Teddy Nadler: Quiz Show Gaon

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The “Cohnipedia” column is based on the belief that I am blessed with a good memory, although I have found that it is far from perfect. When I was a kid, I had a nearly complete memory of the story lines, dialogue and character biographies of the nearly 1,200 comic books I owned at the time. Alas, like countless others, my comic book collection fell victim to my late and beloved Mom’s desire to cheer up the kids at the Jewish Orphans (Shelter) Home on Oakland Avenue-along with removing the clutter from my room at home. 

The late Teddy Nadler, a former resident of the Jewish Shelter Home, would as an adult use his truly prodigious memory to become the top-grossing winner on the TV quiz show, “The $64,000 Challenge.”

Nadler, who died in 1984 at the age of 74, is fondly remembered as the civil service clerk with the U.S. Army Support Center who won a total of $264,000 on “The $64,000 Challenge” in 1957 and 1958.

In contrast to the infamous case of college professor Charles Van Doren, a brilliant, handsome New England blue blood, in which the outcome was rigged through network-led cheating, there was never a hint of scandal in the case of Teddy Nadler.

Week after week, Nadler would astound Quizmaster Ralph Story and millions of TV viewers with his staggering knowledge of history, baseball and a variety of other topics. A TV producer testified under oath to the Congressional committee investigating quiz show scandals that Nadler was not fed any answers in advance, and that his knowledge was indeed “encylopedic.”

At the Jewish Shelter Home in St. Louis, where Nadler resided for a time as a child, he spent long hours in the home’s library, where he discovered that once he read something it was his to recall forever. Once, when a teacher asked him to go to the library to select a volume for a book report, he returned to the classroom to tell the teacher that he wanted to give a report on “Ivanhoe.” “Very good, Teddy, when would you like to give your report.” “Right now,” Nadler responded. “Which page do you want?”

Nadler could name in order with their dates all of the Emperors of Rome, from 753 BCE through 1453 C.E.; all of the Maccabean Kings; all of the kings and queens of England; the entire U.S. Constitution and the entire script of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” His prodigious memory was more than “photographic” – it was eidetic. That is, he could recall literally everything he saw, read or heard. He told me in an interview that he avoided reading too many things in order not to “crack my brain!”

Nadler’s memory invites comparison to Elijah, the Vilna Gaon (textual genius), the 18th century sage who was said to have memorized every word of the Hebrew Bible, the entire Talmud and an entire library of other Judaic books. His was not the “savant” kind of knowledge of Dustin Hoffman’s fact-based character in “The Rain Man,” because Nadler not only had the knowledge, but the capacity to fully understand the meaning of the various topics he had in the search engine of his mind.

I had the great privilege of interviewing Nadler at his University City home in August 1976. He had called the Jewish Light office to point out a mistaken date I had in an article on ancient Jewish history, and when I realized he was the Teddy Nadler, I eagerly asked for an interview.

To prepare for the interview, I looked up various baseball records for Ty Cobb and Stan Musial in “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” along with other historical information. While I believed that Nadler was “for real,” as a journalist, I wanted to test my beliefs to see if he was as remarkable as his quiz show winnings indicated.

As soon as I pronounced the name Stan Musial, Nadler said, “Stan Musial? He played in 3,026 games; went to bat 10,792 times; had 3,630 hits; 725 doubles-he was second after Tris Speaker who had 724; Ty Cobb is third with 724; Musial had 177 triples, 475 homers. Musial’s lifetime average is .331. He was born Nov. 21, 1920 in Donora, Pa. I’d stake my life on these facts. Isn’t it tragic that I know all this stuff?” Nadler laughed.

To my astonishment, every fact that Nadler mentioned to me was confirmed in “The Baseball Encyclopedia.” He had no way of knowing in advance that I would be asking for those specific records, and he went far beyond what I had expected him to recall.

Back in 1994, Robert Redford directed the film “Quiz Show,” starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren and John Turturro as Herbert Stempel, the brash Bronx Jew who was cheated out of his victory on NBC’s quiz show “Twenty One.” That film was compelling, but it would have been even more astonishing to have told Teddy Nalder’s remarkable story in a Hollywood film.

Nadler, who was genuinely funny and ironic during our interview, noticed how stunned I was at the extent of his knowledge. “Yes, Bob. I’m amazing! And so modest!”

At the time of the Redford film’s release, current Jewish Light Editor Ellen Futterman, then with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, interviewed Teddy Nadler’s son Bruce Nadler, then 46. “What was amazing about my dad, and believe me there were many amazing things about him, was how genuine he was,” he said. Bruce’s brother, Joel Nadler confirmed that his dad was never given any questions or answers in his appearances.

Nadler had on the air challenged Charles Van Doren to an “Ultimate Quiz Show Battle of Champions,” but that did not happen because of Van Doren’s admission of complicity in the scandal that forced the cancellation of “Twenty One.”

Van Doren, the cultured professor with impeccable Ivy League credentials, the son of the famous Professor and author Mark Van Doren, spent his post-scandal days in quiet self-imposed exile and seclusion in New England, shunning the limelight he briefly enjoyed in the last gasp of innocence of the 1950s. Teddy Nadler passed into history with his reputation intact, which proved Herbie Stempel was wrong when he said that a “Jewish contestant would never be allowed to win a TV quiz show contest.”