Charles Van Doren was an American writer and editor.
After serving with the Army Air Forces in 1944 and 1945, Van Doren graduated with honors from St. John’s College at Annapolis, Md., in 1947, and earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Columbia in 1949. After studies at Cambridge University in England and the Sorbonne in Paris, he returned to New York and in 1955 began teaching at Columbia, eventually earning a doctorate in literature there.
From November 28, 1956, to March 11, 1957, audiences of up to 50 million people watched Van Doren on the NBC quiz show Twenty-One. Van Doren walked away with $129,000 in winnings. He had also appeared on the cover of Time magazine, received over 20,000 fan letters (some of which included marriage proposals), and signed a $150,000 contract to appear on NBC shows for three years.
As rumors and skepticism over TV quiz shows grew, some contestants admitted that the programs had been fixed. The networks denied it, and Van Doren insisted that he had not taken part in any deceptions, even lying to a Manhattan grand jury about his performances.
But on November 2, 1959, he told congressional investigators that the shows had all been hoaxes, that he had been given questions and answers in advance, and that he had been coached to make the performances more dramatic. He received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree perjury.
Van Doren became an editor and writer with Encyclopaedia Britannica and moved to its Chicago headquarters in 1965. He eventually became a vice president in charge of the editorial department and edited, wrote and co-wrote dozens of books.
For decades, he refused to talk publicly about the scandal. He declined to assist in a documentary on the subject for the PBS series American Experience in 1992, or in Robert Redford’s 1994 movie Quiz Show, which focused on the role of Van Doren, who was played by Ralph Fiennes. In a 2008 article for The New Yorker, Van Doren noted that he had turned down a $100,000 fee to be a consultant for the film.
Van Doren died April 9, 2019, in Canaan, Connecticut. He was 93.