- 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 didnâ€™t provide enough excitement.
The showâ€™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 hadnâ€™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 showâ€™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 NBCâ€™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
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
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 publicâ€™s perception of academia as a gentlemanâ€™s business. He had
stolen his own identity.