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“The Truth Is the Only Thing with Which a Man Can Live”: Quiz Show Contestant Charles Van Doren Publicly Confesses to Deceiving His Television Audience

Television had become the nation’s largest medium for advertising by the mid-1950s, when the Revlon cosmetics corporation agreed to sponsor The $64,000 Question, the first prime-time network quiz show to offer contestants fabulous sums of money. As Revlon’s average net profit rose in the next four years from $1.2 million to $11 million, a plethora of quiz shows tried to replicate its success. At the height of their popularity, in 1958, 24 network quiz shows—relatively easy and inexpensive to produce—filled the prime-time schedule. As a result of his appearances as a triumphant contestant on one of the genre’s most popular programs, Twenty-one, Charles Van Doren, an instructor in the English department of Columbia University and son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, tried to use his newfound celebrity to promote values of “true education” to the television-viewing public. In the following testimony to a Congressional subcommittee, Van Doren dramatically confessed a long-suppressed secret: Twenty-one had been rigged and he had willingly, though with pained ambivalence, participated in the deception. Prior to airtime he had been told the questions he would be asked and instructed on how to be more “entertaining” as he answered. Van Doren, along with seventeen other contestants, subsequently received a suspended sentence for lying to a grand jury. In later years, he wrote numerous books that dealt with world history and the history of knowledge and served for 20 years as an editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.


Mr. VAN DOREN. I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last 3 years. I cannot take back one word or action; the past does not change for anyone. But at least I can learn from the past.

I have learned a lot in those 3 years, especially in the last 3 weeks. I’ve learned a lot about life. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and about the responsibilities any man has to his fellow men. 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.

There may be a kind of justice in that. I don’t know. I do know, and I can say it proudly to this committee, that since Friday, October 16, when I finally came to a full understanding of what I had done and of what I must do, I have taken a number of steps toward trying to make up for it.

I have a long way to go. I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them. Whatever their feeling for me now, my affection for them is stronger today than ever before. I am making this statement because of them. I hope my being here will serve them well and lastingly.

Since October 16 I have informed my immediate family of the facts I will disclose today. I have appeared before District Attorney Hogan and Assistant District Attorney Stone and told them that my testimony before the grand jury last January was not in accord with the fact. And I appear before you today prepared to tell the whole truth about my association with the quiz program “Twenty-one.”

Let me start at the very beginning. A friend first suggested that I might apply to be a contestant on “Tic-Tac-Dough,” and told me the address of the producers, Barry & Enright, Inc. I have always had a good memory, and I had a reputation among my friends for a wide range of knowledge and for being good at quizzes of all sorts. I hesitated for several weeks and finally went to the office and applied.

I was given an examination which I passed easily. I was then given a much longer and harder one, the purpose of which I did not know, but which I also completed. I left the office and was told that I would be called if wanted. In the hall outside I met Albert Freedman, whom I had met socially two or three times. He told me that he was the producer of “Tic-Tac-Dough” and I said that I had applied to be a contestant.

I was called the next week and told that I had been chosen to be a contestant on “Twenty-one,” a program of which I had never heard. I learned that “Twenty-one” was Barry & Enright’s new nighttime quiz show, and that it was supposedly an honor to be so chosen. I returned to the office and was instructed in the rules of “Twenty-one” by, I think, Daniel Enright.

Following orders, I came to the studio several hours before air time. I worked hard at memorizing lists of facts and figures, and carried with me a book of facts. I was frightened and excited. I did not appear on the program that night, which was, I believe, November 7, 1956. I continued to be a standby contestant for 2 more weeks.

Before my first actual appearance on “Twenty-one” I was asked by Freedman to come to his apartment. He took me into his bedroom where we could talk alone. He told me that Herbert Stempel, the current champion, was an unbeatable contestant because he knew too much. He said that Stempel was unpopular, and was defeating opponents right and left to the detriment of the program. He asked me if, as a favor to him, I would agree to make an arrangement whereby I would tie Stempel and thus increase the entertainment value of the program.

I asked him to let me go on the program honestly, without receiving help. He said that was impossible. He told me that I would not have a chance to defeat Stempel because he was too knowledgeable. He also told me that the show was merely entertainment and that giving help to quiz contests was a common practice and merely a part of show business. This of course was not true, but perhaps I wanted to believe him. He also stressed the fact that by appearing on a nationally televised program I would be doing a great service to the intellectual life, to teachers and to education in general, by increasing public respect for the work of the mind through my performances. In fact, I think I have done a disservice to all of them. I deeply regret this, since I believe nothing is of more vital importance to our civilization than education. Whenever I hesitated or expressed uneasiness at the course events were taking during my time on the program the same sort of discussion ensued, and, foolishly and wrongly, I persuaded myself that it was all true. Freedman guaranteed me $1,000 if I would appear for one night. I will not bore this committee by describing the intense moral struggle that went on inside me. I was sick at heart. Yet the fact is that I unfortunately agreed, after some time, to his proposal.

