For fourteen weeks in the winter and spring of 1956-57, I came into millions of American homes, stood in a supposedly soundproof booth, and answered difficult questions. I was considered well spoken, well educated, handsome—the very image of a young man that parents would like their son to be. I was also thought to be the ideal teacher, which is to say patient, thoughtful, trustworthy, caring. In addition, I was making a small fortune. And then—well, this is what happened:
I don’t remember the dinner clearly, except that at some point in the early fall of 1956 I was talking with a man named Albert Freedman, who knew a friend of mine. Freedman was about my age, suave and well dressed—certainly no bohemian, like most of my friends. He asked me what I thought of “Tic Tac Dough.”
I didn’t have a television set in those days, but I knew that Al Freedman was in the TV business. And I’d certainly heard about the game shows, where people could win a lot of money. Al told me that contestants on “The $64,000 Question” could win that amount and on some shows they could win even more.
“Your father’s a professor at Columbia?” he asked, and, when I nodded, he asked if I was, too.
I told him that I was an instructor of English—a long way from being a professor. I was not comfortable talking about myself, especially when he asked me how much an instructor of English made. When I told him, he just looked at me.
Later, I asked my friend to tell me more about Freedman, and she said that he was a producer for Jack Barry and Dan Enright, who created shows like “Tic Tac Dough.” Freedman called me a few days later. When I learned what he wanted, I telephoned Gerry—Geraldine Bernstein, the young woman I had been dating and whom I married six months later.
I told her that Al had persuaded me to take a test and that, depending on how I did, they might want me for a new show called “Twenty-One,” which was structured like blackjack. “The winner gets quite a bit,” I said. “The guy who’s on the show now has already won something like twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“Promise me you won’t agree to do this without talking to me first,” I remember her saying.
“O.K., I promise. They probably won’t ask me.”
They did—at least, Al Freedman did. He called me and told me that his job was on the line. A man named Herb Stempel was winning week after week, but he wasn’t popular and the ratings were suffering.
“They want me to find a contestant who can beat Herb Stempel,” Al said. “It might be you.”
It wasn’t hard to guess why Al was interested in me. My father was Mark Van Doren, a poet and critic and, as Al Freedman knew, a legendary teacher. My uncle Carl, his oldest brother, had been a professor of American literature at Columbia. In 1912, Carl had married Irita Bradford, who not long afterward was named the book-review editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Carl resigned his Columbia professorship in order to pursue a writing career, which included winning a Pulitzer Prize for biography (of Benjamin Franklin); he helped my father to become a teacher of literature at Columbia, too. By 1956, Carl was dead and my father was close to retirement, after nearly forty years.
The first time Al called, he asked me to come to his apartment. When I arrived, he seemed nervous. I wondered what I was getting into.
Right away, he said, “You remember I told you about this fellow Stempel? Well, the sponsors want him to be beaten. He’ll walk away with a bundle, but they want somebody more sympathetic.”
“Do they have a right to do that?”
“Hey, come off it, Charlie. Don’t be naïve.” And he launched into his argument—that, when all was said and done, these game shows were mere entertainment. “Even Shakespeare is entertainment,” he said, although he conceded that the shows, unlike the plays, were presented as the real thing.
Al played an episode of “Twenty-One” for me, in which Stempel seemed very sure of himself. His answers were obviously based on genuine knowledge. I say “obviously,” although I realized that I couldn’t be certain. How would anyone know?
Stempel’s posture and gestures were awkward, his clothes were too tight—he seemed almost to be choking in his shirt—and his speech was wooden. I remembered Al’s remark that I might have a good chance against him, and then he came right out and said it: “I’ve thought about it, Charlie, and I’ve decided you should be the person to beat Stempel. And I’ll help you do it.” He held up his hand. “I swear to you, no one will ever know. It will be just between you and me. Jack Barry”—the show’s host—“won’t know and Dan Enright won’t, either. Stempel won’t know—I’ve got a way to handle that. The sponsors won’t know—anyway, they’ll be so happy they won’t give a damn. And the audience will never know, because I won’t tell them, and you won’t, either.”
He suggested that I could make at least eight thousand dollars, maybe a good deal more. I was guaranteed a thousand dollars for the first show.
“How would you do it?”
“Jack would ask you a question you could answer and Stempel couldn’t.”
I leaned my elbows on the table, resting my head in my hands. He was telling me, in so many words, that the show was fixed. “I don’t know,” I said again. “When would this be?”
