12 July, 2008
Bennett Alfred Cerf was a publisher and co-founder of Random House, also known for his own compilations of jokes and puns, for regular personal appearances lecturing across the United States, and for his television appearances in the panel game show What's My Line?
Bennett Cerf was born and brought up in New York City in a Jewish family of Alsatian and German descent. His father, Gustave Cerf, was a lithographer; his mother, Frederika Wise, was an heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune.
Cerf attended the same public school as composer Richard Rodgers, the publisher Richard Simon, and the playwright Howard Dietz, and he spent his teenage years at 790 Riverside Drive, an apartment building in Washington Heights that was home to two other friends who became prominent as adults, Dietz and the Hearst newspapers financial editor Merryle Rukeyser. He received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1919 and his Litt.B. in 1920 from its School of Journalism. On graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and for some time in a Wall Street brokerage, before becoming vice president of the Boni and Liveright publishing house.
In 1925, Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer bought the rights from Boni and Liveright to the Modern Library and went into business for themselves. They made the series quite successful and in 1927 they started to publish general trade books selected "at random." Thus began their formidable publishing business, Random House. It used as its logo a charming little house drawn by Cerf's friend Rockwell Kent.
Cerf's talent in building and maintaining relationships brought contracts with writers such as William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and others among the greatest writers of the day, who supported Random House just as Random House supported them. He published Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Even though he vehemently disagreed with her philosophy, they became lifelong friends.
In 1933, Cerf won United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, a landmark court case against government censorship, and published James Joyce's unabridged Ulysses for the first time in the United States. Critical reviews of the book were pasted into a special copy, which was duly imported and seized by U.S. Customs. Cerf later presented the book to Columbia University.
In the early 1950s, while maintaining a Manhattan residence, Cerf managed to acquire inexpensively an estate at Mount Kisco, New York, which became his country home for the rest of his life. Cerf married actress Sylvia Sidney on 1 October 1935, but the couple was divorced on 9 April 1936. He was married to former Hollywood actress Phyllis Fraser, a cousin of Ginger Rogers, from September 17, 1940 until his death. They had two sons, Christopher Cerf and Jonathan Cerf.
In 1959, Maco Magazine Corporation published what has since become known as "The Cream of the Master's Crop." This groundbreaking compilation of jokes, gags, stories, puns, and wit is the essence of Bennett Cerf and his humor.
Cerf began appearing weekly on What's My Line? in 1951 and continued until the show's CBS network end in 1967. Cerf continued to appear occasionally on the Viacom syndicated version with Arlene Francis until his death. Late in life he suffered the embarrassment of an exposé by Jessica Mitford - published in the June 1970 Atlantic Monthly - denouncing the business practices of the Famous Writers School, which Cerf had founded.
Cerf died in Mount Kisco, New York on August 27, 1971. His autobiography, entitled At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, was published posthumously in 1977 by, of course, Random House.