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The Fall of Charlie Van Doren

ISSUE:  Winter 1997

Charlie Van Doren, the hero-villain of the movie Quiz Show and for a good while a national icon of television fans in the 50’s, and I were in Miss Marjorie Nicolson’s seminar on 17th-century English literature at Columbia University in postwar New York.

That was before he had got his degree and an instructorship at Columbia College, the undergraduate unit of the university, and had become the popular winning contestant on the television quiz show “Twenty One.” It turned out, as the country learned a few years after his triumphs, that its producer had fed him answers. Although such arrangements were common on early radio and television quiz shows, the public didn’t know about the conspiracy until Van Doren’s rival, Herbert Stempel, who had agreed to go down in defeat, revealed it.

The resulting scandal shocked the nation, to echo the press at the time. Among other repercussions, there was a Congressional investigation. Van Doren, who had lied to a grand jury about his part in the drama, and 18 others were found guilty of perjury, but all had their sentences suspended.

The Van Doren affair encapsulated and augured some noteworthy changes in American culture, including some subtle ones in higher education. It also left an abiding mystery: why Charlie, who had already established a solid claim to the kind of formidable knowledge that underpinned a Columbia doctor of philosophy degree in English and comparative literature, volunteered for the quiz show in the first place and then risked his career and the stellar academic and literary reputation of his family by faking a command of trivial information.

Charlie and I didn’t see each other much outside the seminar room. He was part of the Columbia English establishment: his father, Mark, was a professor in the department, and had won a Pulitzer for his poetry. Other family members were prominent in publishing. A bachelor then, Charlie lived near the campus.

For much of that time, I taught at the City College of New York and came to campus by car or subway from Queens, where I lived with my wife and children. My father was a bookbinder. My background was more that of Stempel’s.

But Van Doren and I both fell under the stern civilizing influence of Miss Nicky, as she was commonly called, absorbing her values in the study and teaching of literature. And I suspect he and I also shared much of the complex outlook of Columbia’s vast graduate student community after World War II.

I thought about our Columbia days after the movie was released. Two vignettes involving Charlie came vividly to mind, characterizing him and the TV event more significantly, I believe, than what emerges on the screen. They relate to a solution of that mystery. (As I first wrote this, I happened still not to have seen the movie although I read all the reviews I could find and one article, by Joseph Epstein in The American Scholar, about Charlie’s career in Chicago, after the fall. But this is about Charlie and not about the movie.)

The first memory involves a visiting student from Italy in our seminar, a tall, slim young man with the haughty profile of a Renaissance noble. He spoke with a thick accent. One day, in a report he was giving, he referred to Lord Calvert, the 17th-century English nobleman who helped found Maryland and whose name and picture, at the time of the seminar, had been adorning the bottle of a popular blended whiskey and its repetitious advertising.

He unwittingly echoed the whiskey’s slogan. “Lorda Calaverta,” he said, speaking very carefully, “he wasa trulya a mana ofa distinc-a-tion.” Miss Nicky broke into one of her rare smiles. The rest of us suppressed laughter. The young man stopped in bewilderment. Charlie leaned over to him. “I’ll explain later,” he said gently, with a pat on his arm. “Go on.”

The second occurred several years later. I was in the English office talking with Miss Nicky, and Charlie came in, carrying a thick typescript. “Here it is,” he said, dropping it on a table. The two secretaries and I applauded, and Miss Nicky nodded. We all knew what it was. It was his completed dissertation, submitted with corrections after his defense. That day would become the formal date of his Ph.D.

I was looking forward to this little ceremony myself. It meant, obviously, completing the obstacle course for -the degree. It also meant that, as Charlie had just done, satisfying Miss Nicky’s standards.

It was Miss Nicky, I learned years later, a Van Doren family friend, who insisted on Charlie resigning his instructorship when his quiz show deception was exposed. He might otherwise have remained, I presume. He didn’t, after all, commit any recognized, mortal academic sin, like plagiarism. He went on to work for the Encyclopedia Britannica, which, no less than any campus enterprise, seeks to maintain an impeccable public image of rectitude in disseminating knowledge.