A few days later, I took Gerry to dinner at Steak au Pommes Frites, the midtown restaurant where we’d had our first date. We drank some wine and then I told her. She didn’t say much; she’s a woman of few, choice words. But she didn’t like any of it.
My first appearance on “Twenty-One” was on November 28, 1956. I must have put the whole thing out of my mind, but about a week after my conversation with Freedman I suddenly found myself in the studio, with the red light glowing above the camera, totally unaware that I was being watched by millions of people. Herb Stempel by then had been on the show for six straight weeks and had won some seventy thousand dollars. You can “quit right now,” Jack Barry was saying to Stempel, in a voice practiced in arousing suspense, “and a check will be waiting for you, or you can decide to continue playing.”
Barry then introduced me: “He teaches music at Columbia University, and was a student at Cambridge University, in England . . . and his hobby is playing the piano in chamber-music groups.”
Barry was reading from a “continuity card” written in haste. In fact, I played the piano only clumsily and I taught literature. There was no time for corrections, I knew; Al had stressed this. Anyway, Barry was racing ahead, asking me if I was “related in any way to Mark Van Doren, up at Columbia, the famous writer.” Papa, forgive me! Mama, forgive me! Uncle Carl, forgive me! I’ve remembered that moment for more than fifty years.
Al had given me my instructions. My understanding was that I was to reach seventeen points in the first round, twenty-one in the second—at which point I’d defeat Herb Stempel. To my astonishment, both Stempel and I reached twenty-one points in the second round. So bells rang, commercials were read, and both of us agreed to come back a week later.
It was then—on December 5, 1956—that I “beat” Herb Stempel and began my rise to celebrity. I learned later that the question Stempel missed was one that he could have answered easily. But they had him. If he failed to go along with his script, he could lose a lot of the money he had already “won.”
Each week, Stempel had been told what to do: how many points to choose, how to deliver his answers. He was to pat his brow (it was hot in those glass booths) but not rub it, to avoid smearing his makeup. In addition, he was instructed to get a Marines-type “whitewall” haircut, to wear an ill-fitting suit (it had belonged to his deceased father-in-law), and to describe himself as a penurious student at City College. In fact, he was a Marines veteran married to a woman of some means who once appeared on the set wearing a Persian-lamb coat and was quickly spirited away so that she wouldn’t blow his cover.
Stempel was also told to wear a six-dollar wristwatch that “ticked away like an alarm clock,” as he later testified, and was audible when he stood sweating in the booth, earphones supposedly damping all outside sound. Once, he wore a new suit and had let his hair grow out, for which he was severely chastised by Enright. As Enright apparently believed, a successful game show needed two distinct personalities, one unsympathetic and unattractive, the other the opposite.
I continued to appear on “Twenty-One” until March 11, 1957. During those four months, Freedman never stopped coaching me, and I came to see just how carefully controlled the show was. In our sessions, he would ask me questions, I would answer them—and then he would tell me how to answer them: pause here; add this or that remark or aside; always seem to be worried, anxious; never answer too quickly, let the suspense build up. One January night, I was asked to give the nicknames of several Second World War airplanes, and in February I was asked to name the seven Prime Ministers of Britain between the world wars. A critic later wrote that mine “was a remarkable and seductive performance.” Toward the end, my face appeared on the cover of Time (with earphones superimposed on my head), and I was seen in public with movie starlets (the dates were arranged by Barry and Enright); a couple of women found out where I lived and came to my door.
For several weeks, the programs had ended in ties between me and a lawyer named Vivienne Nearing. At one point, it looked as if I could have won more than a hundred and fifty thousand dollars—except I couldn’t, because Al had informed me that I would lose to her. On the evening of March 11th, Jack Barry asked both of us to name the kings of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Jordan, Iraq, and Belgium. According to our covert script, Nearing knew the answers and I didn’t. For years after that, people enjoyed asking me if I knew the name of the one I missed—the king of Belgium.
A photograph of me writing the figure “$128,000” on a blackboard was widely published. I deposited the net amount (a little less than that) and began to try to understand the life I’d created. Part of it was going to work for the National Broadcasting Company, which was willing to sign me to a three-year contract as a consultant on public-service and educational broadcasting, at an annual rate of fifty thousand dollars.
One day in the spring of 1957, shortly after Gerry and I were married, my father and I had a conversation. We were walking slowly down the road from his house, a road lined with stone walls on each side. At that time, our neighbor pastured heifers and dry cows—pregnant cows waiting to deliver—in the nearby fields. When we walked at night, the cows, curious about us, would breathe and snuffle, sometimes scaring our city friends.
