The Rise of Charles Van Doren


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January 23, 1957, Vol. II, No. 13

All-American Intellectual Takes TV for 100 Grand

By Dan Balaban

The hero in modern America is not the philosopher who retires to his Walden to ponder the ways of man, nor the frontiersman who declares: “I will go farther into the unknown.” In this day and age it is the man who says to the MC on a TV quiz show: “I’ll take the next question.”

Such a mid-century American folk hero lives on Waverly Place. He bears the distinguished name of Van Doren. This particular Van Doren won for himself, as of last Monday night, $104,500. The quiz-tilt suffering under his depredations is called “Twenty-One.” Emceed by Jack Barry, it pits two people against each other and throws general-information questions at them. But who cares about the details? There’s all that money.

Tall, slim, handsome, blond, athletic Charles Van Doren could be the All-American boy — but he knows too much. It is not his fault entirely; some blame must fall on the family stock. Stemming from his grandfather, a country doctor in Illinois, there is his father, Mark Van Doren, famous poet and author, Carl Van Doren, the well-known historian, was his uncle. One aunt is Irita Van Doren, editor of the Herald Tribune Book Review; another is Margaret Bradford Boni, whose “Fireside Book of Folk Songs” was published by Simon and Schuster in 1947. His brother John teaches history at Brandeis University. These were among the probing intellects which helped shape his tender mind as a boy. And of course the house was always full of friends of the same silk ilk. One couldn’t help picking up things. “Whenever a question would arise,” he remembers, “everyone was eager to find out the answer”…

One mitigating thread running through all that grey matter is his athletic bent. He played basketball well enough to have won an athletic scholarship to St. John’s. He ranks high as a squash player. In 1955 he won the singles and doubles championship trophies at the Cream Hill Lake Association tennis matches at Cornwall, Connecticut. He follows the sports pages of the Times closely and — a big plus — he is an avid baseball fan.

It was this background and 48 hours of intensive boning up in the World Almanac that Charles Van Doren brought to “Twenty-One.” As of last Monday he won $104,500.

(First of two or more articles, depending on circumstances.)

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