Also, I’ve never been sure that his participation in a rehearsed theatrical episode masquerading as real wasn’t a venial transgression even by strict academic standards. Passing oneself off as a greater authority on minutiae than the truth warrants is hardly a major fraud. His accepting coaching on questions he mightn’t have been able to answer promptly was a common enough arrangement at Columbia, if in a quite innocent, even commendable way. I remember reading a reminiscence by a young woman of how Miss Nicky helped her overcome her hysteria before the traumatic two-hour oral doctoral examination. I paraphrase from memory: “I know so little about the 17th century,” the student wailed to Miss Nicky before the examination. “Well what would you like to do when and if you get the degree?” Miss Nicky asked. “Oh I’d love to teach a course with what I do know,” was the answer. Miss Nicky’s first question at the orals was something like: “If you were assigned to teach a course in the 17th century at a small liberal arts college, what would you include and why?” The student reported that from then on, the examination went like a breeze.

And Miss Nicky called me at home the day before my own orals to caution me about Roger Sherman Loomis’s questions on medieval literature. “Mr. Loomis,” she said, “doesn’t mind you getting a year wrong for a work, but he gets upset if you give the wrong century.” She urged me to stop shuffling my index cards and get a good night’s rest after a hot bath.

What was the exact character of Charlie’s public infraction? He had participated in a staged event that purported to be real. He accepted payment for the deception. Who had been harmed? Perhaps the audience that believed Charlie’s erudition was genuine on mostly trifling matters. Perhaps those who bought Geritol on the strength of Charlie’s performance. One might contend that the innocence of the whole country was tainted when an admirable, ideal, almost idolized, supposedly intellectual figure, as Charlie had become on television, participated in a hoax, however minor.

But come on. We now live intimately with a mix of the actual and the contrived. Baseball continues to prevail, more or less, after a range of behind-the-scenes scandals. On some campuses, plagiarism is tolerated or has been redefined to seem negligible. “Fictionalized” reportage has become a respectable new genre even if we may be shocked by something so crass as Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize winning deception. James Joyce in his classic Ulysses placed a fictitious character living out a minutely researched but imagined day in a real city. We now have absurdly manipulated situation comedies on television which mix real persons with created ones, as on the Seinfeld show. Few still believe that all of the “spontaneous” jollity on the Letterman show is totally unrehearsed. Woody Allen pioneered a film technique in which an imagined character, Zelig, appears in actual newsreels. Quiz Show (which I finally saw on cassette) itself is an artful mix of fact and fiction. Broadcast News, a film several years ago, raised and left largely unjudged the propriety of intensifying the drama of news broadcasts through theatrical techniques. And, finally, does anyone doubt that the questions Charlie answered on his doctoral orals were far more substantial than any posed by a television show host?

Of course quiz shows today, like “The Price Is Right” or “Jeopardy,” are understood not to leak answers or favor one contestant over another. But these are taped in advance so that the persons in charge can control their dramatic intensity by cutting and editing tedious passages. In spite of intimations to the contrary, the Van Doren caper hardly damaged television or the intellectual self respect of the country.

The shock of Charlie’s lapse may have come from the muddling of the true nature of the quiz drama: it wasn’t Charlie, a stand-in for ourselves, up against some Sphinx like wisdom monster challenging him to solve a life threatening riddle. It was Charlie facing a human adversary, a doltish, mechanical, information spouting ethnic type, something like an idiot savant, in manner and appearance a typical underdog, a City College of New York type, evidently a Jew.

Those with a proper respect for education as a liberating, enlightening force may have taken comfort in the gentleman’s triumph over the nerd, but many also certainly ached with the loser when the fix was disclosed. It might have been Columbia beating CCNY at basketball, at which CCNY was nationally superior, with the consequent highs and lows of joy and disappointment—but all transformed to outrage when we learn that City threw the game, that Columbia did not win it after a fair match.