“I’ve never asked you about this whole experience, Charlie,” Dad said. He was dressed in overalls, denim shirt, and boots, like the farmers he was descended from. In New York, he was an elegant figure, but this was the father I loved best. “But I get the impression you’re not too comfortable with your new fame—I mean, the way the quiz show may have changed your life. You have many opportunities now that you might never have had before. But I’ve wondered if they’re good—for you, being the man you are, or the man I think you are.”
I didn’t know what to say, because I suddenly sensed that he knew the truth about the show. I had thought of telling him, but I hadn’t been able to.
As we walked on, he said, “You know, I’ve never been certain you wanted to live my life over again—be a professor at Columbia or anywhere.” He mentioned the contract I had with NBC. “I know it’s tempting, but it might not be the right thing for you, either.” He brought up Mortimer J. Adler, a family friend who was then on the board of editors at the Encyclopædia Britannica, and said that Adler had talked about making me editor-in-chief of the Britannica.
“You might or you might not want to take that on,” he said. “Or you might just want to be a writer. You could live for years on the money you’ve won, couldn’t you?”
I had lived in Paris for a time, and Dad recalled how happy I had seemed then. He mentioned a novel I had worked on—“You somehow lost the thread of it,” he said. “You and Gerry could go to Paris.” And he added, “You can do anything you want, Charlie. I wish you knew that.”
“No, you don’t. You’re now one of the most famous people in the country—much more famous than I ever was.” He quoted Mark Twain—“You surprised everybody, and astonished the rest”—and urged me to “wipe the slate clean, start over.”
“You think the slate is dirty?” I couldn’t look at him.
We walked along for a while. Then he said, “It’s none of my business. Dirty or not—and I don’t know what ‘dirty’ would be—the fact is you’re caught up in something you may not really want.” That was as direct as he got that day. “Sometimes I think you’re having a lot of fun, other times you seem sad. I think turning your back on all of it might make you really happy.”
Tears came. “Dad,” I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible.”
“Why not possible?”
“I’m afraid there’s no way out anymore. In a way . . . I think I’d like to have done what you describe. As far as fame is concerned, you know as well as I do that celebrity isn’t the same as fame.” Finally, I said, “Oh, shit, Dad, I wish I were . . . free to do this.” My father and I never talked about it again.
NBC News tried hard to find work for me, as a writer of radio newsbreaks, for example, but I wasn’t very good at it. In the summer of 1958, they assigned me to the White House.
This was a strange experience. NBC’s old Washington hands weren’t welcoming. After all, here was this neophyte who was probably being paid more than they were but who didn’t know how to do the simplest things. To punish me, they let me flounder unless it would make them look bad. They couldn’t always tell in advance. For example, they asked me to go to the airport and interview John Foster Dulles on his return from some international conference—not an important story, or they would have sent someone else. I managed to be on the steps when the Secretary of State emerged from his plane, but I was wearing sunglasses, because the summer sun was in my eyes. He glared at me and very brusquely answered my carefully composed questions, then pushed past. When I asked my bureau chief what I’d done wrong, he said, “You damn fool, you don’t wear sunglasses when you speak to Mr. Dulles.” What made it all worse was that I had to be away from home during the week; our daughter, Elizabeth, was born that summer, and I missed my young family.
I fared better doing segments for Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” show, a Sunday-afternoon cultural program. I soon became a semi-regular on this program, appearing once a month in place of Garroway. Some of “my” shows were pretty good, and the arrangement led to Garroway’s accepting me as a regular on “Today.” (Garroway, a television pioneer, was the first host—and star—of “Today.”) I was awkward at first, but before long Dave gave me a daily five-minute spot at the top of the hour in which to report on cultural and literary events; I read a great poem or two every Friday morning and talked about its author. Viewers liked this; so did Dave.
Being on “Today” meant getting up every weekday morning at five o’clock, appearing on the show for two hours, writing my spot for the next day, and then taking the subway to Columbia to teach, where my sudden celebrity seemed to impress no one. I was busy but also relatively content. I would have been more content if I’d been able to escape the consequences of what I’d done on “Twenty-One.”
In the summer of 1958, stories appeared in the New York Post and later in the Hearst newspapers—the Daily Mirror and the Journal-American—raising questions about the quiz shows. People who knew the entertainment business didn’t have much doubt about what was going on, although they didn’t speak out. Why would they? At the height of the boom, there were as many as twenty-four prime-time shows, each giving away significant sums, attracting large audiences, and producing large profits for the sponsors.
