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$64,000 Van Doren
Do you remember the scandals about TV’s $64,000 Question back in the ’50s?
The story I wish to tell today is very simple. In 1957 or 1958 or so I had Mark Van Doren for two classes at Columbia College. One class was small and intimate. The other was a lecture course: on poetry. There could have been sixty or seventy students registered. It was the last course he gave prior to retirement so it was particularly well attended.
That same year Van Doren’s son Charles became famous, then notorious, for his participation on a TV quiz show.
Study the ages
Not the Times
Time Magazine put Charles Van Doren’s picture on its cover. Understand: Mark Van Doren taught the Bible, Shakespeare, Kierkergaard … He didn’t teach the Times … I’d been a snob of the same sort since high school where my contempt for my fellows gained a rationalization when I learned the above quote from Henry David of Walden fame.
I must confess: I didn’t attend too many classes: by anyone let alone by Mark Van Doren; but for some reason I’d shown up on the day that some other student had placed the freshly printed and distributed Time Magazine on Van Doren’s lectern. Van Doren entered the hall. Lean. Erect. Patrician. He ascended to his position. He saw the magazine. His son’s likeness staring at him: full page, cover page, four color off-set lithograph. Van Doren’s Adams apple quivered ever so. He picked the magazine up by the corner, pincering it between two finger tips: more as though the rag were diseased than as though the ink were still wet. Slowly, Van Doren cantilevered his arm till his hand was held directly above the gray institutional waste basket that was always there at the side of the lectern. He released the mag and it fluttered, unread — unloved and dis-respected — to the circular file on the floor.
2016 10 06 A movie on the subject of Charles Van Doren and the quiz show brings me here: and I am mortified at the inadequacy of my writing. I’ll redo.
Van Dorens Memory Scrapbook
The trouble with time: everything ages: even what was once big news. So I’ll review briefly. Charlie Speidel was one guy who discovered that quiz shows made for cheap advertising. You stick the show in some less-than-prime-time slot: afternoon, Tuesday evening … And you talk about a lot more money than you actually give. There had been a $64 Question that had gone on and on. This new show added three zeros. Big deal. Months could go by without any one winning half that much: but you keep repeating the seldom-to-never-claimed grand prize as your title. Joe Audience earns seventy-five cents an hour: a buck, a buck and a quarter if he’s in a union. Today, to get the same effect, you have to talk loosely about millions. What Joe Audience will never get, cause he stopped having to do math with school, is that there are companies that take in millions of dollars a day, millions of dollars an hour. On the other hand, the capitalist adds up his costs and sees clearly that the supposed prize money is the cheapest part of the budget. They could give the prize twice as often and still disregard it: pay it out of the show’s petty cash box.
Well, the $64,000 Question was doing OK as a show when a young English instructor from Columbia University showed up: one Charles Van Doren. We recognized the name. It had intellectual associations: because Charles’ father, Mark, wasn’t just an English professor at Columbia (not many members of the public hear about many professors by name): Mark Van Doren was one of a couple of Columbia English professors who’d started a radio show! In addition, the Van Doren name had appeared on a number of books: namely, the Mark Van Doren name and the Carl Van Doren name: brother Carl being an historian who specialized in big American names: Ben Franklin, for example.
Mark Van Doren had parleyed his rep into a nice position at Columbia. I don’t know what he was paid but I do know, roughly at least, how the system works. Joe Audience knows that he earns seventy-five cents an hour. Joe is proud, astonished, (and frightened) that his teenage son earns sixty cents an hour, that his daughter baby sits for twenty-five cents an hour. Joe knows that his boss makes upwards of a dollar fifty an hour. And Joe is given few details on how some Rockefeller can take no salary at all and yet have millions upon millions. When Charles Van Doren comes onto the show and starts climbing toward that $64,000, the audience learns that Charles is paid like a measly couple of thou’ a year by Columbia. Charles, the genius, Charles, to whom facts stick like iron filings to a magnet, is a slave: and doesn’t seem to know it or to mind! But Mark! Mark and Carl are different matters altogether. Take baseball as an example: Babe Ruth came to be paid $100,000 a year. But how much did the utility infielder make? Not much. In the Duke Ellington Band, one horn had no idea how much the lead horn earned. Each musician had his own private, secret agreement with Duke. It was a star system. Duke could have paid trumpet-effects man Cat Anderson one kind of figure and utility trumpet man Ray Nance an entirely different sum. Big universities were like the Ellington band. What an instructor got paid had no connection with what a star could earn. The star professor has an army of instructors, and lower yet, grad assistants, (and still lower: secretaries) to send on errands: while the star takes in the big bucks (big bucks by the monastic standards of universities). (In twentieth-century unions the lineman knew what a line worker got and also knew what a foreman got. Maybe some of them even knew what some of the minor executives got. But nobody knew what Hoffa got!)
Well, America fell in love with brainy Charles. The execs at the show were no fools: or, if they were, the sponsor didn’t allow them their own decisions. Somehow, the execs, lashed by Charlie Speidel, he of the cheap jewelry wristwatch bands, knew how to milk Charles Van Doren’s appeal. They coached him on how much to sweat, how to mop his brow. And – who should be surprised? – they coached him on the answers once it was feared that some other clown who didn’t have that same audience appeal might actually know more.
It was a big scandal when the media tipped the public about the answers being given.
It’s television, fer crisake. Entertainment. A show! Wha’d ya think it was? Reality?
