Bennett Cerf (1898-1971) helped to shape the American publishing business into what it is today. A writer and television personality, Cerf was also an active editor and enthusiastic promoter of the writers published by his company, Random House. In the 1930s he led a successful challenge against censorship in the United States.
Bennett Alfred Cerf, the only child of Gustave Cerf, an elocution teacher and lithographer, and Frederika Wise Cerf, was born on May 25, 1898, in New York City. His mother died when he was only 15, leaving Cerf $125,000 that his maternal grandfather had placed in trust for him. Shortly after his mother's death, her brother, Herbert Wise, moved into the New York City home of the Cerfs, bringing the teenager "the greatest influence on my young life."
Cerf was educated in the public schools of New York City. He first attended Public School 10, where a fellow classmate was Howard Dietz, who grew up to become a lyricist and head of publicity for MGM Studios in Hollywood. After P.S. 10, Cerf went to Townsend Harris High School and Packard Commercial School. While attending Packard, he worked part-time for an accountant. In 1915, at the age of 17, he began classes at Columbia University's School of Journalism, where he quickly joined the staff of the student newspaper, the Daily Spectator, and the student humor magazine, The Jester. In his freshman year, he wrote a column entitled "The Stroller" for the former. In his second year at Columbia, he served as editor of The Jester and was instrumental in adding a book review column to the magazine.
Cerf's college education was interrupted by World War I. After the United States became involved in the conflict, Cerf enlisted in the Army and was stationed at Camp Lee in Virginia. After the war, he returned to Columbia and resumed his studies. In 1919, Cerf graduated from Columbia College, receiving his bachelor of letters degree from Columbia's School of Journalism the following year.
Cerf had a short-lived career writing a financial advice column for the New York Tribune. He advised against investing in a bankrupt company. Unfortunately, the company in question took exception to Cerf's remarks and threatened to sue the newspaper, quickly ending his career as a financial columnist. At the time he was writing a column for the Tribune, Cerf was working for the New York brokerage firm of Sartorius, Smith and Lowei. Although he found the world of Wall Street somewhat dull, he continued to work for the company until 1923, when he finally found his niche in the publishing world.
Columbia classmate Richard L. Simon, a vice president at the publishing house of Boni and Liveright, recommended that Cerf replace him when he left the firm to launch his own publishing company with Max Schuster. Cerf got the job. Two years later he and Donald S. Klopfer, a close friend, bought from Boni and Liveright the Modern Library imprint, which specialized in publishing low-cost editions of classic works of literature. Cerf and Klopfer immediately set about to make Modern Library distinctly their own. While Klopfer concentrated on finances and production, Cerf dealt almost exclusively with editorial matters. The two hired some of the best designers and artists of the period to give Modern Library books a new look. Elmer Adler encouraged them to drop the imitation leather bindings; Rockwell Kent designed new endpapers; and Lucien Bernhardt drew a new colophon.
The Cerf-Klopfer publishing combine soon was expanding beyond Modern Library. In 1927, Cerf became the American agent for England's Nonesuch Press. However, Cerf and Klopfer also wanted to publish their own books. Cerf came up with a name for their new enterprise. Discussing the prospective venture with his partner and artist Kent, he said: "I've got the name for our publishing house. We just said we were going to publish a few books on the side at random. Let's call it Random House." The Random House imprint made an impressive debut in 1928 with a beautifully bound edition of Candide by Voltaire. In the wake of the collapse of the stock market only a year later, Random House began focusing on trade publishing, the market for fine editions having all but vanished. Random's Modern Library imprint, with books selling at less than one dollar each, helped the company to survive the Depression.
An important addition to the editorial staff of Random House came in 1933 when Cerf acceded to the demands of Eugene O'Neill—a recent addition to the publisher's stable of writers—and hired Saxe Commins as an editor. Commins proved to be one of Random House's most discerning editors, an excellent judge of what readers wanted and a fiercely dedicated advocate for the authors he edited.
After signing O'Neill and Robinson Jeffers for Random House, Cerf set sail for Europe in the early 1930s to discuss with James Joyce the publication of Ulysses in the United States. Upon his return to New York, U.S. Customs seized Cerf's copy of Joyce's book on the grounds that it was obscene. Cerf decided to challenge the obscenity ruling and hired attorney Morris Ernst to take the case to court. On December 6, 1933, Federal Judge John M. Woolsey ruled, in a landmark decision, that Joyce's book was not obscene. He added that the book was "an amazing tour de force when one considers the success that has been in the main achieved with such a difficult objective as Joyce set for himself." Not only did the decision clear the way for the American publication of Ulysses, but it gave Random House an incredible amount of publicity. On October 2, 1935, Cerf married actress Sylvia Sidney, but the marriage soon ended in divorce.