One day, Al Freedman called me and invited me to lunch. I hadn’t seen him since my last game-show appearance. When I asked about the rumors (particularly the ones about “Twenty-One”), he told me not to worry—even though he might have to go down to the District Attorney’s office to answer questions. “Of course I won’t tell them,” he said. “Nobody will—Jack or Dan or me. We’re the only ones who know about it.”
I was having trouble swallowing my food. “I didn’t know Jack knew about it.”
“He didn’t really know,” Al said, or something to that effect. He looked embarrassed. “It’s not anything. They’re partners, of course—close.”
Then he talked about Herb Stempel. “Enright says he’s crazy. He knows some things about him . . . psychiatric treatment, threats, all sorts of things.” He looked me in the eye. “It’ll be O.K. Whatever happens—I won’t say a word.” He waited, and, as I recall, he said, “There’s a lot at stake. Jack and Dan are selling the company to NBC. I don’t know the details, but I think there’s a couple of million dollars. . . .” He paused; he clearly wanted to be sure that I was dependable—and he surely didn’t want me to know that anyone else was talking. “They’re counting on you,” he said.
Soon enough, in October of 1958, the call came: Joseph Stone, a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney, wanted to ask me a few questions. They wanted me to come downtown—I can’t remember the venue, but I remember that it made me very uneasy.
My meeting with Stone, who seemed to be in charge of a quiz-show investigation, was a disaster. I was seated in a chair with a light in my eyes; Stone and three or four other men sat or stood about ten feet away. I later tried to write down much of what Stone asked me, beginning with questions about the interview in Time from a year earlier. Was I telling the truth when I talked to the reporter?
I hesitated, trying to remember everything I’d said. “I left out some things that were none of his business.”
“I’m interested in the things you didn’t leave out, the things you said,” Stone said. “For example, how you got on that show, ‘Twenty-One.’ ”
He had read in Time about the tests I’d taken, and wanted to know who’d contacted me. I told him about Al Freedman, and how we’d met during dinner with a mutual friend.
“Did Al Freedman say you had done very well on the test, and that was why Barry and Enright wanted you to try out for the show?”
“Did Freedman say only one person had ever done better?”
I didn’t remember saying that to the reporter. I shook my head.
“I’m going to repeat my question. Did he say only one person had ever done better on that second test?”
“Maybe he did. I’m not sure.”
“He did say that, Mr. Van Doren. Thank you for trying to remember. Now, what I want to know is, did he tell you the name of the person—the only person—who had done better than you?”
The room was hot and I had kept my suit jacket on. Stone and the others were in shirtsleeves. I could feel the sweat trickling down from my armpits. I told Stone that if Freedman had said that, he probably would have named Herb Stempel.
Stone said that I must have known a lot of facts in order to win more than a hundred thousand dollars on “Twenty-One,” and I told him that I was lucky. With the bright light in my eyes, it was hard to see Stone’s face.
“I want to go back to the time when Freedman said the only person who had done better than you on the test was Herb Stempel. Did he also say that you would not be able to beat Stempel?”
“He said it would be hard.”
“Did he also say you would need a lot of luck to beat him?”
“I guess so.”
“I don’t believe he said that, Mr. Van Doren. What did he actually say? I want you to think very hard.”
“I’m trying.” My lips were dry.
“Did he say you would need help?”
I looked up, squinting in the lights, which seemed brighter than ever.
“No,” I said.
Stone’s grilling went on for an hour or so after that. I never admitted that I had received help. Finally, Stone said that I was free to go. I’ll never forget his last words: “You can lie to me, but I’m not going to let you lie to the grand jury.” The grand jury was being convened, Stone told me, and I would have to testify.
I rose unsteadily and walked out of the room. I suppose that, at the time, I hated him for making me feel like a criminal; he probably saw me as an arrogant liar. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had told the truth. When I went before the grand jury, I wasn’t sure what I would say. When I looked at the jurors’ faces, I saw that the foreman was a senior professor at Columbia, a man I knew by sight. And I panicked, thinking that if I told him the truth I would in effect be telling everyone at the university. So I lied. This was, of course, folly, since I had to tell the story anyway—to everyone, not just to him.
Many years later, Stone wrote to me asking me to help him publish a book about the quiz-show scandal. (The book was published in 1992.) He said that he’d never meant to hurt me and in fact had tried to protect me. I threw his letter away and never answered it.
