October 03, 1994 12:00 PM

The news hit in the fall of 1959, leaving the newly TV-obsessed nation in a state of pop-culture shock. But that was long ago, and until recently the quiz show scandals had seemed all but forgotten. Few Americans talked about the congressional probe that found that virtually all prime-time game programs, shows such as The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One, were feeding answers to contestants whose continued success might help the ratings. And only trivia buffs remembered those champions who proved to be nail-biting, brow-mopping frauds.

The new movie Quiz Show has changed all that, pulling into the present the names of Charles Van Doren, Herbert Stempel and Richard Goodwin. Van Doren was the central figure in the scandals. The brilliant Columbia University instructor, son of the poet Mark Van Doren, rose to prominence by beating Stempel, the Human Univac—then fell into disgrace when Goodwin, an ambitious young investigator for a House committee, began probing the shows’ inner workings. All three men are still dealing with the events of 35 years ago.

Van Doren: Scholar in a scam

Last week, at the Cornwall, Conn., home where Charles Van Doren and his wife live, a groundskeeper said the renewed interest in the scandal was simply too much for the couple. “They couldn’t take it anymore,” he explained. The most famous contestant in quiz show history, he said, had “gone away.”

Well, not quite. Actually, even as the groundskeeper spoke, Van Doren could be seen, whitehaired at 68 but still trim, raking lawn clippings behind his brown-shingled cottage. Van Doren did not cooperate with director Robert Redford on Quiz Show and has never spoken publicly about the scandals. “Please understand that I have a right to my privacy,” he said to a reporter. “Don’t worry, we’re friends, but please, I just don’t want to talk about it.”

Van Doren appeared on Twenty-One for 15 weeks. He was fed the answers from the start and won $129,000, the equivalent of about $800,000 today. But the scandal wreaked havoc with his life. After he appeared before the congressional committee investigating the shows in 1959 and said, “I was involved, deeply involved, in a deception,” he lost his jobs at Columbia and as cultural correspondent for NBC’s Today show. In 1960 he moved to Chicago to become an executive at the Encyclopedia Britannica.

In many ways he has had a solid, stable life. Van Doren has been married for 37 years to Geraldine Bernstein, whom he met when he hired her to answer fan mail that, at the height of his fame, included hundreds of marriage proposals. He reportedly owns homes in Florida and Italy. He and Geraldine have a grown son and daughter. Van Doren plays tennis and socializes with friends who respect his silence about the past. “It’s ancient history,” says one. “We don’t judge him.”

In 1989, Van Doren agreed to participate in a PBS documentary about the quiz shows, then changed his mind. “He is a man of renaissance intelligence,” says Julian Krainin, the film’s coproducer. “I wish he could speak out publicly because of the richness of his ideas.”

Stempel: The whistle-blower

In the choreographed dramas that were the ’50s quiz shows, Herb Stempel played a well-defined role. He was the unglamorous, working-class guy from Queens, N.Y. When he began his six-week reign as champ on Oct. 17,1956, Stempel, 29, was told to wear the same boxy suit and frayed shirt on every show. He got a goofy, Marine-style haircut. He practiced groping for the answers to relatively simply puzzlers like “Identify the main Balearic islands.” Stempel played ball, and he was a hit.

Then Charles Van Doren arrived—a knight in shining armor, as Stempel still calls him with resentment. “I was put on as a hero. But when Van Doren came along, I was shifted to being the heavy.” Stempel didn’t lose immediately, as in the movie, which compresses and simplifies the entire scandal. A tie score was staged the first week they met. The next, the producers ordered Stempel to throw a game by misidentifying the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1955. Stempel says it still galls him that the correct answer, Marty, was his favorite movie. Still he caved in to the pressure and answered, “On the Waterfront.”

Stempel quickly lost most of the cash in a phony racing-syndicate swindle and was denied what he says was a promised job as a researcher on Twenty-One. Meanwhile, Van Doren rose to stardom. “He became a national hero,” Stempel says. “I sank back into obscurity.” In 1958, enraged by his turn of fortune, he visited the Manhattan DA’s office and wound up testifying before a grand jury investigating the quiz shows.

Stempel, who was a consultant on the film, still lives in Queens. He looks back on the scandal as “a very traumatic experience that depressed me for years.” Now 67, he works for the city’s Department of Transportation as a professional witness in accident cases. Eight years ago he met his second wife, Ethel, 66, a computer-systems operator. Between them they have five children and eight grandkids—his “hobby,” he says. Another pastime is watching Jeopardy! “I do fairly well,” he says. Ethel suggests he’s modest. “He gets most of the questions before the contestants,” she says.

Goodwin: The investigator

Richard Goodwin, 62, still remembers the first time he heard of the scandal. As a new investigator with the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, he noticed a New York Times report on a city judge’s unusual order to seal the quiz show grand jury records. “There must be something wrong,” Goodwin reasoned. “Otherwise, why would they want it hidden?” With Congress’s broad investigatory powers, Goodwin organized hearings that cast a national spotlight on the quiz show fraud.

Although a chapter in his 1988 memoir, Remembering America, was the basis for the film, Goodwin doesn’t regard the four-month quiz show probe in 1959 as a defining moment in his life. “I think we accomplished something,” he says, “but we also felt disappointed.” The networks and sponsors got off, blaming producers and contestants. No one went to jail. Only a reputation was destroyed: that of Charles Van Doren, a man Goodwin still thinks of with warmth and pity.

When the probe ended in 1959, Goodwin landed a job as a speech writer for Sen. John F. Kennedy—his first step in a career in politics. He followed JFK onto the campaign trail and into the White House as a special counsel. In 1965, as an adviser to Lyndon B. Johnson, Goodwin helped craft the Great Society program. He ran campaigns in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy and has written five books since, most notably 1974’s The American Condition.

Rob Morrow, who played him in the movie, spent several days in Goodwin’s Concord, Mass., house. He was “absorbing my character,” says Goodwin, who jokes, “he overdid my Boston accent.” Only thoughts of Van Doren trouble Goodwin about Quiz Show. He says the movie overplays the depth of their friendship, yet Goodwin deeply believes Van Doren was a scapegoat. “I feel somewhat bad about the movie, for his having to be put through this again.” Even during his ascent, Goodwin says, Van Doren always felt trapped by his success. “He told me [during the investigation] it was like being in a bullring,” says Goodwin, “with all your family and friends around you, everybody cheering. There was no escape.”


TOBY KAHN and SABRINA MCFARLAND in New York City and ANNE LONGLEY in Cornwall and Concord

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