Charlie and Mark
To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein’s recollections of the quiz-show scandal [“Redford's Van Doren & Mine,” December 1994] triggered a memory of my own.
Back at the dawn of TV history—1957—I was an instructor in the Columbia University English department. I was also a contestant on a Jack Barry/Dan Enright game show. Does this sound like the wayward path taken by the luckless Charles Van Doren? You bet.
The fact that game shows were rigged was not known to the mega-share of the viewing audience which followed the weekly cliff-hangers with the zeal deserved by a World Series playoff. But the disgruntled Twenty-One contestant, Herb Stempel, had already sold his confessional to the deceased daily, the Journal/American, which was sitting on the story. And since a friend’s father was managing editor of the paper, I was in the privileged circle of insiders who knew that the fix was in.
So when I showed up at the studio as a contestant on Barry/Enright’s Tic Tac Dough, I was hopeful. Maybe they would make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was taking home $4,200 a year, so the offer wouldn’t have to be much.
Robert Redford’s Quiz Show takes the line that the quiz-show scams meant the end of “an age of innocence” in our culture. I say: poppycock! Television is a medium that should not be taken seriously. And in the game-show venue, the producers were in the time-honored mode of the carnival side-show’s game of chance. The suckers know that the wheels are rigged, but they play anyhow. It’s fun to be fooled. How else to explain three-card Monte?
Anyhow, while I was getting made up for my appearance, the Tic Tac Dough producer, Howard Felsher, introduced himself. He noted that I reviewed books for Saturday Review. “Do you know Norman Cousins?” he asked. I did indeed know the magazine’s editor.
“Then you must be a World Federalist,” he said. Cousins was a passionate activist and this was one of his favorite causes, but I had to admit that I was not enrolled.
I explained that I didn’t think the world was ready for it.
Felsher announced that he headed the Princeton, New Jersey, chapter of World Federalists, and for the next five minutes, as I was getting Max Factor pancake makeup smeared on my cheeks, he lectured me on the need for a moral world order. Not too long thereafter, he was taking evasive action against an indictment for perjury, and one of his colleagues was pictured on the front page of a daily tabloid, under arrest.
I did not win on the show, and nobody tempted me with a payoff. I got the consolation prize, a Polaroid camera. . . .
Ironically, Redford donated the proceeds of his Quiz Show premiere at the Ziegfeld theater to the Natural Resources Defense Council. This is the outfit that spearheaded the attack on apples treated with the agricultural chemical Alar. Alar was found to be harmless to humans and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the report of the Natural Resources Defense Council “gravely misleading.” But not before the apple-growing industry had lost $200 million. Nobody lost money on Twenty-One.
New York City
To the Editor:
I too knew Charles Van Doren, but over a much longer period than Joseph Epstein did. Our paths first crossed at the Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco, where I became a working scholar and editor in 1958, and where Van Doren was employed a few years later, after his meteoric TV career on Twenty-One and Today. It was also after the shameful revelations of the Twenty-One shenanigans. The wounds were still fresh, and “Charlie,” as he was always called, walked around like a wounded animal, in a constantly depressed state. I did not get to know him very well then—he was too withdrawn, and I was occupied with demanding tasks.
It was only later, when I was a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica (1966-73), that I really got to know Charlie. I liked him—he was undoubtedly a decent human being as well as an interesting conversationalist, with a wide array of interests and concerns. I never asked him about the quiz-show scandal—I thought that was too personal and embarrassing, a shame that had become public, an open wound. As a matter of fact, I must confess that I never saw the show—I was not interested in that sort of thing. I regret that I did not sufficiently extend to him the confirmation that one human being owes to another.
Some time before Charlie came to the Institute, there was a mention of the scandal when his father, Mark, the eminent poet and critic, came to lunch there. It was 1959, just after he had taught his last class at Columbia, ending his 40-year stretch as a college English professor. In this case it turned out, the actual person fit the reputation—he was virtue and wisdom incarnate, not merely a fine old man. We spent a wonderful two hours chatting with him.