One morning in August, 1959, I met Richard Goodwin, an investigator for a subcommittee of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. By then, I had been on “Today” for more than a year. I had just come off the set at the end of that morning’s show—in fact, I was still at the desk, looking at notes for a piece I wanted to do the next day. What Goodwin said scared me. He told me that his subcommittee planned to hold hearings on the matter of the television quiz shows; clearly, the grand jury’s work had made its way to Washington. Goodwin opened a folder and pointed to part of a transcript of the grand-jury proceedings. In the page or two that I read, Herb Stempel was testifying. I had thought the testimony was sealed, but evidently not.
He went on to tell me that my testimony contradicted what Stempel said and, worse, that Freedman and Enright had returned to the grand jury and confirmed what Stempel had said.
I had read something about this in the newspapers, but I hadn’t thought much about it, foolishly believing that it had nothing to do with me. Goodwin glanced around at the busy office. “Is there a place where we could talk?”
Dave Garroway was standing near the door, waiting for me to go to the daily story conference. I asked him if I could come later. “There’s this guy—I have to talk to him for a few minutes,” I said. Dave looked only mildly curious.
We found an empty office and I shut the door. There was a table and a couple of chairs. “Do you want to read any more?” Goodwin asked, pointing to the transcript.
I shook my head. I was surprised to learn that Freedman had returned to the grand jury and changed his testimony; I didn’t know you could do that. Goodwin told me that Freedman and Enright had wanted to warn me but were told that they couldn’t. Goodwin also told me that I wasn’t the only one who had lied. From all that he said, I realized that the committee wanted my story to come out at hearings in Washington. Before Goodwin left, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “I can only say it would be best for you, Professor Van Doren, if you say nothing to anybody.” To this day, I don’t understand what he meant. We shook hands and I told him the easiest way to get out of the building.
I went to the story conference but I couldn’t keep my mind on what was going on. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I have to get home.” I said that our daughter had an earache and Gerry wanted me there. Garroway told me to go ahead.
The news broke a month later—September, 1959—and the first sign of what it meant to me, as I recall, was a remark made by Dick Rubin, my new agent. I’d been waiting to see if NBC wanted to renew my contract. I asked Rubin what was going on.
“Of course they’re gonna renew. They’re just waitin’ till this stuff blows over.” He glanced at me. “There’s no problem, is there?”
But it was clear that NBC was growing nervous. When I met with some of the executives, they reminded me that a year earlier, on “Today,” I’d said that I didn’t know about any funny business on any quiz show. Probably they realized then that I wasn’t telling the truth, even when I declared—privately, of course—that I had been offered help by Al Freedman but had refused it.
The congressional hearings began on Tuesday, October 6, 1959, in the caucus room of the Old House Office Building. My turn came on Monday, November 2nd. I had written a statement and showed it to my father. “I’ll go with you,” he said, and he and Gerry accompanied me to Washington.
I asked permission to read my statement. In it, I told the entire story, for the first time. The committee members asked a few questions, but there was really not much else to say, and they told me that I was free to go.
When I stepped out the door of the caucus room, I saw a large crowd—members of the press, photographers, and bystanders. I realized that there was no way to avoid repeating my testimony. I was, I said, “foolish, naïve, prideful, and avaricious,” and added, “I have deceived my friends, and I had millions of them.” After that, Gerry, my father, and I made our way to Union Station, where we caught a train to New York. We arrived home in the early evening and were met outside our house by, among many others, a reporter who informed us, first, that NBC was going to fire me, and, second, that Columbia had accepted my resignation. All I could say was that I wasn’t surprised.
The next afternoon, Dave Garroway had to tape a news report on my shame. I didn’t hear the broadcast the following morning, but I was told that he had been genuinely upset—he couldn’t finish the broadcast, and had to turn it over to his co-hosts. We wrote to each other, but I have no recollection of what our letters said, and after that we fell out of touch. That week, Gerry went alone to Columbia to pick up a few of my personal things, and I didn’t go back to the campus for twenty-three years—until the day that my son graduated.
Along with Vivienne Nearing and eight others, I later pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, a misdemeanor, for lying to the grand jury about getting answers from producers. The six weeks between my confession and Christmas of that year, 1959, were mostly agony.
But a small gift from my father helped me through it. He had wrapped a square box in tissue paper, sealed with Scotch tape. The box contained a gyroscopic compass, the kind you can start spinning and put on the edge of a glass, where it will stay upright till the spinning stops. A card in the box read, “May this be for you the whirligig of time that brings in his revenges.” I knew the quotation. It’s from “Twelfth Night.” Feste, the mean-spirited clown, has been unmasked, but those are his last words, thrown over his shoulder. The play’s audience knows that somehow he will survive and live to taunt some other master. I didn’t ask my father what he had meant by it, because I knew he was saying that I, too, would survive and somehow find a way back. I just hugged him and said, “Thank you, Papa.”
