When I read that Robert Redford was about to release a movie about the 1950’s quiz-show scandals, my first thought was: poor Charlie, poor damned—possibly genuinely damned—Charlie. Charlie, of course, is Charles Van Doren, the central if by no means major figure in those scandals. I worked with Charlie between 1965 and 1970 in Chicago, where he was in effect in exile, and found him, and his position as a national pariah, of keen interest.
Charles Van Doren has had to bear a heavy load as a symbol for much that was wrong with America in the 1950’s and, for those who like to push these things a bit further, for much more that would continue to go wrong later. The appearance of the Redford movie, Quiz Show, would mean, among other things, once more against the firing-squad wall for Charlie, who is now nearing seventy: an opportunity for every moralizing wiseguy to fire off a few more rounds of the journalistic equivalent of rotten tomatoes at him. Being a pariah in America is not only a full-time job but, apparently, one from which no retirement short of death can be expected.
Not many people under forty-five today can have much recollection of the excitement of the quiz shows of the 1950’s and the immense stir that followed the revelation that most of these shows had been fixed, the contestants having been picked for their telegenic qualities and supplied with the questions and answers in advance, and the contests themselves being staged for the maximum dramatic effect. Twenty-One, on which Charlie would win $129,000—very serious bread in those days—was seen on Monday nights on NBC, going up against I Love Lucy on CBS.
In Redford’s often cartoonish movie, people come thundering out of the subway, rushing home to watch Twenty-One, and even nuns are shown posted before their television set when it is on. But it is true that the quiz shows—The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, Dotto, Tic Tac Dough, Concentration, and Twenty-One above all—did seem, between 1955 and 1958, a dominating presence on American television and hence in American life. Charlie was on the cover of Time (“Quiz Champ Van Doren”) on February 11, 1957—Leonard Bernstein was the magazine’s cover subject the week before and Martin Luther King, Jr. the week after—and on the cover of Life on October 26, 1959, when the scandal broke.
The $64,000 Question, begun on CBS in June 1955 and sponsored by Revlon, preceded NBC’s Twenty-One, which was sponsored by Geritol, a mixture of vitamins, minerals, and alcohol that claimed to be an antidote for “tired blood.” The $64,000 Question was a more high-rolling version of the radio show known as The $64 Question. Unlike Twenty-One, which presumably tested generalized knowledge, The $64,000 Question tested highly specialized knowledge, and the odder the contestants, it seemed, the better the ratings: a shoemaker who knew opera, for example; a marine officer who knew French cuisine; or a woman psychologist (Joyce Brothers) who knew boxing. But technical differences between the two shows aside, there was, theoretically, no limit to how much money one could win on Twenty-One, whereas the limit on The $64,000 Question was set by the show’s title. Both shows had booming ratings and sold their sponsors products wonderfully well.
Set up to compete with The $64,000 Question, Twenty-One soon blew it off the court. It did so when Charles Van Doren, then a thirty-year-old instructor from Columbia University, appeared on the show to defeat a rather klutzy New Yorker from Forest Hills named Herbert Stempel. Charlie stayed on for 15 weeks, sweating and hesitating, palpably cerebrating before 30 or 40 million people, but finally always coming up with the correct answers. “Charlie,” his mother wrote before the scandals hit, “turned out to have that mysterious chemical attraction which inspires multitudes.” He was tall, just missed being good-looking, spoke in a cultivated accent, and gave off an aroma of learning and intelligence without any of the fumes of snobbery that in America so often seemed to go with it.
When Charlie appeared on Twenty-One, it almost seemed as if his family had gone along with him into the “isolation booth,” as the glass cage was called where contestants stood awaiting their questions. And it was quite a family. Charlie’s father was Mark Van Doren, who looked like nothing so much as an Americanized Mr. Chips and was a famous professor at Columbia, as well as a Pulitzer Prize poet and a prominent literary critic. (At Columbia, Charlie and his father shared an office.) Charlie’s mother, Dorothy, who had been an editor at the Nation, wrote pleasant little books about the comic hardships of life in the country or of living with a professor. His Aunt Irita was something of a power in publishing as a literary editor at the New York Herald-Tribune. Perhaps most impressive of all was his Uncle Carl, a man of letters and the author of the best available biography of Benjamin Franklin (another Pulitzer Prize). The Van Dorens were not a patrician but a Midwestern family—Mark Van Doren had gone to the University of Illinois—and its intellectual members had achieved what they had not through social connections but through talent and hard work.
