About the First Paragraph of Your Obituary ...
Last week, I picked up the July 28 issue of The New Yorker and was fascinated to see a story titled: “All the Answers: The quiz-show scandals—and the aftermath,” by Charles Van Doren.
For 50 years, Charles Van Doren has been consigned to living hell. He’s one of the few notable Americans (along with Bill Clinton) who knows that he screwed up so badly that the first paragraph of his obituary will deal with a major scandal rather than his accomplishments. Three examples of unfortunate first paragraphs:
Richard M. Nixon, the 37th president of the United States—a polarizing figure who won a record landslide and resigned in disgrace 21 months later—died last night in a New York City hospital four days after suffering a stroke. He was 81.
—The Washington Post, April 23, 1994
Spiro T. Agnew, the tart-tongued political combatant who fired up the American electorate but then had to resign as Richard M. Nixon’s vice president in the face of a kickback scandal, died on Tuesday at the age of 77.
—The New York Times, Sept. 19, 1996
Col. Aaron Burr, died at Staten Island, on Tuesday afternoon the 13th inst. In the 81st year of his age. Few men in this country have excited more of the public attention than the deceased, in despite of the dark cloud which shrouded his once fair fame; for all admired the bravery and talents which rendered him such an important auxiliary in the early struggles of our country, and lamented that they were perverted by unhallowed ambition.
—Niles’ Weekly, Baltimore, Sept. 17, 1836
Van Doren was a lovely guy. It didn’t have to happen.
A Sad Memory ...
Van Doren’s confession in The New Yorker was, for me, yet another bite into a Proustian madeleine cake.
In 1956, I was a student at Columbia College and working part time as a page at the NBC television studios. One day after squeezing fat tourists into thin seats for the daytime quiz show, “Tic-Tac-Dough,” I was astonished to see my English teacher, Charles Van Doren, walk on stage and be introduced by host Jack Barry as one of the contestants.