I met him next at his office, where he explained how the program would be controlled. He told me the questions I was to be asked, and then asked if I could answer them. Many of them I could. But he was dissatisfied with my answers. They were not “entertaining” enough. He instructed me how to answer the questions: to pause before certain of the answers, to skip certain parts and return to them, to hesitate and build up suspense, and so forth. On this first occasion and on several subsequent ones he gave me a script to memorize, and before the program he took back the script and rehearsed me in my part. This [was] the general method which he used throughout my 14 weeks on “Twenty-one.” He would ask me the questions beforehand. If I could not answer them he would either tell me the answers or, if there was sufficient time before the program, which was usual, he would allow me to look them up myself. A foolish sort of pride made me want to look up the answers when I could, and to learn as much about the subject as possible. When I could answer the questions right off he would tell me that my answers were not given in an entertaining and interesting way, and he would then rehearse me in the manner in which I was to act and speak.

After the first program, on which I tied Stempel three times, Freedman told me that I would win the next evening and be the new champion. My guarantee was increased to $8,000. I again agreed to play, and I did defeat Stempel. At this point my winnings totaled $20,000. For the next 12 programs I continued to play in this manner, Freedman guaranteeing that I would end up winning no less than a certain amount.

I was deeply troubled by the arrangement. As time went on the show ballooned beyond my wildest expectations. I had supposed I would win a few thousand dollars and be known to a small television audience. But from an unknown college instructor I became a celebrity. I received thousands of letters and dozens of requests to make speeches, appear in movies, and so forth—in short, all the trappings of modern publicity. To a certain extent this went to my head. I was almost able to convince myself that it did not matter what I was doing because it was having such a good effect on the national attitude to teachers, education, and the intellectual life. At the same time I was winning more money than I had ever had or even dreamed of having. I was able to convince myself that l could make up for it after it was over. Again, I do not wish to emphasize my mental and moral struggles. Yet the public renown also made me terribly uncomfortable. I hoped people would not think I could do nothing besides stand in an isolation booth and answer questions. I realized that I was really giving a wrong impression of education. True education does not mean the knowledge of facts exclusively. I wrote articles trying to express this feeling, but few were interested. Instead I was referred to as a “quiz-whiz,” a “human book of knowledge,” a “walking encyclopedia.” I wanted to be a writer and a teacher of literature. I seemed to be moving farther and farther away from that aim.

I didn’t know what to do nor where to turn and, frankly, I was very much afraid. I told Freedman of my fears and misgivings, and I asked him several times to release me from the program. At the end of January 1957, when I had appeared 8 or 10 times, I asked him once more to release me, and this time more strongly. He agreed to allow me to stop, but it was some time before it could be arranged. He told me that I had to be defeated in a dramatic manner. A series of ties had to be planned which would give the program the required excitement and suspense. On February 18 I played a tie with Mrs. Vivian Nearing, and the following week played two more ties with her. Freedman then told me that she was to be my last opponent, and that I would be defeated by her. I thanked him. He told me that I would have to play twice more after February 25. The next program was on March 11. When I arrived at the studio Freedman told me that since there were now only three programs a month, this was not time enough to “build up” another contestant and so I was to lose that very night. I said: “Thank God.” Mrs. Nearing defeated me in the first game played that night. My total winnings after 14 appearances were $129,000. . . .

One result of my appearance on “Twenty-one” was a contract with NBC. I hoped this would give me the chance to do something else besides answer questions in an isolation booth. I never wanted to see another quiz show. The opportunity came in October 1958, when I was assigned to the Dave Garroway program. I am grateful to Mr. Garroway and to NBC for letting me appear on this program for a year and talk for 5 minutes every morning about some subject which I considered interesting and important. I spoke about science, poetry, history, and famous people, as well as many other things. At least once a week during my 5 minutes I read poetry and talked about it as I would do to a Columbia class. I think I may be the only person who ever read 17th century poetry on a network television program—a far cry from the usual diet of mayhem, murder, and rape. I hoped that television viewers would judge me on what I did on the “Garroway Show” and forget my role on “Twenty-one.”

All the time I was appearing on television I continued to teach at Columbia. People told me I was impractical to do so, but teaching seemed to me much more important. I had always wanted to be a teacher, and I hoped to be one when my quiz show experience was forgotten. I completed the requirements for a Ph. D. last spring, and on July 1, I was made an assistant professor of English. This was the fulfillment of a lifelong desire. I hoped that it would be possible to slide slowly from my public life back to the life of teaching and writing that I had always wanted. But things didn’t work out that way.

In August 1958, Stempel and others charged that some quiz shows, including “Twenty-one,” had been rigged. I was at that time appearing on the Garroway program as a replacement for Mr. Garroway, who was on vacation. The news of Stempel’s charges was like a blow, I was horror-struck. I have said I received many letters. Thousands were from teachers all over the country. Thousands more were from schoolchildren and students. All expressed their faith in me, their hope for the future, their dedication to knowledge and education. These letters and all they stood for were like a vast weight. I could not bear to betray that faith and hope. I felt that anything that might happen to me was preferable to betraying them. I felt that I carried the whole burden of the honor of my profession. And so I made a statement on the Garroway program the next morning to the effect that I knew of no improper activities on “Twenty-one” and that I had received no assistance. I knew that most people would believe me. Most people did. I honestly thought I was doing the right thing.