In 1936 Random House merged with Haas and Smith, publisher of such notable authors as Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, Robert Graves, and Andre Malraux. Shortly thereafter Harrison Smith's interest in the merged company was bought out, leaving Cerf, Klopfer, and Robert Haas each with a one-third share in the company. In September of 1940, Cerf married again, this time wedding Phyllis Fraser. The couple had two sons.
In 1942 Klopfer joined the Air Force, increasing Cerf's workload significantly. During the war years, Random House published war-related works by Quentin Reynolds, Robert Considine, John Gunther, and William L. Shirer. A big fan of humor and something of a wit in his own right, Cerf edited The Pocketbook of War Humor, published in 1943, and Try and Stop Me: A Collection of Anecdotes and Stories, Mostly Humorous in 1944.
In the early 1940s, Cerf began writing a column entitled "Trade Winds" for the Saturday Review of Literature. For the King Features syndicate, he also began turning out a daily humor column entitled "Try and Stop Me." However, it was television that truly made Cerf a household name. In 1951, he began appearing as a panelist on the popular CBS game show What's My Line? He continued to appear on the show, along with Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, and others, until 1967.
A good deal of Cerf's time was spent playing nursemaid to some of his more temperamental authors. Among the writers in that category was Sinclair Lewis. Cerf later recalled an occasion when Lewis was spending the night at his apartment and William Faulkner called to announce that he was in town. "I told Lewis and asked him, could Bill come over? Lewis said, 'Certainly not. This is my night!' " Later that night, according to Cerf, about an hour after Lewis had retired, the author called down for Cerf from upstairs. "I answered him, and he said, 'I just wanted to see if you sneaked out to see Faulkner."'
Random House's acquisition of Haas and Smith in 1936 gave the publishing house added clout in the field of juvenile books. Haas and Smith had published Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, and Haas's secretary, Louise Bonino, later became Random House's editor of juvenile books. Cerf's wife, Phyllis, also felt strongly that Random House needed to turn out better children's books, convincing Cerf to launch the Landmark Books imprint. Books in the Landmark series focused on important events in American history. They were written by top-notch authors, such as Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who wrote Paul Revere and the Minute Men, which was published as part of the series in 1950. Phyllis Cerf drafted Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) to join her in launching a publishing company specializing in books for children who were just beginning to read. That company, Beginner Books, was so successful that Random House eventually bought it.
As its fortunes increased, Random House sought out a headquarters building befitting its stature. Eventually Cerf and his partners settled on a mansion at 457 Madison Avenue that had been designed by Stanford White and built by Henry Villard. The company was headquartered there from 1946 until 1969.
Some of the most popular writers of the 1950s were published by Random House. This stellar group included Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, John O'Hara, Ayn Rand, Irwin Shaw, Karl Shapiro, and Robert Penn Warren. At the end of the 1950s, 30 percent of Random House stock was offered to the public. The following year, Random House acquired the imprint of Alfred A. Knopf, and Alfred and Blanche Knopf joined its board of directors. The next step in Random House's expansion came in 1961 when it acquired Pantheon Books, publisher of such authors as Gunter Grass, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Jan Myrdal, and Boris Pasternak.
Although Cerf concentrated on the editorial side of Random House's operations, he was still a keen and insightful businessman, perhaps a reflection of his days on Wall Street early in his career. This became very clear in Cerf's negotiations to sell Random House to RCA in 1965. According to Cerf's own recollections of the discussions with RCA, David Sarnoff and other RCA negotiators seemed to have sized up Cerf as a lightweight when it came to business dealings. Cerf carefully avoided doing anything to disabuse them of this notion. Sarnoff offered Cerf three-fifths of an RCA share for every share of Random House, but Cerf was holding out for a pledge of total editorial independence and sixty-two-hundredths of a share, a difference that in total would amount to about $1 million. When Sarnoff suggested they break off talks and resume the following day, Cerf calmly announced that he and his wife had vacation plans the next day, plans they intended to keep. RCA met Cerf's demands, and the deal was closed. First impressions, Cerf made clear, can be deceiving.
After selling Random House, Cerf and his wife spent much of their time at their country home in Mount Kisco, New York, less than an hour from the city. It was there that he died at the age of 73 on August 27, 1971. Throughout his career, some in the publishing business had dismissed Cerf as superficial and somewhat frivolous, pointing to his obvious delight at basking in the public spotlight. This more measured assessment of Cerf came from the Saturday Review shortly after his death: "He gave full measure to his profession. Everyone connected with the world of books is in his debt."
At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, Random House, 1977.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 9: 1971-1975, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994.
"Bennett (Alfred) Cerf," Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. The Gale Group, 2001, http:www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 2, 2001).
"A Brief History of Random House," Random House, http://www.randomhouse.com/backyard/corphist.html (November 13, 2001).
"Modern Library: History," Modern Library, http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/history/ (November 13, 2001).