Those of us who knew Charlie were surprised and pleased to see his prodigious weekly television demonstration of random information. We did not regard him as a wiz who made a point of his knowledge. Some of the Columbia College alumni in my graduate classes used to aggressively and abrasively challenge one another, in a substitute for small talk, with recondite questions about obscure words and dates. Charlie flaunted neither knowledge nor insight. He was an amiable, gentle, self-possessed, charming man, without affectation, direct, well-spoken, thoughtful, comfortable with himself. I found remarkable how similarly Epstein described Charlie in his Chicago phase.

Many of us were World War II veterans, like me, attending Columbia under the G.I. bill, older than those of our mates who had not been in the war. We found annoyingly pointless the petty concerns and envies of civilian life. The veterans welcomed at first the order, seeming logic, and humane complexities of academia. We accepted Miss Nicky’s rigid scholarly and stylistic standards, which made sense and were just. We were glad that a graduate student, one of us, had “made it” so soon.

Few of us kept pristine our early dedication to academic careers, however. Impulse or deliberate decision, Charlie’s excursion off the reservation may have had something to do with a budding disenchantment about academic life, a dropping away of glamorous veils. Part of our important extracurricular education at the time was a maturing sense that ethical precision, personal honor, clearcut truth, scholarly integrity, all the values graduate students so thoroughly and initially accepted on faith that we rarely put them into words or thought, weren’t that sacrosanct. The world outside the ivory tower, we were learning, had its own acceptable and decent satisfactions.

When Charlie decided to move in the territory where Madison Avenue and Radio City shaped goals and values, he broadened his horizons. I suppose he may also have been testing his capacity to make an independent way outside the established family traditions. Those other ways of life he encountered on his journey put his own familiar ones into new and less appealing perspective.

A colleague of mine at CCNY left academic life after getting his Ph.D. to take a job as a messenger at an advertising agency. He had learned, he said to me, surely a little melodramatically, that the rewards for self abasement were higher in advertising than on campuses, and the conquering of challenges no less satisfying. The prizes Charlie garnered for his television displays of knowledge were enormous, if every one of them not enviable: an immediate award of over $100,000; a job at $50,000 a year on a morning television show; instant national fame; and, of course, a lifelong notoriety.

Charlie, in his own way, did what a number of us found ourselves doing less boldly: uncertainly exploring another world, not inevitably harsher or more demanding, just more quickly judgmental, and, normally, less forgiving. Year by year, colleagues left for advertising, publishing, garment manufacturing, electrical contracting, some defeated in the academic obstacle course, some triumphant but hardened and grown indifferent to the promise of remote and thin delights.

I mentioned Miss Nicky’s penchant for helping students survive the formidable rite of passage of the orals. She did much to humanize the whole doctoral ordeal, from thoughtful hints for the oral examination to allowing students, after the war, to “publish” their dissertations by microfilm, when they could not get a trade or university press to issue it as a conventional book. Doctoral graduates had been subsidizing the printing of their dissertations, usually for not less than $1,000, an impossible sum for most of us at the time (although I speculate now that the Veterans Administration might in some way have been persuaded to assume the expense under the GI Bill). “Compromise” and accommodation were in the air.

Columbia University itself, in spite of being described at the time in a Life magazine feature as “Athens on the Hudson,” did not as an institution formally adhere to the noblest standards of civilization. As Miss Nicky was the sole distinguished house woman in the graduate and undergraduate English departments, Lionel Trilling was the one celebrated Jew (although a scattering of illustrious Jewish names were to be found in the sciences and in art and philosophy, and I believe Maurice Valency may have been the other in English even though he technically taught comparative literature). The administration was in general indifferent toward all employees. I remember the faculty cheering Dwight Eisenhower when, early in his presidency of Columbia, he raised their salaries to the publicized minimums.

Graduate students of any alertness soon discovered that the antagonisms among faculty cliques were rooted in important, solemn, substantive issues, not simply the petty ones that serve as occasions for hilarity in academic novels. Anyone aware of the range of professorial styles in the Columbia English departments (in addition to the undergraduate and graduate ones, Barnard and Teachers’ Colleges also had departments) came to sense that accident, favoritism, persistence, sycophancy, clerical doggedness were as important in shaping careers as originality, imagination, commitment, creativity. Nor was Columbia alone; similar tendencies could be observed at Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, CCNY, any campus, anywhere.

