James Holzhauer won a record $110,994 on Jeopardy! on Tuesday. That same day, Charles Van Doren, the James Holzhauer of his day who won $129,000 by the end of his run on NBC’s Twenty-One in March of 1957, died at 93.
Van Doren did not win through knowledge and strategy, as Mr. Holzhauer, a professional gambler, presumably does. He won because television producers regarded him as precisely the personality viewers might tune in to watch. “If you go on playing against Mr. Van Doren, and he beats you, whatever he wins will be deducted from the money you have,” host Jack Barry warned Twenty-One champion Herb Stempel. “So, to help you make up your mind, here are some things you should know about Charles Van Doren.”
Van Doren’s father taught at Columbia University, and boasted a Pulitzer Prize (as did the contestant’s uncle); his mother, like his father, once served as an editor of The Nation and wrote novels. The contestant recently received a Ph.D. in English from Columbia, where he taught. Whereas the tall and thin Van Doren screamed Ivy League, the bespectacled, stumpy Stempel attended City College on the G.I. Bill. The former spoke Patricianese; the latter boasted an underclass New York accent.
This pedigree, these associations, and that look announced Van Doren’s intellectual superiority. But as with so many associations and looks and pedigrees, their holder needed an extra push. So, the producers fed him answers in advance. They cast him in the role of James Holzhauer.
“Well, you have every reason in the world to be mighty proud of your name and your family, Mr. Van Doren,” host Barry flattered the challenger. “Now, Herb Stempel, you have heard something about Charles Van Doren. You have $69,500. Do you want to take it and quit right now, or do you want to risk it by playing against him? What will it be?”
Stempel “risked” it. Now instructed to take a dive, he failed to recognize Marty, one of his favorite movies, as 1955’s Academy Award winner for best picture as he looked down, blinked, and seemingly competed for a Razzie instead of an Oscar in his performance, and missed “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” as the name of a famous 19th-century editorial. After Stempel stewed over his manufactured defeat, he eventually blew the whistle on the televised con.
For almost three years, Van Doren, who had parlayed his Twenty-One appearance into a gig on the Today show, denied knowledge of the rigged nature of the competition. But others, some contestants on other programs, stepped forward with similar stories to Stempel’s. One contestant, James Snodgrass, sent himself the answers fed to him via registered mail postmarked prior to his appearance on Twenty-One to prove the fix. This Van Doren-Stempel rematch seemed like Hiss-Chambers but for smaller stakes, with the postmarked parcels their Pumpkin Papers.
The corruption by commercialism, by which the sponsors corrupted the producers who corrupted the contestants, who, jointly, corrupted the viewers, disgusted many. For mere money, producers and contestants traded away something more valuable and not easily regained. Audiences mistook trivia for true knowledge and recast the American Dream as a get-rich-quick scheme. It seemingly said something foul about postwar America, which also struggled with investigations into disc-jockey payola, fight fixing, and even the claims of Twenty-One sponsor Geritol around the same time.
“Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul,” the novelist John Steinbeck lamented to Adlai Stevenson about their fellow countrymen. “A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”
The national handwringing sparked indictments, condemnation from President Dwight Eisenhower, and congressional hearings, through which Van Doren, earlier cast as the hero by producers, again played a sympathetic role.
Henry Luce’s Life magazine promoted the Van Dorens on the eve of Charles’s testimony, calling them “the most distinguished literary family in the U.S.” and saying how “they quietly and patiently waited for Charlie to clear himself,” as though presuming his innocence. Life characteristically devoted greater space to pictures than print, featuring more than a dozen photographs — several showing Charles Van Doren’s wife and baby daughter — obviously included to generate public sympathy. Media fixers primed the audience in Congress, as on Twenty-One, to like Van Doren. Most fell in line.
New York Republican Steve Derounian, an immigrant catapulted to Congress after winning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star during the Second World War, did not. Though Van Doren repeatedly lied prior to the hearings, a checkmate situation compelled him to admit in a prepared statement what everyone knew by that point. Derounian’s colleagues praised him. “Mr. Van Doren,” Derounian exclaimed, “I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don’t think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth.”
Not everyone found the game-show theatrics an affront as Derounian did. “No,” Antoinette Hillman, a contestant on the similarly rigged Dotto, firmly answered regarding whether the scandal compared to the fixing of athletic contests, “because those are genuine sporting events. They are not put on per se as entertainment. Wrestling, I think, is a perfectly good analogy.”
All these years later professional wrestling labels itself entertainment without pretense to competition. This honest fakery, though successful as a business model, does not find many imitators. Producers clearly stage many, if not most (if not all?), “reality” television shows. Google rigs its search engine results to suppress website traffic to sites it finds displeasing, including the webpage you presently read. Social media “influencers” loudly vouch for products as they quietly pocket money in exchange for their endorsements. Colleges corrupt the admissions process by relaxing academic standards in exchange for rigorous monetary considerations. America six decades from the congressional quiz-show hearings shows that human nature does not change with the times. We look not so different from the America John Steinbeck inspected with a crooked gaze even if we look at that America differently.
“I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country,” the novelist wrote in the wake of the quiz-show scandals. “I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.”
Van Doren, in resigning his teaching position at Columbia and losing his Today show slot, surely suffered. But the rigged nature of his success followed him. Encyclopedia Britannica, which consulted on Twenty-One, hired Van Doren, whose father’s association with Britannica head William Benton had earlier led to boosterism from Benton’s friend and fellow Yalie Henry Luce, who promoted Van Doren the Younger by putting the “Quiz Show Champ” on Time’s cover just as he had Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of Encyclopedia Britannica. The incestuous, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours world they inhabited ensured that a safety net caught Van Doren once he escaped the spider’s web.
Given that Van Doren did not propose the scheme, his ability to transcend professional catastrophe showed something good, forgiveness, about America. The reemergence of Twenty-One bigshots Jack Barry, and to a far greater extent, fixer extraordinaire Dan Enright, after a decade or so in exile, reorients negative opinion of elephants never forgetting. The pair returned to the game-show game, combining to give America Joker’s Wild, a Tic-Tac-Dough reboot, and less memorable offerings. Worse still, NBC, in an act of profound indecency, revived Twenty-One in 2000. Maury Povich, involved in a genre of television known for manipulating reality, hosted, perhaps appropriately, the short-lived second chance.
Life plays as a game of Jeopardy! for some. For the connected, Twenty-One works as the better metaphor. Even on game shows, who you know sometimes matters more than what you know.
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