When Charlie sprang into the national consciousness, that nice young man who seemed to have all the answers, it was as if he had been sent over by central casting. In a strong sense, he had. “The principle of careful casting,” as one of the quiz-show producers once called it, was essential to their success. What was wanted was contestants who were brainy but not dull: bouncy young woman lawyers, like the one who ultimately replaced Charlie on Twenty-One, or interestingly odd people, or people who looked as if they were themselves of the people. When the producers saw Charlie they sensed they had glommed onto a Henry Fonda with the mind of an Einstein.
Although other contestants made more money than Charlie—a Columbia graduate student in sociology named Elfrida Von Nardroff, who appeared on the show after him, topped out at $226,500—none achieved anything near his celebrity. There was nothing nerdish, nothing Bronx High School of Science (where Herbert Stempel had gone), nothing neurotic about Charlie. He was very American—he looked as if he could have played on our Davis Cup tennis team—except for his immense knowledgeability. Mothers, it was said, saw him as the answer to Elvis Presley. The Russians had launched Sputnik, the first satellite in space, the same year that Charlie was on Twenty-One; in some quarters, Charlie was thought to be our answer to Sputnik.
He was great copy. Time, in its cover story, noted: “Along with [his] charm, he combines the universal erudition of a Renaissance man with the nerve and cunning of a riverboat gambler and the showmanship of the born actor.” Some Time editor must have enjoyed describing Charlie in his isolation booth: “Clamped in a vise of earphones, the eyes roll heavenward and squeeze shut, the brow sweats and furrows, the teeth gnaw at the lower lip.” Faculty members at St. John’s College, in Annapolis, where Charlie had been an undergraduate, pointed out, according to Time, that “Van Doren’s mind comes through on TV not as a card-index file but as a reasoning instrument that explores a memory clearly embedded in taste.” It was a complete fake, every moment of it, but a hell of a performance.
The first time I met Charlie I had to shake off the red borders of an imaginary Time cover to get him into proper focus. He looked remarkably like himself, which is to say like the man I had watched all those Monday nights, marveling at his knowledgeability and his cool instincts (“I have always been a gambler,” he told Life). This meeting took place at Encyclopaedia Britannica, where I had recently been hired as a senior editor, and where Charlie worked directly for the man who was to give the new Brittanica its intellectual design, Mortimer J. Adler, in an office Adler called, with no mean pretensions, the Institute for Philosophical Research.
The Institute, among its other activities, planned to turn out books on each of the 102 “Great Ideas,” the organizing principle of the “Syntopicon,” which was itself an elaborate index sold with Britannica’s “Great Books”; this was an old Adler project that Dwight Macdonald once called “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” Charlie was writing a book for Adler, to be titled, with (I thought at the time) more than a touch of irony, The Idea of Progress. The irony came with the fact that no one’s progress had been stopped colder than Charlie’s after what was already known to history as “the quiz-show scandal.”
To be so famous, and yet to have one’s fame take the character of pure notoriety, as did Charlie’s, left him with a peculiar social burden upon meeting new people. He had to consider the possibility that the person before him might despise him. I met him in 1965, just six years after the scandal had blown Charlie out of the water. He could not, after all, pretend that his past did not matter.
Charlie handled our meeting beautifully, I thought. We were at lunch, with two other Britannica editors, and I mentioned that I had bought a house on which I was to close that afternoon. “Ah,” said Charlie, with the smile that came so easily to him, “the last time I closed on a house, in New York, I had two jobs, one at NBC and one at Columbia, and the very next day I had neither.”
After the scandal, Charlie had indeed been fired from his job as an assistant professor at Columbia, over the protest of many students, who felt he deserved a break. It seems unlikely that any teaching or other serious intellectual work was then available to him. Charlie got the job he now had thanks to Mortimer Adler’s friendship with Mark Van Doren. Adler was part of a little network of men who had gone to or taught at Columbia, among whom were Mark Van Doren, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Clifton Fadiman.