Now. I attended Columbia College at the time. Charles was not an instructor at the College. The university must have used him elsewhere: in General Studies perhaps. Understand, please. Columbia College is, or definitely was at that time, the elite school, the intimate Ivy League part of what had become a giant university. Columbia College was the original Columbia all the other schools had spun off from. Columbia College dated back to King George and was older than the American Revolution, older than the United States. The United States stole its territories. Columbia had its territories stolen for it: by King George (and his minions).
OK. Somebody is paying big bucks for you to go to a snooty school. Those big bucks are just a dime on the dollar of what it actually costs to keep you there: old schools operating largely from accumulated endowments. Columbia, for example, is a huge slum lord, owns and operates race tracks in South America (was probably polluting all over Canada …) Mark Van Doren is one of the stars. Pipe smoking. Tweedy in spades. A gentleman farmer. A poet. A Renaissance man.
And I’m in a couple of his classes. (As had likewise been my father: I kept Dad’s papers with Van Doren’s red pencil marks for a long time.)
I can’t tell you too much about those classes because I cut almost all of my classes at Columbia. Attendance at public school had been coerced: or I never would have gone. It was hard, cause I never got any sleep. Watching Steve Allen for jazz guests till 1 AM every night. Reading story after science fiction story once in bed. And dragging my ass to the curb once my friends arrived to give me a lift. I made up for it at college. Ah, the Apple. I’m out drinking every night. Birdland, the Metropole, Basin Street … I still have my reading to do, my museums to visit, my girls to smooch. And on top of that there’s all this reading to do. Read The Iliad by Wednesday? The Magic Mountain by Friday? The Bible for next Monday? don’t be ridiculous: it takes me years, decades, to read such books.
(One paper of my own I probably still have bears Mark Van Doren’s red pencil comment, “I think you really understand Abraham”! Wow, proud of that.)
Columbia was great for me. I was on my own: in the Apple. I was stuffing myself with literature in addition to stuffing myself with music: with the advantage that the best music, like the best art, was now directly available to me, in its original form. I could listen to records by day and go to the clubs at night. I was not reading as much science fiction as previously, but I was reading general literature more than ever before. Far more: just never more than a fraction of what was required. Still, if I got 10% of the reading done, I was in a better position than the next student who might have read 90% of it: because I was literary: it meant something to me. It belonged to me. It was legitimately mine. (Whereas the average professor who might have read 100% of it twice knew in his heart that he was a fraud.)
As my first draft reached the previous paragraph I knew that I was doing the file wrong, that I should have told the simple story at the top. So I did. And now I don’t have to finish or polish the original pass nearly so well. At least not today.
In another month or so it was spring. Ah. Exams were coming. And young men’s fancies turned to thoughts of … pussy. We rioted. Made a lot of noise. Some bozos festooned the trees of Hamilton Quad with rolls of dorm toilet paper. At some point some few hundred students crossed Broadway to scream “panties” at the Barnard dorm windows. A few girls indeed threw panties out of those windows.
(Some class mate said something admiring about some particular Barnard girl. “Ah, fuck her,” said I. “Don’t you wish?” said one of New York’s finest, swinging his night stick near by. I flushed to my roots. He was right. I hadn’t realized it even myself. I did dislike her. I didn’t even know her. And I did want to fuck her. How humiliating.)
We went back to the quad, yelled some more, and then went back upstairs. That night’s news was full of some story about riots at Columbia “over the Charles Van Doren business.” What? It was a panty raid! It was a spring evening. Charles Van Doren had nothing to do with either Columbia College or the riot.
As my NEWS and other related modules state, I have never witnessed “news” first hand where the media got anything right: unless it’s the simplest fodder: like “the circus is in town.”
The movie Quiz Show depicts Charles attending a family birthday party for his father at his father’s farm. There’s a big present from Charles: it’s a TV set! Mark didn’t have a TV!
Didn’t want a TV: no more than he wanted to fresh Time mag with Charles on the cover!
Professor Van Doren, I hope you can see me from wherever you are: I watched very little TV from the mid-1950s onward. Now I don’t even have the TV plugged in! haven’t had it plugged in for well more than a decade. I save so much time and energy!
But: I don’t read that much anymore either: not by holding a book in my hand. I can’t see the print anymore! I read online, writing online, study online.
Dr. VD, do you see that “the internet” was stolen from me? Columbia didn’t know what I was talking about, offering cybernetic data bases for the public, uncensored, in 1970. The world understands less since.
Of course reading speed may vary, especially over time, even with a given reader. Since sketching the above I have reread the Odyssey. Man, it flew by! Then again, even in college where I was still slow-slow, an individual event would startle me. Herman Hesse was a hero of a friend’s hero. I decided to try Steppanwolf. Two hours later I was finished! What, seven or ten page-an-hour pk reading at over one hundred pages-an-hour?!? I did. And I got every detail too. Still remember it: vividly. In general though I’m still pretty damn slow. That is to say, I actually read.
2010 July 30 I notice a distinction I could have made when I posted this module but don’t see that I did: so I add it here: Mark Van Doren taught at Columbia College; Charles Van Doren taught at Columbia University’s General Studies. The two colleges were distinct, they did not teach in the same college, but did teach in the same university.
What’s the difference? The college is the original Columbia, originally Kings College, originally established by King George, older than the United States. The College is the prestigious institution; the university is a come-lately spin off. Thus, Father Mark’s school was prestigious; Son Charles’ school was not.
2016 10 06 I revisit this post today in the wake of watching the first half of a movie on the subject, “Quiz Show”. It shows a different version of events than I read at the time. The movie shows Charles as more culpable than I’d believed: but I’m not going to proof it. Let’s just open the door to questions.
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