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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, Elfrida grew up in New Jersey. Her father, Robert, was a physics professor at Columbia University and her mother, Elizabeth Smith, was a drama teacher and actress.

After going to Dwight School in Englewood, New Jersey, Elfrida went to Duke University. There she acquired the nickname ‘Vonnie’, which she answered to for the rest of her life.

Elfrida enjoyed her social life a little too much. She later admitted she was, “a rogue and rebel, with a taste for champagne.” The university suspended her for a term for ‘substandard work’.

This acted as a shock to her, so she finally knuckled down to some hard work. Elfrida attended summer school courses at both Oxford and Cambridge universities in England and ultimately gained her degree in English in 1947.

Afterwards, she went to Columbia University Graduate School and got her post-grad in Sociology (not a real subject).

She started to work for Northwest Airlines, staying there for a couple of years before moving to Manhattan to work in personnel.

Elfrida shared an apartment in Brooklyn with a friend who was an accountant.

In 1958, Vonnie heard that a TV company was looking for contestants for either of their quiz shows, ‘Tic Tac Dough’ or ‘Twenty-One’. She applied for both.

She had a twenty-minute interview for ‘Twenty-One’ and was successful. This was followed by a 3-hour grilling by the producers. Once Elfrida had passed this, she was accepted for the show. She later said that in her apartment, her friend had fired endless questions at her for practice.

‘Twenty-One’ was hosted by Jack Barry and had started on TV in 1956. It involved two contestants, the current champion and a challenger, who went up against each other without knowing how the other had answered. The first to 21 correct answers beat the other one.

In her first show, Elfrida beat the champion, and then went on to keep her crown for 16 weeks, a record run for the show. Her success gripped the nation.

It was her style which was so popular. She often dragged back correct answers at the last second, when she was seemingly beaten.

Elfrida was interviewed by Time magazine and was called, “The lady with all the answers.”

They said, “Neither scholar, mnemonic freak nor gambler, Elfrida has hit the top in what is still the most demanding and sophisticated of all quiz shows.”

They also labelled her the most eligible woman in America and was called the ‘Quiz Queen’.

Elfrida told the magazine that the secret to her success was extensive studying. “I devoured almanacs, drowned myself in a sea of encyclopaedias, spun globes and poured over atlases.” She said she had spent so much time in New York Public Library, that a librarian had asked her if she was really triplets.

On her sixteenth show, Vonnie won $146,000 – at the time, a quiz show record.

In total, she earned a stunning $220, 500 in winnings ($2.1 million in today’s money).

After four months, Elfrida’s run came to an end when she got a question on Nazi leader Hermann Goering wrong.

She was beaten by Professor Charles Van Doren, an English lecturer at Columbia University.

After leaving the show, Elfrida worked as a ‘diet doctor’ in New York and then as a proof-reader.

Suddenly, a national scandal erupted.

Charles Van Doren, beaten after winning $129,000 (over $1 million in today’s money), went to the press and exposed the show as a fake. The winners had been chosen – and told the answers beforehand.

He was furious that he had been told to answer a question wrongly. It was, ‘Which movie won the Oscar for Best Film in 1955?’

He knew it was ‘Marty’, as it was his favourite film, but was told to answer, ‘On the Waterfront’, which had won the Oscar in 1954.

Van Doren also said that he had not been selected randomly for the show but was a friend of the producer.

There was a District Attorney investigation, followed by a court case in Manhattan. The whole of the USA watched with interest.

Vonnie was unrepentant in court. She said her selection process had been genuine as the producers were looking for “brainy people”. She claimed that she had inspired American youth and was celebrating knowledge.

Eventually, she did admit that the shows had been fixed.

Vonnie and 9 other contestants were found guilty of ‘Second Degree Perjury’.

It was proved the very first televised show of ‘Twenty-One’ in 1956, had featured two candidates who were so hopeless at general knowledge, that the programme degenerated into a total shambles. The producers had decided this must never happen again, so they started to fix the show.

After the national scandal, the programme was closed down.

Elfrida went on to work in advertising between 1963 and 1980, ultimately becoming vice-president of the Ambrose-Mar Elia Inc. in New York City.

She moved to Orient, New York in 1991 and then to East Quogue in 2006.

The scandal was dramatised in a very successful movie, ‘Quiz Show’, in 1994 – although Elfrida was not mentioned in it.

Quiz Show (courtesy IMDb)

Twenty-One was re-launched on US TV in 2000 but was a flop because nobody trusted it.

Relaunch (courtesy You Tube)

Despite her nefarious past, Elfrida was a much-loved lady. She gave up much of her time to animal charities, worked for women’s rights, adored opera and became a very good bridge player. She had a massive circle of friends.

Vonnie moved into a nursing home at Westhampton Beach, very close to her former home in Quogue, and died of a stroke there, aged 96.

RIP – Rigged Intelligence Programme


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