Questionable Gentleman

The scion of a distinguished literary family, Charles Van Doren — who turns 93 today — was a professor of English at Columbia when he became a contestant on the popular quiz show “Twenty One” in 1957.

His youth, clean-cut looks, family background and spectacular winning streak made him an instant celebrity destined for 15 minutes of fame — and a lifetime of infamy.

After his eventual defeat, Van Doren returned to teaching but remained a TV star as a “cultural correspondent” for various NBC programs.

But in 1959 accusations of cheating arose. Though Van Doren initially denied them, he later admitted before a House Subcommittee that the show’s producers fed him answers in order to keep him on the show and boost ratings. Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from Columbia.

“The bigger they are, the further they have to fall.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stoic, contrite, or simply bored?

In 1994 Robert Redford dramatized Van Doren’s story in the movie “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes. — CC

12 Comments on "Questionable Gentleman"

  1. Wonderful post, thank you.

  2. James Justinian Morier | February 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm |

    We watched “Twenty-One” in those days for entertainment and we got entertainment.
    No need for moralizing or apologies.

  3. I believe that kind of point of view is called moral relativism.

  4. Van Doren is a good man and a wonderful teacher. He made one mis-step in his life over a period of 14 weeks. And he’s lived the last 50 plus years as “Charles Van Doren, quiz cheater.”

    VERY unfair. I’m so happy that Mr. Van Doren has been able to move on with his life, continue to teach and write wonderful books.

  5. Brad Prescott | February 12, 2019 at 1:07 pm |

    I admire the man for the good things he has done as an educator, and certainly don’t condemn him for behavior that we take for granted in advertising and politics.

  6. Even before it was called “reality TV”, there was never anything on TV as fake and contrived as the things that purported to be real.

  7. Carmelo Pugliatti | February 12, 2019 at 11:24 pm |

    Why a House Subcommittee took care about a Quiz TV show ?

  8. Forrest Daunton | February 13, 2019 at 1:47 am |

    Because America was so clean, so moral, so perfect, so free of evil-doers that there was nobody else they could investigate.

  9. Martin Bradshaw | February 13, 2019 at 3:28 am |

    We did indeed watch 21 for entertainment, and then were even more entertained when we learned it followed the House hearings.
    We also watched the McCarthy hearings for entertainment.
    We also knew that advertisers were lying and that football and baseball games–not to mention boxing matches–were fixed.

  10. Martin Bradshaw | February 13, 2019 at 3:30 am |

    Correction to the first sentence:
    We did indeed watch 21 for entertainment, and then were even more entertained when we learned it was fixed when we followed the House hearings.

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