Charlie remained in Chicago for twenty or so years. Chicago must, at times, have felt to him like being in Novosibirsk, in western Siberia. He had left the good life in New York, where he owned a red Mercedes convertible and a town-house in the Village, and had a regular slot on Dave Garroway’s Today show, for which he was paid the then-princely sum of $50,000 a year. Before the scandal exploded, he must have felt himself in the condition of Herbert von Karajan, who, when asked by a cab driver in Paris where he wished to go, is supposed to have replied, “It doesn’t matter. They want me everywhere.”
As befits an exile, Charlie lay low, never becoming a figure of any sort in Chicago. How could he have done? His position was still that of a major national phony. This man, who was supposed to bring renewed respect for learning to the masses through his television performance, had instead besmirched everything by partaking in the general fraudulence. I remember once getting into an argument with Charlie over some now-forgotten political issue; as it began to heat up, I realized that we would both do well to back away. Like almost everyone else in the country, I began with too great a moral advantage over him.
Charlie was not married when he was a contestant on Twenty-One, but not long after he married a Jewish woman, Geraldine or Gerry, whom it was said that Charlie’s scandal had come near to crushing. Her Jewishness is worth remarking, for in Quiz Show, Robert Redford makes much of the Jewish-Gentile rivalrousness that his screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, has inserted as one of the main subthemes of the movie. The Stempel-Van Doren match-up is played in the movie as the aggressive Jewish neurotic schlemiel (to put it kindly) versus the cool Wasp nonpareil. In reality, when Stempel was told he would have to take a dive and lose to Charlie, he begged that the two of them be allowed to play the game straight, no falsity whatever, a match between CCNY and Columbia, which in retrospect seems a sad little demonstration of school spirit.
What one may be permitted to call the Jewish aura of Quiz Show runs deep throughout the movie. It begins with Richard Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow), a young Harvard-trained lawyer working for the House subcommittee on legislative oversight, who picks up on the quiz-show scandals when stories about disgruntled contestants begin appearing in the press and decides to investigate them on behalf of the subcommittee, headed by Congressman Oren Harris of Arkansas. In the movie, Goodwin—a chapter of whose book, Remembering the Sixties, is the only work cited as the basis for the screenplay—is made to seem the man most ardently in pursuit of showing up the dishonesty of the quiz shows. In fact, the one who did the most to break the scandals was Joseph Stone, who worked for New York District Attorney Frank Hogan. But dramatic necessity, I suppose, required falsifying history, so that in the movie Charlie has only a single, obsessive pursuer.
The Goodwin character is portrayed as an aggressive Jew, first in his class at the Harvard Law School, formerly a clerk to Felix Frankfurter, scruffy, not from Boston but, as he at one point explains, from (Jewish) Brookline. With Stempel (played by John Turturro) wanting to bring Charlie down out of what is made to seem an almost racial jealousy, and with Goodwin after him out of a sometimes ambivalent but ultimately moral zealousness, poor Charlie (played by Ralph Fiennes) is made to seem rather a Wasp sandwich.
Herb Stempel, who is a walking ADL nightmare—aggressive, crazed, showing a blackened tooth—at one point refers to Van Doren as “that big uncircumcised putz”; and, after he learns that he has to lose to Charlie, he responds to a television promo for the forthcoming Twenty-One show by muttering, “Tune in and watch Charles Van Doren eat his first kosher meal. . . .” As for Goodwin, when he shows himself soft on Charlie, his wife—a “shikse,” as she is described in the screenplay—eggs him on by calling him a betrayer of his people, “the Uncle Tom of the Jews.” That the producers of Twenty-One were also Jews, and fairly lubricious ones as portrayed here, makes the entire movie at times seem as if it might deserve the title, “Get the Gentile.”
Along with its Jew-Wasp theme, Quiz Show is intent on demonstrating the corruption of big-time capitalism. Robert Red-ford has said that he sees his movie as a “parable” of “the eternal struggle between ethics and capitalism.” Let it be noted that in putting this parable on the screen, he does not at any time let the ethics of art get in his way. The characters in his movie who represent capitalism, from then-NBC vice president Robert Kintner to the producers of Twenty-One to a New York judge who does not release the findings of a grand-jury inquiry into the quiz shows, range as human types from the greasy to the gross.
