their sponsors need is to have Van Doren lose. But by then, he's a celebrity, and he easily gets a job with NBC which pays him $50,000 a year, which would be the equivalent of almost $350,000 today.

Eventually, there is an investigation of the rigged quiz shows-- Van Doren lies repeatedly to investigators and then finally fesses up at a Congressional hearing. Disgraced, he loses his TV job, doesn't show his face at Columbia for over 40 years, and spends the rest of his working life as an editor and publisher. In the early 1990s, he is approached by the producers of the movie Quiz Show, in which he is played by Ralph Fiennes. They offer him $100,000 to be a consultant on the film. Van Doren writes,
Our family had a meeting, sitting around our kitchen table. John, our son, was for my taking the money. "They're going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do," he said. "Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn't you?"
Gerry [Van Doren's wife] agreed-- they would say whatever they wanted-- "But taking the money gives them a kind of license."
Van Doren wants to take the money, but backs off when his wife says she'll leave him if he does.

It's strange to think that this guy's downfall was so tied to a desire for money. I don't know the exact circumstances of his family, but they seem to have been quite comfortable-- his father and uncle were famous intellectuals (remember when America had those?) and he implies that the family had plenty of money when he recounts a conversation with his father in which he is told "you can do anything you want," as in "you can move back to Paris to try working on your novel again." When his parents die, he inherits their home and land, which includes "two houses, several barns, fields and woods" and all the trappings of a gentleman farmer. Many articles about his life say he was the son of a "wealthy family."

I think Van Doren's New Yorker piece was ultimately a bit of a cop-out. He portrays himself as a decent sort who got caught up in what passes for WASP tragedy: a question of honor in which he gets caught with his pants down, feels distraught for a while but then learns to follow the way of truth and intellect with the help of a good woman's love, yada yada. I'd like to have seen him really deal with the meat of the issue: why someone with such a privileged upbringing was ashamed of his salary and was willing to lie and cheat in pursuit of money he really didn't need. For someone of his upbringing at that time, I think it would have been considered beneath him to worry so much about how much money he made, rather than focusing on the prestige of an intellectual career. I wish he had acknowledged that it was his greed more than his lying that made him a traitor to his class.


TAM said...

I just found you blog, very fun concept. I love the trackability of your Net Worth Journey. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the movie Quiz Show? It's a great film, and all about this scandal!

mOOm said...

I'd never heard of this story before, but maybe he wanted to get some of his own money rather than relying on his family.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Moom, and as a former English instructor at a major private university, I can assure you that the compensation is so junky (mine was $17,500 a year) that there wasn't much (legal, of course) that I wouldn't have considered doing to make some more cash ...

Though what he agreed to do is outside the bounds. Was it illegal, though? I'm not convinced.

Gord said...

I think we've missed the point. Why would he lie and cheat if he doesn't need the money? He wanted to prove he was smart and of value to his family; he wanted to make his own mark on life. In doing so, he violated his values and disgraced himself and probably his family too. Illegal? Who knows? Immoral? Most definitely.

Anonymous said...

One inaccuracy in your post - his wife specifically said she would not leave him if he took the money to be an advisor to "Quiz Show."

Given the story he tells here, the movie took alot of liberties with respect to his relationship with his father, with Dick Goodwin and also with Stempel's personal situation.

I think he is very forthright. This was a conscience-clearing attempt which I appreciate. There is really no sense sugar-coating anything at this point. The incidents were more than 50 years ago - most of the viewing audience, Enright, Garroway, Barry, Kindle, et al are all dead. Why lie now?