Finally someone asked him if he had ever detected anything in his son that might have explained what had happened. He thought for a moment and then told how he had been surprised to learn how Charlie, while serving in World War II, had participated in card games (or was it crap-shooting?) with extraordinarily high stakes. He had seen a daring and even foolish gambling spirit that he had not known was there. Charlie himself confessed to this after the debacle, and in his article Mr. Epstein has astutely picked up that clue. . . .
Although I considered Quiz Show one of the best movies of the year, I too cringed for Charlie as one more nail was hammered into his public reputation, and even more for the pain and embarrassment that must have ensued for his wife and children. Recalling the encounter with Mark Van Doren in the Institute, I am reminded of the achievements of the other Van Dorens. Hence (contra Mr. Epstein) I am led to conclude that the film relates the triumph of that part of our society that embraces a bottom-line ethic over those of a traditional, humanistic culture. This is a tragedy that Balzac, whom Mr. Epstein mentions, would have understood, and could have written. That Charlie was the fall guy, the necessary intermediary, only adds irony to the mix. . .
University of California
San Diego, California
To the Editor:
I realize that Mark Van Doren is not the subject of Joseph Epstein’s fine article, but a few more things need to be said about him than Mr. Epstein manages. He tells us that Mark Van Doren is less famous than his son (correct) and that he encouraged some not so good poets (well, he encouraged some very good ones, too). However, he wrote a number of remarkable works which, if not conferring fame in a very wide sense, are highly valued still by people who value such things.
Mark Van Doren’s Ph.D. dissertation on John Dryden remains the best book on that subject to date, and I have taught Dryden and written about him for more than 30 years. None other than T.S. Eliot reviewed the book favorably in the (London) Times Literary Supplement and then incorporated much of the review into his Homage to John Dryden.
I have recently reread Van Doren’s book on Shakespeare, and also his book on the epic, The Noble Voice, in connection with a project I have in hand. The Shakespeare still stands up very well in, to say the least, a crowded field. The Noble Voice (1946, dedicated to “Charles Van Doren”) is excellent on the epic tradition, and I found it very useful.
Mark Van Doren’s book Liberal Education is a small masterpiece, concentrated and pithy, and even more timely today than when it was published.
He produced a large but uneven body of poetry, and does not seem to have realized when he was writing well and when he was not. I think a first-rate “selected poems” could be distilled from what we have. Such lines as the following, reflecting his syllabus in Hamilton Hall, seem memorable to me:
My Great Friends do not know me.
Hamlet in the halls,
Achilles by the river, and Don
Feasting with the Duke see no one
Like me, Mark Van Doren, who
Older while they look not, change
Die not, save deaths their masters
Mr. Epstein is correct that Mark Van Doren supported Henry Wallace in 1948. He also participated in the agitprop Waldorf Peace Conference, I believe. Much later, when I was his colleague in the English department at Columbia, I asked him about all this. (I must have been a real nuisance.) He replied candidly that he had been “taken in.” . . .
Lyme, New Hampshire
To the Editor:
. . . Joseph Epstein does Charles Van Doren an injustice. His comments on Van Doren’s quality of mind, his “lifestyle,” and, most of all, his relative isolation from the public eye strike me as a caricature. I would ask Mr. Epstein to consider the fact that during all the publicity for Redford’s movie, Van Doren consistently refused requests for interviews. In short, he has held on to the dignity with which he openly admitted his fault in the first place so many years ago.
Regarding his supposed isolation, I can report that during the early months of the film’s release, in the midst of a very hard time for him and his family, Charles Van Doren moderated a symposium in honor of Mortimer J. Adler at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, a very public occasion in a town that loves gossip. His willingness to accept such an invitation and face the public at such an embarrassing moment is a tribute not only to his capacity for friendship, in this case with Adler, but also to a moral courage painfully won. In fact, Van Doren’s performance as moderator over those three days in August gave many of us the opportunity to witness the intelligence, generosity, and dignity which Mr. Epstein so depreciates.
Deal W. Hudson