Bennett Cerf, 1932
photograph by Carl Van Vechten
|Born||Bennett Alfred Cerf
May 25, 1898
Manhattan, New York
|Died||August 27, 1971
Mount Kisco, New York
|Alma mater||Columbia University|
|Spouse(s)||Sylvia Sidney (1935–36)
Phyllis Fraser (1940–71)
Bennett Alfred Cerf (May 25, 1898 – August 27, 1971) was an American publisher, one of the founders of American publishing firm Random House. Cerf was 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?
Cerf's father, Gustave Cerf, was a lithographer; his mother, Frederika Wise, was heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune. She died when Bennett was fifteen; shortly afterward her brother Herbert moved into the Cerf household and became a strong literary and social influence on the teenager.
Cerf attended Townsend Harris High School, the same public school as publisher Richard Simon, and 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, Howard Dietz and the Hearst newspapers financial editor Merryle Rukeyser. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Columbia University (1919) and his Litt.B. (1920) from its School of Journalism. After graduation he briefly worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and for some time in a Wall Street brokerage. He then was named a vice-president of the publishing firm Boni & Liveright.
In 1925 Cerf and Donald S. Klopfer formed a partnership to purchase the rights to the Modern Library from Boni & Liveright, and they went into business for themselves. They increased the series' popularity, and in 1927 began publishing general trade books which they had selected "at random." Thus began their publishing business, which in time they named Random House. It used as its logo a little house drawn by Cerf's friend and fellow Columbia alumnus Rockwell Kent.
Cerf's talent in building and maintaining relationships brought contracts with such writers as William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and others. He published Atlas Shrugged, written by Ayn Rand. Even though he vehemently disagreed with her philosophy of Objectivism, he admired her "sincerity" and "brillian[ce]," and the two became lifelong friends.
In 1933 Cerf won United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, a landmark court case against government censorship, and thereafter published James Joyce's unabridged Ulysses for the first time in the United States (one chapter had been published in a Chicago-based literary magazine, which had led to its being found "a work of obscenity"). In 1933 Random House, which had the rights to publish the book in the United States, arranged for a test case to challenge the implicit ban, so as to publish the work without fear of prosecution. It therefore made an arrangement to import the French edition of the book, and to have a copy seized by the United States Customs Service when the ship carrying the work arrived. Despite advance warning to Customs of the anticipated arrival of the book, the local official declined to confiscate it, stating "everybody brings that in." He and his superior were finally convinced to seize the work. The United States Attorney then took seven months before deciding whether to proceed further. While the Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to assess the work's obscenity felt that it was a "literary masterpiece," he also found it obscene within the meaning of the law. The office therefore decided to take action against the work under the provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed a district attorney to bring action. Cerf later presented the French-language book to Columbia University.
In the early 1950s, while maintaining a Manhattan residence, Cerf bought an estate at Mount Kisco, New York, which became his country home for the rest of his life. A Mount Kisco street (Cerf Lane), which runs from Croton Avenue, is named after him. Cerf married actress Sylvia Sidney on October 1, 1935; they divorced seven months later (April 9, 1936). He married Hollywood actress Phyllis Fraser, a cousin of Ginger Rogers, on September 17, 1940. They had two sons, Christopher and Jonathan.
In 1959, Maco Magazine Corporation published what has since become known as "The Cream of the Master's Crop," a compilation of Cerf's jokes, gags, stories, puns, and wit.
Game show appearances
Prior to 1951, Cerf was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show, Who Said That?, in which celebrities try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports. In 1951 he began appearing weekly on What's My Line? and continued until the show ended its run on CBS in 1967. Until his death, Cerf continued to appear occasionally on the Viacom syndicated version of What's My Line?, along with Arlene Francis. Cerf was known as "Bennett Snerf" in a Sesame Street puppet parody of What's My Line?. During his time on What's My Line?, Cerf received an honorary degree from the University of Puget Sound.
Cerf was portrayed in the film Infamous (2006) by Peter Bogdanovich. S.J. Perelman's feuilleton "No Dearth of Mirth, Fill Out the Coupon" describes Perelman's fictionalized encounter with a jokebook publisher named Barnaby Chirp, who is a caricature of Cerf. Another caricature of Cerf, named Harry Hubris and portrayed by Bert Lahr, appears in Perelman's 1962 play The Beauty Part. He was also referenced as the publisher "Bennett Blake" in an episode of The Patty Duke Show.
Cerf died in Mount Kisco, New York, on August 27, 1971, aged 73, survived by his wife and sons. In 1977 Random House published his autobiography, which he had titled At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf.
- Try and Stop Me (1944)
- Shake Well Before Using (1948)
- Bennett Cerf's Book of Riddles
- Bennett Cerf's Bumper Crop (2 volume set)
- Good for a Laugh (1952)
- The Life of the Party (1956)
- The Laugh's on Me (1959)
- Laugh Day (1965)
- Famous Ghost Stories (anthology, 1944)
- The Unexpected (anthology, 1948)
- At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (New York: Random House, 1977, ISBN 0-375-75976-X).
- Dear Donald, Dear Bennett: the wartime correspondence of Donald Klopfer and Bennett Cerf (New York: Random House, 2002). ISBN 0-375-50768-X.
- Bennett Cerf's Book of Laughs (New York: Beginner Books, Inc., 1959) LOC 59-13387
- Bennett Cerf's Houseful of Laughter
- Bookrags.com, Bennett Cerf Biography page
- Cerf, Bennett. At Random. New York: Random House, 1977. p. 65
- Cerf, Bennett. At Random. New York: Random House, 1977, pp. 249–253
- Cerf, Bennett. At Random. New York: Random House, 1977. p. 93
- "Show Overview: Who Said That?". tv.com. Retrieved June 12, 2011.
- Sesame Street clip with Bennett Snerf
- Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bennett Cerf.|
- Notable New Yorkers – Bennett Cerf Biography, photographs, and the audio and transcript of Bennett Cerf's oral history from the Notable New Yorkers collection of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.
- Bennett Cerf at Find a Grave
- Bennett Cerf interviewed by Mike Wallace on The Mike Wallace Interview November 30, 1957
- Bennett Cerf at the Internet Movie Database