By the end of 1959, thanks to the intercession of a former college roommate, I would set off on a new career—at the Encyclopædia Britannica, in Chicago. I would earn about twenty per cent of what I’d been getting with NBC, but that was all right with me.
In 1965, we moved to Chicago, the site of the Britannica headquarters. (By then, we’d had a second child, John, who was born in 1962.) We stayed in Chicago for seventeen years, during which I got the title “vice-president of editorial” and wrote and edited a number of books, both by myself and with Mortimer Adler; one of these was a new edition of Adler’s immensely popular “How to Read a Book.” In 1982, when I was fifty-six, I retired. I had a contract for another book, and it was followed by still another, “A History of Knowledge.”
One of the best things about writing is that it’s private. I can sit with my thoughts without having to respond to people who say, “Aren’t you Charles Van Doren?” Well, that’s my name, I say to myself, but I’m not who you think I am—or, at least, I don’t want to be. It’s been hard to get away, partly because the man who cheated on “Twenty-One” is still part of me.
One day in the spring of 1990, a man named Julian Krainin appeared at the door of a small conch cottage we had bought and renovated in Key West. He was affable; he had come to Florida to visit his parents, he told us, and had drifted down the Keys. He said that he’d learned that I lived there and wanted to see me. After we had chatted for a few minutes, he came to the point of his visit: he told me that a production company was thinking of doing a television show about the quiz-show affair, and he guessed they’d want to talk to me.
For more than thirty years, I had refused to be interviewed, and I told him that I hadn’t changed my mind. He said that the program would be coming from WGBH, in Boston, one of the leading public-television stations, and that he was a documentary filmmaker. Also, he had some advice: “I’ve found that if an important figure in a documentary refuses to coöperate, it leaves the producers free to say . . . not just whatever they want but maybe some things he’d prefer they didn’t say.”
Krainin was certainly skilled in the art of journalistic seduction. “Have you ever thought of returning to television, Charles?” he asked. “I think you have a lot to offer.” He went on to mention two popular public-television series—James Burke’s “Connections” and Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”—with the suggestion that I might be the host of a series, too. I was being drawn in, and we chatted until Gerry arrived with a pitcher of lemonade and some cookies. “What were you two talking about?” she asked.
I made a joke of it: “My going back on TV as a kind of idiot savant.” I laughed, but she didn’t. I saw the dismay in her eyes. “There’s no chance of Charlie’s doing that,” she said.
Without looking at Gerry, I told Krainin that I knew something about the history of philosophy, and even sketched out a possible series on the subject. “Think of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Bacon, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Jefferson, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche,” I said. “That’s thirteen right there.”
Krainin brightened. Gerry was silent, her lips compressed. “That’s very interesting,” Krainin said. When he was gone, Gerry and I walked down Simonton to Catherine, across to Frances, through the cemetery to Angela, and home again. She said nothing at first.
“What do you think of that?” I asked finally.
“I think you’re being foolish.”
Krainin called two weeks later. He sounded breathless, and told me that the “people” in Boston wanted an outline from me. He said he’d pass it on to them, and after discussing the weather in New England he brought up the other program.
My program wasn’t a go; I don’t suppose it ever had a chance. Deep down I believed that the two were connected—and I still do. (I also know that Krainin has a different recollection about our first conversations.) “The Quiz Show Scandal,” written and co-produced by Julian Krainin for “American Experience,” aired on WGBH in 1992. At the end, they thanked a list of people. Although I had done nothing, I was at the top of the list.
The program was pretty good. I learned some things I hadn’t known, one of which was that about a hundred contestants had lied to the grand jury, although only seventeen of us were indicted, arrested, and arraigned. (None of us was sentenced to jail.) It brought back to me how we were marched through the streets of downtown New York (accompanied by photographers), forced to hand over our valuables, take off our belts and shoelaces, and get fingerprinted. I hadn’t remembered that this had happened to anyone but me; I suppose I’d been in shock. I do remember that it was hard to keep my trousers up, because I’d lost weight.
I also learned that when “Twenty-One” was first on it wasn’t rigged, and it was—therefore?—a failure. Herb Stempel was the first to agree to the fix; it was said that fifty million people watched us on the night when he “took a dive,” as he put it. I learned that Al Freedman eventually got an executive job at Penthouse International, and founded Penthouse’s spinoff magazine Forum; and that, after ten years or so, Barry and Enright were allowed to come back to television and resume their partnership with new programs.