It was during the post World War II boom in graduate education throughout the country that we could see doctoral dissertations in English diminish in scope and ambition, shrinking from large assessments of great figures—Mark Van Doren on John Dryden, Emery Neff on Carlyle and Mill, Trilling on Matthew Arnold—to modest exercises, editions of deservedly forgotten works, festooned with footnotes but almost defiantly empty of insightful analysis. The concept of originality became constricted. In some quarters, plagiarism and its variations began more and more to be rationalized and forgiven. Students with infelicitous writing styles hired editors to polish their works before final submission.

In the Lion’s Den, a coffee house in the basement of John Jay, the graduate student dormitory building near Butler Library, graduate students gossiped during morning and afternoon breaks about our professors and peers. While we were shocked about Charlie’s exposure, we commiserated with rather than condemned him. We were genuinely relieved when we heard a rumor, which turned out to be true, about his getting a job with Britannica after the debacle, and also another rumor about his engagement to a young woman who was said to be Jewish, whose truth I remain ignorant of.

Most reviewers of the movie mentioned that it touched on the Jewish-WASP tensions in the background of the Van Doren affair. I think these tensions were critical at some point, in some way, in coloring Charlie’s behavior. The country had inevitably become hypersensitive to anti-Semitism during the years preceding the war, not that, in one form or another, anti-Semitism wasn’t still prevalent after the war, even in such assertively enlightened environs as universities. Diana Trilling in her autobiographical The Beginning of the Journey, quoting from her husband Lionel’s notes, records his difficulties getting tenure at Columbia because he was a Jew. She records that Mark Van Doren did not help Trilling during this period, something I think Charlie could not fail to have known.

Miss Nicolson was foremost among those instrumental in establishing an atmosphere at Columbia in which recognition and reward began to depend mainly on merit. During her stewardship of the graduate English department, successful doctoral candidates could expect her full and, of course, considerable support in seeking appointments at schools of their choice, including those known not to take Jews: she was, after all, a national academic eminence. She let it be understood, however, that her students should have almost Henry James’s acutely pragmatic sense of the currents, conflicts, values, politics, and personnel quotas of the world they were to enter, to understand that these were as much facts of university life as rules of scholarship. She thought we all ought to be honestly aware of our own and others’ sense of our worth and our identities.

Charlie could not have been oblivious to the tableau he and Stempel presented, as Robert Redford, the director of Quiz Show, clearly was not. The thoughtful, ruminative reviews of the movie linger over the ethnic tensions between the two contestants. Uncomfortable as it may have been, that television contest, in the 50’s, had become transformed, in the eyes of many, to that between WASP and Jew. Charlie would not have been at ease with his role in such a contest, as I am guessing he may not have been comfortable with his father’s part in Trilling’s fight for tenure.

I wonder whether Charlie’s fall from grace can’t be read as a kind of career turn, as a pioneering relaxation of a medley of oppressive academic obsessions. All he did was simply join in a common worldly scenario, doing what others were doing, accommodating as best he could to natural forces, applying to practical ends his readily available talents. I cannot imagine him ever rationalizing an academic violation with the sort of argument one hears so commonly these days: everyone is doing it: why should professors be more honorable than businessmen or Congressmen? I like to imagine that the real reason he has not ever spoken in public about “the event” has been, most simply, not to seem to offer any apology. He has let his later life of silence and writing and editing just be part of the record, evidence in a dense Jamesian mystery.

Charlie needlessly dishonored himself and his family: at the height of his television popularity, I suppose, he might have insisted that questions like those on the Columbia orals be honestly put both to him and Stempel in their isolation booths, rather than the arcane and trivial ones that were put to them by arrangement. But he did not besmirch or betray any authentic academic values, which so many others have done who have remained within the ivy walls over the decades since the quiz show scandal.


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