The larger implication of Quiz Show is that the fix is in, and we little people, none of us, has a chance against the big boys. The big boys are the capitalists, and they are insidious. The owner of Geritol (played in the movie by the director Martin Scorsese) directs the producers of Twenty-One to knock Herbert Stempel off the show because the ratings are slipping. The judge, in not allowing the grand jury’s findings to be either officially filed or published, is implicitly in cahoots with the networks and producers. Robert Kintner plays golf with Oren Harris.
Everything, in short, is a done deal. True, maybe everything always was, but now the big boys have the ultimate weapon for controlling the nation—television. The last line of dialogue in Quiz Show goes to the Richard Goodwin character: “I thought I was gonna get television. The truth is, television is gonna get us.” And that, as they say in the business, is a wrap.
Apart from the irony of making a movie, in some ways the quintessential capitalistic enterprise, to expose capitalism, the political naiveté, not to say pessimism, of Quiz Show is impressive. One has to be a fool to be unaware of the possibility of corruption in any enterprise where big money is at stake; and very big money hung on the quiz-show ratings. Even if the sponsors did go along with the cheating perpetrated by the shows’ producers—and there is no conclusive evidence that they did—one may be outraged but one ought not be shocked. Behind every great family fortune, as Balzac reminded us many years ago, there is usually a crime.
But the larger point, it seems to me, is that the quiz-show scandals are today known as just that—scandals. And they are scandals because the legal system, and men of impressive integrity such as Joseph Stone and Frank Hogan, sensed their scandalousness and, under the existing capitalist order, shut them down.
A final underlying theme in Quiz Show has to do with Charlie and his once-famous father. In the movie, this story is toyed with but ultimately scamped as only a movie is permitted to scamp serious material. The intellectual distinction of Charlie’s lineage is tricked out in italics. When Richard Goodwin first learns that Charles Van Doren is to be on Twenty-One, he asks his wife: “Van Doren like Van Doren Van Doren?” Mark Van Doren is played in the movie by Paul Scofield, and played, let it be said, magnificently: not a steely gray hair out of place, not a syllable mis-accented, splendidly distinguished and handsomely out of it, a combination only an Ivy League academic of a certain era could command.
In the movie, Charlie shows, as one critic has put it, “a fierce ambivalence about a powerful father.” Charlie, we learn, at one point left Cambridge to go off to Paris where he wrote a novel about a patricide. But Mark Van Doren is not portrayed as a crushing father; instead he is an almost too-good father whose attention is nonetheless difficult to hold and whose respect is difficult to win. In actuality, with his gray hair, with a face craggy not through dissipation but through, one assumed, the wisdom that comes of intellectual effort, the real Mark Van Doren seems not only to have looked like but to have been a great many people’s ideal father. (Considerable, I know, is the number of not very good student poets he encouraged while at Columbia who, alas, still walk the streets intent on a career in poetry.)
It must have been more than a bit tricky to have Mark Van Doren as one’s father. His evident superiority could not have been all that easy to live with. Throughout the movie, Charlie, troubled by his cheating on Twenty-One, cannot seem to get his father’s notice long enough to offer an explanation of his situation and perhaps fire off a confession into the bargain. When he brings up the possibility that there has been cheating on the shows, his father, mildly amused at the notion, retorts that cheating on a television quiz show is “like plagiarizing a comic book.” In the movie, one has the sense that Charlie is not quite taken seriously—or seriously enough—by his father, whose main concern about his son’s appearances on television is that it might detract from his commitment to teaching.
In Joseph Stone’s excellent and thorough book on the quiz-show scandals, Prime Time and Misdemeanors, the producer Albert Freedman, when he finally confessed to having fixed Twenty-One by supplying the contestants with answers, was told by Charlie that “the impact of exposure would be disastrous—it would destroy his family, might even kill his father.” But when Charlie himself finally confessed before the Harris subcommittee in Congress, Mark Van Doren reportedly said that it was the proudest day of his life. Even understanding fully the intention behind that sentence, one begs to doubt its truth. In any case, one has the sense that the relationship between Charlie and his father was vastly more complicated than is suggested in Redford’s movie.