I didn’t hear from Julian Krainin for a while. Then he telephoned to ask if he and his wife could drop by our house in Cornwall, Connecticut, because he had “great news.” Gerry wasn’t enthusiastic, but I said, “Why not? He won’t bite.”
The news this time was that Robert Redford was planning to make a feature film about the quiz shows and me. Krainin was a producer and Richard Goodwin was a co-producer. (In 1959, Goodwin had gone to work as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and, later, for his brother Robert.) Gerry was upset, but the more I thought about it the more I felt that it couldn’t really hurt. What the hell? Our children were grown, and we wouldn’t have to watch it.
Krainin returned a short time later. I asked what Redford wanted from me. After all, I pointed out, my story was in the public domain, and WGBH did perfectly well without me.
He told us how much Redford admired me and hoped for my help to make the film even better. And, as I recall, he added that Redford wanted my approval—my “guarantee of its truthfulness.” He said that Herb Stempel had already agreed to be a consultant, and when I asked what there might be in it for me he replied that the filmmakers would be willing to pay a fee—fifty thousand dollars. And that was how we left it, with Krainin promising to call me in a few days for a decision.
When Krainin called, he said, “I’m sending you a contract. The fee is higher—a hundred thousand dollars. You won’t have to do much. Bob really wants you on board.”
Our family had a meeting, sitting around our kitchen table. John, our son, was for my taking the money. “They’re going to make the movie anyway, whatever you do,” he said. “Everybody else is making money out of it, why shouldn’t you?”
Gerry agreed—they would say whatever they wanted—“But taking the money gives them a kind of license.” Liz, our daughter, tended to agree with Gerry. Sally, John’s wife, said it wasn’t her place to say anything.
I argued for it on the grounds that John had stated. Gerry, though, was adamant: “I don’t want to have anything to do with the whole thing. The film, the money . . . the money’s yours if you want it. But you won’t have me!” She added, “I’m not going to leave you, but you’ll be on your own.” She waited. “Please don’t be a fool.”
We decided to ask Sally’s father, Bill Van Cleve, the managing partner of the law firm of Bryan Cave, in St. Louis. He asked me to fax him the document and let him think about it.
The morning after our family meeting, I had to go to Litchfield, and I played a K. T. Oslin tape in my truck. A song on it called “Money” had the refrain “I don’t need money. All I need is you.” I played it again, then again. “Oh, Honey,” I said to myself, “I don’t need money, all I need is you.” Honey was Gerry’s family childhood name.
When I got home, Gerry told me that Bill had called. “He thought you’d be wrong to sign it,” she said. “The contract ties you up in knots. I told the children and I think they both agree.”
“He’s right, so are you, and I was wrong,” I said.
The contract lay on the table in the kitchen. I picked it up and tore it into pieces. Just at that moment, the phone rang. Gerry answered. “It’s him,” she said, and handed me the phone. After I’d told Krainin our decision, I hugged Gerry, held on to her for a long time. Finally, she squirmed out of my grasp. “Let go!”
“Never!” I said.
The film opened in 1994, but months before that a curious thing happened. A car turned in to our road and drew up alongside the house. “I’m lost,” the driver said. “Can you tell me how to find . . . ?” I realized later that he was Ralph Fiennes, who played me in the film. He told a reporter that he had driven by my house and had seen me looking “sad.”
Of course, I eventually saw the movie. I understand that movies need to compress and conflate, but what bothered me most was the epilogue stating that I never taught again. I didn’t stop teaching, although it was a long time before I taught again in a college. I did enjoy John Turturro’s version of Stempel. And I couldn’t help but laugh when Stempel referred to me in the film as “Charles Van Fucking Moron.”
Today, Gerry and I live in a small, very old house on the place my father and mother bought more than eighty years ago. My father retired from his position as a professor of English at Columbia in 1959, when he was sixty-four, and moved to Cornwall, where they had always wanted to live. He told me that he regretted not having done this sooner. I wish he had lived long enough to see us come to live here, too, not just visit on weekends in good weather. He died in 1972. Gerry and the children had spent every summer and I’d spent my month’s vacation here each September. Dad and I never talked about the quiz shows, but we did discuss his ongoing work and mine, and country things, which he loved and I did, too. After his death, my mother, who had published two very good novels and had enjoyed a successful journalistic career (including writing for The New Yorker), wrote to him every day until her own death, at ninety-six.
Our children and grandchildren love the place as much as we do. They come when they can, given the demands of their separate lives. Gerry and I are writing and teaching English at the Torrington campus of the University of Connecticut; last fall I taught the Shakespeare course, and Gerry taught the modern novel.
