BULL STREET - The art of the Con

Only A Game, 21

Charles van Doren came from a highly prestigious and literary family and was already teaching English at Columbia University before he was thirty-years-old. Life was just a bowl of cherries to van Doren and it was all there for the eating. His father, Mark had recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and his mother Dorothy was a famous writer. His uncle Carl was a highly regarded historian and won plaudits for his highly acclaimed biography of Ben Franklin. Holidays spent at the van Doren household were precious events shared by an erudite few that were able to break into this intimate inner circle.

Charles was an all around over-achiever, he was a successful teacher, had appeared in a few plays, had training in Astrophysics and had earned advanced degrees in mathematics and English. Moreover, after finishing his schooling in the United States he had studied extensively at the Sorbonne in Europe, one of the most exclusive schools in the world.

Quiz shows had just come in like a lion and were not doing the dying swan routine in  the United States. The show “21” in particular was on a downhill slide because people felt that it didn’t provide enough excitement. The show’s producers were having some luck with a Herb Stempel, a world class ingrate that had been “hired” to do a job an was not being as cooperative as the directors of the quiz program would have liked. When the producers met van Doren, it was  like a breath of springtime had hit the airways. The man was eloquent, charming, knowledgeable and most important of all, flexible. He would be the shining knight that would both bring the shows ratings back and who would ultimately defeat their “Lord of Darkness, Herb Stempel. He also knew how the game was played.

The producers scripted the scenario, which included a series of ever more difficult questions for the duo of competitors to answer. Both van Doren and Stempel were coached ad naseum on how to sweat profusely in the soundproof rectangular box in which they were placed. There were told not to answer the questions either rightly or wrongly until they had literally filled the box with water from their brows. The audience lapped it up like a Great Dane that hadn’t had a drink in days. It was arranged that the two would tie on a series of questions, which would generate a bigger and better audience the following week.

The plot had been well thought out by the show’s producers and ratings soon responded, reaching supersonic levels when right on cue, the evil empire, Stempel was feed to the lions. Stempel who knew how the game was to be played somehow felt that he deserved better and started complaining up the chain of command at the station. In the meantime, both Charles van Doren and his entire family had become household words. He made the cover of Time Magazine and had won $138,000 a staggering amount in 1957. Eventually the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) felt that it was time even for the king to take a tumble and van Doren was told to take a fall in his intellectual contest with Vivienne Nearing. However, by this time, van Doren had become walking money for NBC and he was signed to a contract for $150,000 covering the next three years. His only requirement was to appear on various talk shows that NBC would arrange and look pretty for the camera.

Van Doren became NBC’s windup doll and appeared wherever and whenever he was called upon to do so. However, Stempel in the meantime had been complaining to anyone that would listen how he had been screwed by NBC. He bitterly complained that the entire show was a farce and that he had been sacrificed for van Doren, the wasp. Stempel started making important people in Washington, sit up and take notice with his constant whining and Congressional investigations were started what appeared to be a very sorted affair. It was not too much later when van Doren was asked to appear in a command performance to give testimony on the matter in front of Congress. Van Doren lied like a trooper in this encounter but however, on November 2, 1959, van Doren finally confessed that he had indeed been coached with both the answers and the mannerisms that we was supposed to convey.

He want on to say that the people at NBC were really the bad-guys in this sorted matter because they had indicated to him that quiz shows were really about entertainment not knowledge and it was all supposed to be in fun. He said the producer of “21” had told him that everybody fixed everything on television and a little deception was good for the soul and played well to the audience. Van Doran rationalized the matter by hypnotizing himself into the belief that he was promoting intellectualism into the American system. 

He also turned to be anthemia to the broadcasting company and was fired by NBC while he resigned from Columbia University by popular request. He went to work for Encyclopedia Britannica as an editor and a vice-president. While working at this job he started publishing manuscripts under his own name and in 1991 produced a reasonable book which was entitled, “A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future.”

Charles van Doren had been seen to be the ne plus ultra of what the American educational system could turn out. He caused registrations in schools of higher learning to increase dramatically and turned around the American Dream from being directed toward a career in baseball or football to that of becoming a superstar intellectual.  However, when he ratted out everyone in his tearful confession, van Doren had set back scholasticism in this country by 100-years. It showed that intellectuals were just as human and just as crooked as anyone else. They jauntily stood behind their advanced degrees and perjured themselves, just as did a Mafia Don when testifying in front of a Grand Jury and being asked if he had committed a murder. Van Doren proved that he was in it for the money and for the fame and when the temperature got to high, he ratted out everyone in sight in an attempt to save his own precious skin. In the long run, Stempel probably turned out to be the better of the two. He never made any pretenses about who he was and what he wanted.

While van Doren did not plagiarize anything that we are aware of, he was engaged in a con game far bigger than that could ever be. He stole the public’s perception of academia as a gentleman’s business. He had stolen his own identity.



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