You’ve heard of Charles Van Doren, the poster boy for game show cheating in the 1950s. But have you heard of Elfrida von Nardroff? She won more than Van Doren on the same crooked game show, Twenty-One:
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.
Von Nardoff (like Van Doren) pretended to struggle to recall obscure facts, then thrilled audiences with her brains as she pulled out the correct answers at the last second.
But it was all a scam: the “quiz queen” had been given the correct answers by producers before each episode. The show runners told her that everybody cheated this way and it was no big deal. Von Nardoff not only went along, she played her part with gusto. She even lied about her preparations:
“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.”
Spoiler: She did not haunt the New York Public Library. When the scandal broke and the U.S. Congress held hearings, the Manhattan DA’s office even took her photo to the Public Library, and nobody there knew her. She later admitted that her study stories were only “impressionistically true.”
Elfrida von Nardroff died this week at age 96. What’s most strange to me is that I’d never heard of her, and I think I’ve kept up with trivia pretty well over the years. I’m not alone: Wikipedia has no bio for her, and she goes unmentioned in its 4,000 word entry on 1950s game show scandals. She was well-known in her day: Time magazine helpfully noted that she “could save about $20,000 in taxes by marrying this year.” (Insert eye-roll emoji.) But somehow her name hasn’t come down through history.
Elfrida’s working years included two years at Northwest Airlines, personnel work, for seven years, 1951 to 1958. She then pursued a career in advertising from 1963 to 1980 and retired from a position as vice president in the real estate industry at the firm of Ambrose-Mar Elia Company Inc. of New York City.
Well, perhaps it’s for the best if we don’t remember people for the worst thing they ever did. To be fair, von Nardroff (like Charles Van Doren) probably told herself that she was inspiring America’s youth and “celebrating knowledge” and so forth as she made big money. She, Van Doren, and eight other contestants ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of second-degree perjury in 1962. Case closed! But I still find it strange that I’ve never heard of her until now.