01 September 2009

Party Pooper | Herbert Stempel and The Quiz Show Scandals

Herbert Stempel is an American teacher who was famous for his celebrity as a television game show contestant—and for helping to expose what became known as the quiz show scandals after his long run as champion on the 1950s show Twenty One was ended by Columbia University teacher and literary scion Charles Van Doren.

After a series of 21-21 ties lasting several weeks in 1958, Van Doren defeated Stempel and went on to become the single most popular contestant in the quiz show's early history. Stempel wanted to play it straight against his opponent and was refused, but was promised a job in television if he would finish the performance they had started.

Stempel told the U.S. House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight that, on the day he was to lose to Van Doren, he was strong-armed into answering incorrectly a question about the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1955: Marty, one of his favorite films. The incorrect answer he was forced to give was On the Waterfront—which won the same Oscar for the year before.

Stempel drew the evening's biggest laugh when he was asked the fate of four of Henry VIII's wives and answered, "They all died," possibly to break the tension under which both men laboured thanks to the fix. Then Stempel answered the question correctly, but when offered their standard opportunity to stop the game, Van Doren stopped it and became the new Twenty One champion.

Van Doren was forced out of Columbia University, and made a life as an editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica and for Praeger Books, before becoming a late-life adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut. Stempel finished putting himself through college on the G.I. Bill and became a teacher himself, teaching social studies in the New York school system.