In Memoriam: Herb Stempel

Herb Stempel, 93, would have loved to see his obit in the NY Times today. A full half page with a huge picture! I’m certain it would have brought a smile to his face. Famous again after years of anonymity!

If you worked in the Corporation Counsel’s Office (the City’s lawyers a/k/a the NYC Law Department) in the ’80s and ’90s, as a law student or lawyer, you probably met Herb Stempel. Herb was a professional witness, mostly for the sign shop of the Department of Transportation. You see, every City agency had at least one person who would be produced to testify at a deposition or a trial regarding records relating to their agency, so that employees that did the actual work of the agency wouldn’t have to come to court. Herb would testify for example when a stop sign or a one way arrow was missing at an intersection where an accident had occurred. He would talk about the records that showed whether anyone ever complained or when the sign was installed or last repaired. He was a steady-Eddie who never needed to be prepped; he knew to keep his testimony to the records and not to give an opinion about what they meant, just keep it to records. His goal was always to try and be done in a half hour.

But that’s the last stage of Herb’s crazy life. He started out as a whiz kid growing up in the Bronx. He went to Bronx Science but as a mild mannered quiet man might, he went to the Post Office, then got drafted, then got a college degree from City College of NY where he specialized in the history of the City of New York. He married , had a son, and was heading for a life in education when he auditioned to be a contestant on a TV game show called “Twenty-One.” At that time, TV was still a fledgling enterprise and game shows were all the rage. Herb was chosen.

The format of the show was a contestant would be pitted against another contestant and be asked the same series of trivia questions ranging from music, politics, history, literature, popular culture etc. The contestants would be in isolation booths so they had no idea how their opponents were doing. After seeing Herb in his thick glasses and Bronx nebbish persona who with a big brain rose through his early rounds of the show they couldn’t resist pitting him against another fan favorite, Charles Van Doren – the TV textbook opposite of Herb. Van Doren was handsome, sharp, a professor at Columbia University from a wealthy old NY family. Let me put it to you this way – in the movie about the two of them character actor John Turturro played Herb, stylish Ralph Fiennes played Van Doren.

The reason there was a movie (called Quiz Show) was because actually the fix was in. Seems since there was no law against it, most TV quiz shows were rigged – so the producers picked who they wanted to win and precisely how and when their favorites would win. Herb was handsomely paid to take a dive all the way at the end against Van Doren. They gave them all the right answers and told them how to react and build the tension over the course of the program. To add insult to injury, they made Herb take his dive on a question about his favorite movie, “Marty” which won Ernest Borgnine an Oscar for playing a nebbishy butcher from the Bronx. True to the script, Herb blurted out “On the Waterfront,” naming instead the Marlon Brando pic. Its ironic that in their youth Borgnine could have played Herb and Brando would have made a great Van Doren.

Herb Stempel in the isolation booth Photo Courtesy of Newsweek

Most men would have walked away with the $25,000 that they secretly gave him for losing, but Herb never felt right about deceiving the American public. So he turned whistleblower and brought the whole shooting match down. Grand juries were convened, hearings were held, the public was outraged. Van Doren went from golden boy on the cover of Time magazine to convicted for lying before one of those grand juries. Congress eventually banned the fixing of game shows and instituted other rules in 1960 via an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934.

Herb then lost to another golden boy later in life. After slipping into anonymity as a high school teacher, Herb managed to sell the story of his life for production of a movie destined to be called “The Herb Stempel Story.” By sheer coincidence, at exactly the same time, Robert Redford was gearing up to make “Quiz Show.” Redford quickly paid the producers of Herb’s movie to sell him the rights and killed the movie, though he did keep Herb on as a consultant.

Years later, as I got to know him, he told me the full story. I must have defended his deposition about a dozen times and called him as a trial witness at least three times. Usually when we were waiting for the deposition or trial to start (Herb was always early) he would bring me to one of the windows of whatever building we were in and just start spewing out facts about the buildings and the reasons behind the names of the streets. Once, he asked me what street I grew up in the Bronx and when I said “Tiemann Avenue” he told me it was named after Daniel Fawcett Tiemann, a short term mayor of the City of New York and that a lot of the blocks around me were named for former mayors.

He was a sweet man with a great mind who had a wild ride to anonymity. Rest easy Herb, you made it back into the NY Times!

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