I was never a close friend of Charlie’s, but during the years I was at Britannica I once had dinner at his home, where I remember him reciting a poem over the wine, an amusingly pretentious little touch. I also remember liking his wife, who I thought showed signs of psychological fragility but who obviously loved her husband. I once went to a small party where Charlie showed up wearing beads; the time was the sizzling 60’s, remember.
While at Britannica I spent hundreds of hours in a large conference room with ten or twelve other senior editors, of whom Charlie had become, in effect, one; and I had a chance to watch his mind at work. It will seem a comically obvious thing to say about the world’s most famous quiz-show contestant, but Charlie actually knew quite a lot. After his undergraduate education at St. John’s, he had set out to become an astrophysicist, though somewhere along the line he reined in his intellectual ambition and settled for a master’s degree in mathematics. Later he would do a Ph.D. in English literature.
What I found impressive about Charlie was the range of his random information. He seemed to know a good deal about Indian tribes and geology and Boolean algebra; how deep his knowledge of any of these things went, I am not sure, but he could talk a decently good game. Perhaps this came from growing up in so intensely bookish a home.1
Yet, much as he possessed an impressive range of factual knowledge, nothing in Charlie seemed to tie any of it together. He was cultivated and knowledgeable without being in the least intellectual. If Charlie had any ideas, he kept them hidden. If he had any true intellectual passions, these remained his private possession. If he had any politics, he tended to keep these, too, to himself—though later, when the tumult of the late 1960’s got well under way, I came across a pamphlet of political pieces by Midwestern academics and journalists on the Left to which Charlie had contributed a small bouquet of platitudes of the day. Charlie’s mother and father, after all, had both worked on the Nation, and I have been told that Mark Van Doren went for Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election.
One of the reasons I never became closer to Charlie at Britannica is that he was too much Mortimer J. Adler’s man. The other senior editors at the corporation were united by their mockery of the project for which they had been hired—a replanning of the entire encyclopedia, beginning with a Rube Goldberg-like index of world knowledge—and on which Adler, a kind of mad prince of logic, rode herd. Charlie never disagreed with Adler, whereas disagreement with and behind-his-back disparagement of Adler gave the rest of us what camaraderie we enjoyed.
Still, I never noted in Charlie any resentment, either of his situation or of those colleagues whose contempt he must have sensed. (I am a little ashamed of my own failure of imagination in not taking into consideration Charlie’s impossible position as a family man with no other work open to him.) If he had any side or meanness to him, I never saw or felt it. In Quiz Show, Ralph Fiennes has nicely caught the quality in the Charlie I knew of bemused self-contentment. It combines, this quality, detached curiosity about the world and yet absolutely no doubt concerning one’s deserved place in it.
Charlie was resilient, a survivor. Richard Goodwin, in his chapter on the quiz shows in Remembering America, quotes a letter written to him by Charlie after the congressional guillotine had fallen. The final paragraph reads:
There have been many hard things. But I am trying to tell you that we [he and his wife] will live and thrive, I think—I mean I know we will live and I think we will thrive—and that you must never, in any way, feel any regret for your part in this. Perhaps it is nonsense to say this, but I thought it might be just possible that you would.
Charlie did of course live, and, materially, he throve. He and his wife raised a family. He eventually became an important vice president at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. He was a skier; he played tennis. He was a good-time Charlie. Some years ago, I believe I heard someone say that he bought a place in Italy, or Switzerland. He retired early to his family home in Connecticut.
The passage of years had assuaged Charlie’s notoriety. Generations have come into being to whom the quiz-show scandals are not even a memory, and for whom the name Charles Van Doren does not mean much, and that of his once distinguished family even less. (Charlie has long been more famous than Mark or any other Van Doren.) Charlie could actually look forward to meeting people who had not the foggiest notion of his past. Until, that is, Robert Redford and Paul Attanasio had this bright idea for a movie that has brought it all back.
