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Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926) is a noted Americanmarker intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. He confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.


The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and literary critic/teacher Mark Van Doren and novelist and writer Dorothy Van Doren, and nephew of critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Carl Van Doren, Charles Van Doren was a committed academic with an unusually broad range of interests. He graduated from The High School of Music & Artmarker and then earned a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, Marylandmarker, as well as a master's degree in astrophysics and a doctorate in English (1955), both at Columbia University. He was also a student at Cambridge Universitymarker in Englandmarker.

Quiz show star

Twenty One was not Van Doren's first interest. He originally approached producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman to appear on Tic-Tac-Dough, another game they produced. However, Enright and Freedman were impressed by Van Doren's polite style and telegenic appearance, thinking the youthful Columbia teacher would be the man to defeat their incumbent Twenty One champion, Herb Stempel, and boost the show's slowing ratings as Stempel's reign continued.

In January 1957, Van Doren entered a winning streak that ultimately earned him more than $129,000 and made him famous, including an appearance on the cover of TIME on February 11 1957. His Twenty One run ended on March 11, when he lost to Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer whose husband Van Doren had previously beaten. After his defeat he was offered a three-year contract as a special "cultural correspondent" for Today, as well as guest appearances on other NBC programs, even serving as Today's substitute host when regular host Dave Garroway took a brief vacation.

Quiz show scandal

When allegations of cheating were first raised, by Stempel and others, Van Doren denied any wrongdoing, saying "It's silly and distressing to think that people don't have more faith in quiz shows." But on November 2, 1959, he admitted to the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, a United States Congress subcommittee, chaired by Arkansasmarker Democrat Oren Harris, that he had been given questions and answers in advance of the show.


Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. But his life after the scandal proved anything but broken ; as television historian Robert Metz wrote (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), "Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society, and Van Doren proved strong in the face of adversity." He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the popular-market text A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored How to Read a Book, with philosopher Mortimer J. Adler.
The tone of American encyclopedias is often fiercely inhuman," he wrote.
"It appears to be the wish of some contributors to write about living institutions as if they were pickled frogs, outstretched upon a dissecting board.

Currently, Van Doren is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticutmarker, Torringtonmarker branch.

Film version

The story of the quiz show scandal and Van Doren's role in it is depicted in the film Quiz Show (1994; he was portrayed by Britishmarker actor Ralph Fiennes), produced and directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio. The film made $24 million by April 1995, and was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film earned several critiques questioning its use of dramatic license, its accuracy, and the motivation behind its making.

The critics have included Joseph Stone, the New Yorkmarker prosecutor who began the investigations; and, Jeffrey Hart, a Dartmouth College scholar, senior editor of National Review, a long time friend of Van Doren, who saw the film as falsely implying tension between Van Doren and his accomplished father.

Until recently Van Doren had refused interviews or public comment on the subject of the quiz show scandals. In a 1985 interview on The Today Show—his only appearance on the program since his dismissal in 1959, plugging his book The Joy Of Reading—he answered a general question on how the scandal changed his life. He has revisited Columbia University only twice in the 40 years that followed his resignation: in 1984, when his son graduated; and, in 1999, at a reunion of Columbia's Class of 1959. The graduating class of 1959 entered the university when Van Doren first became a teacher there in 1955.

During the latter appearance, Van Doren made one allusion to the quiz scandal without mentioning it by name:

Some of you read with me 40 years ago a portion of Aristotle's Ethics, a selection of passages that describe his idea of happiness. You may not remember too well. I remember better, because, despite the abrupt caesura in my academic career that occurred in 1959, I have gone on teaching the humanities almost continually to students of all kinds and ages. In case you don't remember, then, I remind you that according to Aristotle happiness is not a feeling or sensation but instead is the quality of a whole life. The emphasis is on "whole," a life from beginning to end. Especially the end. The last part, the part you're now approaching, was for Aristotle the most important for happiness. It makes sense, doesn't it?

The July 28, 2008 issue of the The New Yorker included a personal reminiscence, written by Van Doren, in which he recounted in detail the scandals and their aftermath.

Further reading

  • Thomas Doherty, "Quiz Show Scandals," The Museum of Broadcast Communications.
  • Jeffrey Hart, "'Van Doren' and 'Redford'," National Review, 7 November 1994.
  • Lina Lofaro, "Charles Van Doren Vs. the Quiz Show Dream Team," Time, 19 September 1994.
  • Robert Metz, CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye. (Chicago: Playboy Press, 1973.)
  • Joseph Stone, Prime-time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s TV Quiz Scandal—A D.A.'s Account. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1992.)


  2. [1] IMDb

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