There are two houses, several barns, fields and woods. There are tools and machines: a truck and a tractor, two riding mowers, one of which doesn’t work at the moment, and trimmers, chain saws, leaf blowers, a table saw, and plenty of gardening and other tools. I’ve mowed paths that wind through the fields and into the woods, and I hope the children will keep them up when I can’t do it anymore.
Gerry and I went to Rome in the early spring, a fiftieth-anniversary gift to one another, and one morning I took my little gyroscope out of my toilet kit, where it has travelled with me since 1959. I set it spinning on the edge of my orange-juice glass, and, as I looked at it, I said “Thank you”—to it and to my father and my mother and to all the other people who helped us to survive. ♦
The Book Club is reading Dana Spiotta’s “Stone Arabia’ in August. Come to a live online chat with the author at 2 P.M. on August 25th.
[#image: /photos/590957cc019dfc3494e9ecf7]In her post a couple of weeks ago, Macy wrote that the themes of “Stone Arabia” are “memory and experience and the nature of reality.” Picking up on this, Sally and Stacey have discussed questions of authenticity and self-creation in Spiotta’s novel: What makes an experience real? Is an audience required for a work of art to exist? While making my way through the early chapters of the book last week, having what I thought was an authentic and pleasurable reading experience, my memory kept nagging at me. It quickly became a meta-reading experience, because the passage I was reading was the one in which Denise is having trouble remembering the name of a movie star:
I came up with Mamie Van Doren. And I knew that is not who I was trying to think of. I was trying to think of another blond actress, one much more famous than Mamie Van Doren. I thought about her, this actress with the out-of reach name, and how she was decapitated in a tragic Cadillac accident. I thought of her custom-made heart-shaped swimming pool. Yes, anyone would have it now, but not me.
My own memory, rather like Denise’s, was working in two directions at once as I read the passage. Part of me was trying to recall the actress with the heart-shaped swimming pool. Kim Novak? No, definitely not Kim Novak. Too classy. Meanwhile, a separate part of my brain was attempting to remember another piece of writing in which the author tried to recall the name of a movie star. I kept reading. Denise crosses Marilyn Monroe off her list, and then mentions Anita Ekberg and at that point it came to me: the other piece of writing was by Don DeLillo and appeared in The New Yorker. The essay, called “That Day in Rome,” was published in 2003 and sure enough, on the first page, DeLillo, trying to recall the name of a “glamorous international movie star” he saw on the Via Condotti, says to his wife, “It was Anita Ekberg, right?” His wife confirms that it was indeed Ekberg, but DeLillo doubts it: “It should have been Anita Ekberg, considering the city and tabloid spectacle of her presence in “La Dolce Vita.” My wife says yes. But I’m not sure she believes it.” At this point, DeLillo’s essay swerves in a very Denise-like manner to talk about the impending invasion of Iraq:
It’s March. Everywhere war is the talk. The memory comes and goes. What is it that matters here? Is it a woman on a Roman street and the brittle history of her name might summon up six or seven films, several forgettable husbands? There must be more than that. Every memory we have, is finally, of ourselves.
That last, epigrammatic sentence is vintage DeLillo. Indeed, it could have served as the epigraph to “Stone Arabia.” It’s no coincidence that Spiotta includes Ekberg in her text. The whole passage is a marvellous intertextual tip of the hat to DeLillo, who blurbed Spiotta’s first book, “Lightning Field,” and is thanked in the acknowledgements of both “Eat the Document” and “Stone Arabia.”
In his essay, DeLillo justifies his dogged pursuit of the name of this actress “because it matters, because it happened.” For Denise, the quest is important because it’s her birthday and, now middle-aged, she doesn’t want to believe that she is already on the way to the kind of memory loss that her mother is experiencing. If every memory you have is, finally, of yourself, and if you start losing your memory then you are losing pieces of yourself. The desperation with which Denise chases down the name of her actress culminates in a release that can fairly be described as orgasmic: “Jayne Mansfield! Jayne Mansfield! Jayne goddamn Mansfied!! Yes, yes. Yes.”
DeLillo, meanwhile, becomes convinced that the name of the actress he is hunting is somehow connected to a reference book he keeps on a shelf in his spare room. He wants to remember on his own, without using the reference book. He calls a friend, double-checks with his wife, but finally relents and looks in the book. “There she is … how could I have failed to know this?” Who is it? You’ll have to read DeLillo’s essay (free to subscribers) to find out. Hint: she was a Bond girl.