Obituaries

Charles Van Doren, a quiz show whiz who wasn’t, dies at 93

NEW YORK — Charles Van Doren, a Columbia University English instructor and a member of a distinguished literary family who confessed to Congress and a disillusioned nation in 1959 that his performances on a television quiz show had been rigged, died Tuesday in Canaan, Conn. He was 93.

He died at Geer Village, a retirement community, near his home in Cornwall, Conn., where he had lived for several years, his son, John, said.

In the heyday of quiz shows in the 1950s, when scholarly housewives and walking encyclopedia nerds battled on “The $64,000 Question” and “Tic-Tac-Dough,” Dr. Van Doren was a rare specimen: a handsome, personable young intellectual with solid academic credentials, a faculty post at a prestigious university, and an impressive family pedigree.

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His father was Mark Van Doren, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, literary critic, and professor of English at Columbia. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was a novelist and editor. And his uncle, Carl Van Doren, had been a professor of literature, a historian, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer.

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Charles himself had bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a $4,400-a-year position at Columbia, and an honest look about him.

For 14 weeks, from Nov. 28, 1956, to March 11, 1957, Dr. Van Doren captivated audiences of up to 50 million people with performances on the NBC quiz show “Twenty-One,” answering such questions as: “The Black Sea is connected to the Aegean Sea via two straits and a smaller sea. Name (1) the two straits, (2) the smaller sea, and (3) the four countries that border the Black Sea.”

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Dr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and . . . Bulgaria.”

Right again!

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He identified Henry VIII’s wives and their fates. He listed America’s four vice presidents in the 1920s. He named the four Balearic Islands. And he knew the common names for caries, myopia, and missing patellar reflex. When he finally faltered, missing the name of Belgium’s king, hearts were broken.

But Dr. Van Doren, 31, by then the nationally known star of a show whose ratings had soared, walked away with $129,000 in winnings (the equivalent of more than $1 million today). He had also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, received some 20,000 fan letters, brushed off dozens of marriage proposals, and signed a $150,000 contract to appear on NBC shows for three years.

In succeeding months, as rumors and skepticism over TV quiz shows grew, some contestants admitted that the programs had been fixed. The networks denied it, and Dr. Van Doren insisted that he had not taken part in any deceptions. Besides misleading the press and public, he continued to deceive his family and friends, and even lied to a Manhattan grand jury about his performances.

But on Nov. 2, 1959, he told congressional investigators that the shows had all been hoaxes, that he had been given questions and answers in advance, and that he had been coached to make the performances more dramatic.

“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” he said.

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Dr. Van Doren said he had agonized in a moral and mental struggle to come to terms with his own betrayals.

He lost his job at Columbia, NBC canceled his contract, and, along with others who had lied to the grand jury about their quiz show roles, he pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, a misdemeanor, and received a suspended sentence. Many contestants shared the guilt, but the publicity spotlighted Dr. Van Doren because of his family’s prominence.

Disgraced, he became an editor and a pseudonymous writer, took a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica, and moved to its Chicago headquarters in 1965. He eventually became a vice president in charge of the editorial department and edited, wrote, and co-wrote dozens of books, some with Mortimer J. Adler, the philosopher-educator. He retired in 1982.

In later years, Dr. Van Doren wrote a number of books, including “The Joy of Reading” (1985), a collection of his essays on books that he had loved, and “A History of Knowledge” (1991), a nonacademic examination of the development of human enlightenment.

In an article he wrote about the scandal for The New Yorker in 2008, Dr. Van Doren recalled that he had not even owned a television set in the quiz-show era. He said he had met Albert Freedman, a producer of “Twenty-One,” through a mutual friend, and that Freedman, impressed by his poise and telegenic appearance, had broached the idea of going on television by asking what he thought of “Tic-Tac-Dough,” another show that Freedman and Dan Enright produced. Later, the two producers urged Dr. Van Doren to challenge the incumbent “Twenty-One” champion, Herb Stempel, whom he later dethroned.

In the New Yorker article, Dr. Van Doren also disclosed that after his fall from grace his father had given him a present: a gyroscope with a quotation from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by the character called Feste, a clown wise enough to play the fool and tell the truth. “I knew he was saying that I, too, would survive and somehow find a way back,” he wrote. “I just hugged him and said, ‘Thank you, Papa.’ ”

Charles Lincoln Van Doren was born in Manhattan on Feb. 12, 1926. He and his younger brother, John, were raised in a milieu of literary figures: Franklin P. Adams, Joseph Wood Krutch, Sinclair Lewis, and others.

Charles attended the City and Country School and graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. After serving with the Army Air Forces in 1944 and 1945, He graduated with honors from St. John’s College at Annapolis, Md., in 1947, and earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia in 1949.

After studies at Cambridge University in England and the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to New York and in 1955 began teaching at Columbia. He earned a doctorate in literature there in 1959.

A month after his appearances on “Twenty-One” ended in 1957, he married Geraldine Ann Bernstein, whom he had met a year earlier. The couple had two children.

In addition to his son and wife, John, Dr. Van Doren leaves a daughter, Elizabeth, and three grandchildren. His brother, John, died in January.

Dr.. Van Doren and his wife for many years had a second home in Cortona, Italy, in Tuscany, where he spent several months each year, learned to speak Italian, and wrote some of his books.

For decades, he refused to talk publicly about the scandal. He declined to assist in a documentary on the subject for the PBS series “American Experience” in 1992, or in Robert Redford’s 1994 movie, “Quiz Show,” which focused on the role of Dr. Van Doren, who was played by Ralph Fiennes. In his article for The New Yorker, Dr. Van Doren noted that he had turned down a $100,000 fee to be a consultant for the film.