Elfrida von Nardroff, 96, Dies; Won Big Money on a Fixed Quiz Show
In 1958, she won more on “Twenty-One” than anyone else. But she became embroiled in a scandal that led to grand jury and congressional investigations.,
Elfrida von Nardroff, 96, Dies; Won Big Money on a Fixed Quiz Show
In 1958, she won more on “Twenty-One” than anyone else. But she became embroiled in a scandal that led to grand jury and congressional investigations.
Elfrida von Nardroff on the quiz show “Twenty-One” in 1958. She captivated viewers over several months while on her way to winning $220,500, considerably more than the show’s most famous contestant, Charles Van Doren. Her success was later tainted by a cheating scandal.Credit…Bill Quinn/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Elfrida von Nardroff, who won more money than anyone else on the 1950s television quiz show “Twenty-One” — but who later pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury in Manhattan about receiving questions and answers in advance — died on Nov. 11 in a hospice in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., on Long Island. She was 96.
The cause was a stroke, her niece Elizabeth von Nardroff said.
Over several months in 1958, Ms. von Nardroff charmed television viewers as she defeated one opponent after another on her way to winning $220,500 ($2.1 million in today’s dollars). That dwarfed the $129,000 (nearly $1.3 million) that the show’s most famous contestant, Charles Van Doren, an English instructor at Columbia University, had won in 1956 and 1957.
The quiz show genre at the time was widely popular with viewers, who were fascinated by watching ordinary people answer questions and win cash and prizes. “The $64,000 Question” on CBS became a big hit in 1955, followed a year later by “Twenty-One” on NBC, produced by a company run by Dan Enright and Jack Barry, who was also the host.
Newspapers and magazines began following Ms. von Nardroff’s progress on “Twenty-One” after she won $20,000. “Neither scholar, mnemonic freak nor gambler,” Time magazine wrote when her winnings had reached $146,000, “Elfrida has hit the top in what is still the most demanding and sophisticated of all quiz shows.”
She finally lost to a teacher when asked which Nazi leader had committed suicide after being sentenced to death. She guessed incorrectly that it was Joseph Goebbels, not Hermann Goring. (Goebbels killed himself as the war was ending.)
In a magazine article published after her loss, she wrote that once she had passed the test to qualify as a contestant, she began analyzing the subjects ripest for questions (including history, geography and literature) and flung herself into research.
“I devoured almanacs, drowned myself in a sea of encyclopedias, spun globes and pored over atlases,” she wrote, with Leslie Lieber, in This Week, a syndicated Sunday newspaper supplement. “I haunted the New York Public Library to such an extent that one day a librarian asked me if I was triplets.”
She added, “I was completely determined to run the full circle of knowledge in a matter of months.”
How much of that was true would prove to be debatable.
Ms. von Nardroff in 1958 with Mr. Van Doren, left, and Joseph Morrison, another contestant, whom she defeated on the night she passed Mr. Van Doren’s winnings mark of $129,000. Credit…Bettmann, via Getty Images
Ms. von Nardroff was born on July 3, 1925, in Northampton, Mass. Her father, Robert, was a physics professor at Columbia University; her mother, Elizabeth (Smith) von Nardroff, was a drama teacher and actress.
After two years of substandard work at Duke University, Ms. von Nardroff was suspended for a semester. She described herself in This Week as having been a “rebellious, raccoon-skinned, Champagne-tossing holdover from the ’20s.” She studied diligently after being reinstated, majoring in English, and graduated in 1947.
She held various jobs, including secretary to a diet doctor, ticket agent at Northwest Airlines, proofreader at House Beautiful magazine and personnel director at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. She was working at the institute, where she earned $500 a month, when she received a call in late 1956 from a woman working for Mr. Barry and Mr. Enright, whose company produced “Tic-Tac-Dough” as well as “Twenty-One.” She was looking for brainy contestants for both shows.
By Ms. von Nardroff’s account in This Week, her roommate watched “Tic-Tac-Dough” and peppered her with questions from the show, all of which she correctly answered. That success prompted Ms. von Nardroff to call back in April 1957 and ask to try out for the show; when she passed the 20-minute written test, she took another one, which lasted three hours, for “Twenty-One” and also qualified.
But she did not enjoy her time as a “Twenty-One” winner for long.
Within months after she took home the $220,500, Frank S. Hogan, the Manhattan district attorney, convened a grand jury to investigate quiz shows. Herbert Stempel, whom Mr. Van Doren had defeated on “Twenty-One,” had revealed that the producers had coached him extensively. An investigation by the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight in 1959 followed. (The scandal later became the focus of the 1994 film “Quiz Show,” directed by Robert Redford.)
Joseph Stone, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan who led the quiz show investigation for Mr. Hogan, later recalled that Albert Freedman, the producer of “Twenty-One,” had provided Ms. von Nardroff with questions and answers in his office and in her apartment in Brooklyn.
“When he proposed to her the usual arrangement, she was at first reluctant, but then agreed and reigned as champion until July 8, 1958, receiving assistance all along,” he wrote in “Prime Time and Misdemeanors: Investigating the 1950s Quiz Show Scandal — A DA’s Account” (1992, with Tim Yohn).
Mr. Stone delved into Ms. von Nardroff’s claims of deep research and found them dubious. He saw little evidence for her claim that she had analyzed “Twenty-One” topics so extensively that she had filled numerous notebooks.
He sent investigators to the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street, where they showed her picture to see if anyone recognized her from all the time she said she had spent there. They did not. (She said, Mr. Stone recounted, that she had taken out books but did not do research at the library.) She admitted that the article in This Week was only “impressionistically true.”
In 1960, Mr. Hogan convened another grand jury to determine whether perjury charges should be filed against those who had lied to the previous panel. He said that many of the more than 100 witnesses, including Ms. Nardroff, had lied.
She, Mr. Van Doren and 12 other contestants were arrested that October and charged with second-degree perjury, a misdemeanor. She and nine other contestants, including Mr. Van Doren, pleaded guilty in early 1962 and received suspended sentences.
In the years after the case, Ms. von Nardroff held jobs at the Bureau of Advertising and at the ad agencies Foote, Cone & Belding (now FCB) and Grey Advertising (now Grey Group). She was later a vice president of Ambrose Mar-Elia, a real estate firm.
Ms. von Nardroff, who leaves no immediate survivors, rarely if ever spoke publicly about the quiz show scandal. Mr. Van Doren eventually wrote a long article about his experience on the show, and its aftermath, for The New Yorker in 2008. He died in 2019.
In 1973, when The Wall Street Journal tracked down eight quiz show contestants who had won more than $100,000 before the scandal rocked the industry, Ms. von Nardroff refused to be interviewed.
“I absolutely don’t want any publicity about what I’m doing now,” she said. “I’ve just had it with publicity. Please, no more.”