Looking at Charlie in those meetings at Britannica, I used to wonder what might have happened had the scandal never blown up on him. Difficult to fix the limits here. He could, when still young, have been made the editor of Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the head of the Book-of-the-Month Club, or some other highly profitable middlebrow institution. A university presidency was a distinct possibility. A political career was not, I suppose, out of the question. Had the blade not fallen, Charlie would almost certainly have been heard from during the 60’s. He might have stayed in television and become a major-network version of Bill Moyers, doing a kind of intellectual talk show.
By the same token, without Charlie, I believe, the quiz shows would not have been quite so popular nor the scandals have loomed so large. Although contestants on the various shows included Xavier Cougat, the eleven-year-old actress Patty Duke, and Joyce Brothers, although Leonard Bernstein’s sister Shirley was one of the producers of The $64,000 Question, and although some contestants won a good deal more money than he, Charlie was nevertheless correct when, in his confession before Oren Harris’s subcommittee, he said that he “was the principal symbol” of the entire extravaganza. When Richard Goodwin, in the hope of protecting Charlie, spoke with Felix Frankfurter about the possibility of excluding him from the congressional hearings, Frankfurter rightly retorted, “It would be like playing Hamlet without Hamlet.”
Charlie Van Doren, a teacher at Columbia, our answer to Sputnik, a Van Doren Van Doren—as he once seemed the most admirable of Americans, so after the scandals he seemed far and away the most culpable. Yet Charlie was not alone in accepting help on these shows. According to Joseph Stone, Albert Freedman “could not recall any prospective contestant who flatly turned down assistance. . . .” Howard Felsher, who produced the show Tic Tac Dough, claimed that “not one of the people to whom he proposed assistance turned him down,” either. Richard Goodwin, in his investigations, found only one man, a Greenwich Village poet, who refused to go along with the fixers, but in his book Goodwin cannot recall his name—another honest man lost to history.
Yet the crushing opprobrium came down not only hardest but, it seemed, almost exclusively on Charlie. He, the argument ran, should have known better. He, given his natural advantages in life, was least in need of the superficial celebrity that winning on a quiz show had to offer. He was, moreover, a teacher, whose life was bound by the ethic of intellectual honesty.
Why did he do it? According to most accounts, including Quiz Show, Charlie was seduced into cooperation by the producers. In the movie he is portrayed as initially gullible, half-convinced that his winning is somehow good for education and hence for the country. Then—in for a penny, in for a pounding—he discovers he is in well over his head and unable to get gracefully out.
The movie takes it a step further. In a notable scene between the Charlie and the Goodwin characters, the latter suggests that Charlie would actually like to get caught, so that he could finally be free of all the pressures of deception. In this interpretation, Charlie was looking for full excoriation, leading to expurgation, ending in expiation.
Then there are those with a light taste for Freudian psychology, who favor the view that the tremendous publicity that came with his appearance on Twenty-One was the only way Charlie could surpass his father in fame. Deeper Freudians might argue the need for scandal as the only way he could bring his father down. (In a notable, passionate exchange between father and son in Quiz Show, Mark Van Doren says to Charlie, “Your name is mine,” implying, besmirch yourself and you besmirch me.)
But was Charlie really an attractive naif, perfect for casting purposes but finally himself no more than a brainy rube? Or, once taken in, did he, deep down, want to be caught? I doubt it. I think Charlie—as he told Life, he was always a gambler—bet all, risked all, and finally lost all.
I do think Charlie wanted off the hook. The mad publicity, combined with the fraudulence that made his fame possible to begin with, must have been troubling to him; beyond a certain point, he did not want the charade to continue. But neither did he want to lose what it had brought him. As Joseph Stone notes, after Charlie had made yet another denial of guilt to him: “I was convinced Van Doren was lying and was not about to risk the comfortable niche of celebrity he had achieved.”
And so, up till the end, he attempted to tough it out. When the hint of scandal first hit the air with Herbert Stempel’s accusations, Charlie told the press, “It’s silly and distressing to think that people don’t have more faith in quiz shows.” He later affected a shocked disbelief at the charge that he himself could possibly be among the culprits. He told Richard Goodwin that Albert Freedman was lying to the district attorney in saying that Twenty-One was fixed, and that Freedman had reasons for smearing him. He claimed innocence on the Today show.