I was, of course, very foolish. I was incredibly naive. I couldn’t understand why Stempel should want to proclaim his own involvement. I could hardly believe what he said, though I knew it must be true, from my own experience. In a sense, I was like a child who refuses to admit a fact in the hope that it will go away. Of course, it did not go away, and an investigation was begun by the office of the district attorney of New York.

I was called by Mr. Joseph Stone of that office and was interrogated. I denied any knowledge of improper activities. After my interview with Mr. Stone, I engaged a lawyer. Carl Rubino. In my folly, I did not even tell him the truth. I supposed that an attorney could defend me if he did not know what I had done. I appeared before the grand jury in January 1959, and still denied any involvement. I guess I did not fully understand the seriousness of this action, but even if I had, I am not sure I would have been physically able to admit what I had done. . . .

In August of this year, I was interviewed by investigators of this committee. They told me that there was grand jury testimony which conflicted with mine, but at first they did not tell me what it was. I learned the week before these public hearings began that Freedman had returned to the grand jury after my testimony, changed his story, and implicated me. Freedman has suffered this year, too. I had been living in dread for nearly 3 years; now I became almost panicstricken, but I still denied to the investigators that I had been involved. I felt I just could not admit it. Committee’s counsel, Robert Lishman and Richard Goodwin tried to make me see that my folly was only leading me in deeper and deeper, but I persisted in it.

On October 6, the hearings began. I was involved in them from the first. On that Tuesday evening I was told by NBC that if I did not immediately send a telegram to the committee demanding the right to be heard, I would be suspended, and that my refusal would probably constitute a breach of my contract. My life and career, it appeared, were being swept away in a flood. I tried to save whatever part seemed in the most immediate danger. First, I hoped to save the contract. I was just unable to walk out and slam the door on a $50,000 a year job, a job which I enjoyed and thought extremely important. But, I was to lose things of greater value as time went on. . . .

On Thursday, October 8, the chairman replied to my telegram and offered me the opportunity to testify. But, in the meantime, I had told Mr. Rubino the whole story. He concluded that Freedman and Enright might well be standing by to testify against me. Also, on the preceding Tuesday night, I had told NBC officials more of the truth than I had ever told them before, but still not the whole truth. This information was sent to the committee in such a way as to make my actions seem even more mystifying. Thus, I could not face the situation on Thursday night. I was completely confused and dismayed. I did not know what to do. Since I had been relieved from my assignment on the Garroway show the same day, I asked Columbia if might miss the following day’s class. The university offered me a week’s leave of absence, and I simply ran away. There were a dozen newsmen outside my door, and I was running from them, too. I couldn’t think when everywhere I went there were people trying to interview me and flashing bulbs in my face. Most of all, I was running from myself. I realized that I had been doing it for a long time. I had to find a place where I could think, in peace and quiet. I knew now that I could not lie any more, nor did I want to. But, I was not yet at the point where I could tell the whole story. My wife and I drove up into New England. I drove aimlessly from one town to another, trying to come to some conclusion. But I still could not face up to what I had done. . . .

There was one way out which I had, of course, often considered, and that was simply to tell the truth. But, as long as I was trying to protect only myself and my own reputation, and, as I thought, the faith people had in me, I could not believe that was possible. But I was coming closer and closer to a true understanding of my position. I was beginning to realize what I should have known before, that the truth is always the best way, indeed it is the only way, to promote and protect faith. And the truth is the only thing with which a man can live. My father had told me this, even though he did not know the truth in my case. I think he didn’t care what it was so long as I told it. Other people said the same thing, even though they, too, did not know what the truth was. In the end, it was a small thing that tipped the scales. A letter came to me which I read. It was from a woman, a complete stranger, who had seen me on the Garroway show and who said she admired my work there. She told me that the only way I could ever live with myself, and make up for what I had done—of course, she, too, did not know exactly what that was—was to admit it, clearly, openly, truly.

Suddenly, I knew she was right. And this way, which had seemed for so long the worst of all possible alternatives, suddenly became the only one. Whatever the personal consequences, and I knew they would be severe, this was the only way. In the morning, I telephoned my attorney and told him my decision. He had been very worried about my health and, perhaps, my sanity, and he was happy that I had found courage at last. He said, “God bless you.” . . .

Source: Congress, House, Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Investigation of Television Quiz Shows, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., November 2–6, 1959 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1960).

See Also:"A Make-Believe World": Contestants Testify to Deceptive Quiz Show Practices
"Every Effort Was Made to Control the Shows": A Television Producer Details and Defends Deceptive Quiz Show Practices
"A Sop to the Public at Large": Contestant Herbert Stempel Exposes Contrivances in a 1950s Television Quiz Show