At another point, Charlie did acknowledge that he had been offered help, which would mean that he knew the fix was in, but asserted that he had decided to turn it down. Finally, in the telegram that resulted in his being called before the Harris Committee, he claimed through NBC that “at no time was he supplied any questions or answers with respect to his appearance on Twenty-One,” nor was he ever “assisted in any form and he has no knowledge of any assistance having been given the other contestants.”
Joseph Stone, who does not seem a vindictive man, believes that Charlie did not even come altogether clean in his famous congressional confession, which began:
I have learned a lot in these three years, especially in the last three weeks. I’ve learned about life. I’ve learned about myself. I’ve learned a lot about good and evil. They are not always what they appear to be. I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception. The fact that I, too, was very much deceived cannot keep me from being the principal victim of that deception, because I was its principal symbol.
We shall probably never learn why Charlie went on the quiz show and then agreed to go along with the prepared script. Could Charlie himself after 35 years to think about it, say with confidence? Even if he could, my guess is that he is not likely to. I think he can never tell because he was caught up in too many contradictions and lies. Coming completely clean might also catch up others in the scandal whom Charlie would not wish to hurt. Finally, there is the possibility that Charlie himself still does not have the answer.
Which leaves us with the question of the deeper meaning of the quiz-show scandals. Not everyone, of course, agrees they have a deeper meaning: Terrence Rafferty in the New Yorker referred to Quiz Show as “a speedy, absorbing chronicle of a trivial show-business scandal of the 50’s.” But too many people were taken in for it be trivial.
The conventional reading is that the quiz-show scandals spelled the end of American innocence. Richard Goodwin takes up this line, claiming “we were more innocent then,” and adding that “we had been mind-fucked on an enormous scale. And we didn’t like it.” Goodwin would not be happy to hear David Halberstam’s reading of this same episode in his recent book, The Fifties; there, Halberstam suggests that Charlie’s success in the new cool medium of television made way for the new television star of the early 60’s, John Fitzgerald Kennedy—Richard Goodwin’s next boss.
The temptation is to take the quiz-show scandals as yet another of those defining moments in American history. But I am not sure I can make out what they defined. If they meant the end of American innocence, then good riddance to such innocence. If they showed human corruption—on the part of the producers, advertisers, network executives, contestants—such corruption is hardly a new story. Big money breeds corruption, always has and always will. That, as they used to say, is life in the big city.
Which brings me back to where I began, with Charlie. Quiz Show ends, like a Dickens novel, though not so happily, by telling what happened to the characters in later life. From a “crawl,” or scroll of printed matter, we learn that Herbert Stempel finished his degree in social work at CCNY and now works for the Department of Transportation of the City of New York. Albert Freedman works at Penthouse magazine. The producers Jack Barry and Dan Enright, seventeen years after the scandals, scored with another televison show, The Joker’s Wild, which made them millionaires. In 1990, the three major American television networks had gross revenues of $6 billion. Richard Goodwin, after being a speechwriter for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, left the White House during the Vietnam war, retired from politics after the death of Robert Kennedy, and now lives in Concord, Massachusetts, where, the crawl fails to mention, like all former Kennedy men, he awaits the second coming.
And Charlie? Charlie, the crawl informs us, worked for Encyclopaedia Britannica and now lives as a writer in Cornwall, Connecticut. It would have been closer to the truth to say that, since 1956, when he first stepped into an isolation booth at that NBC studio, Charlie has continued living in an isolation booth—a portable one, to be sure, perhaps even a fairly plush one, but still lonely and terribly cut off. He has spent 38 years there. As punishments go, it may not be as cruel as solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison, but neither can it have been any bed of roses.
1 Even this would never have been enough for Charlie to have come through as stupendously as he seemed to do on Twenty-One. As Edward Jurist, one of the producers of the 50's quiz show Dotto, told Joseph Stone, the world of information is so vast that nobody could be expected to answer more than two of ten randomly asked questions: “You cannot ask random questions of people and have a show. You simply have failure, failure, failure, and that does not make for entertainment.”