Cerf, Bennett Albert

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CERF, Bennett Albert

(b. 25 May 1898 in New York City; d. 27 August 1971 in Mount Kisco, New York), publisher, writer, and television personality who played a major role in the publishing revolution of the 1960s that, over the remainder of the century, transformed a business of gentlemen into a mass marketing enterprise dominated by communications industry conglomerates.

Cerf was the only child of Gustave Cerf, a lithographer, and Frederika (Wise) Cerf. Growing up in Manhattan, he graduated from Columbia University (1919) with a B.A. degree and membership in Phi Beta Kappa; he then earned a B.Litt. from Columbia's School of Journalism in 1920. Five years later, in partnership with his close friend Donald Klopfer, he purchased the Modern Library—a line of 109 classic books—from the cash-strapped publishing house of Boni and Liveright for $250,000. Royalty-free and widely used in schools and colleges in the days before paperback books, Modern Library titles were hugely profitable. Within three years the partners earned back their purchase costs.

In 1927 Cerf and Klopfer decided to publish new books "at random" in addition to the Modern Library. Calling their firm Random House, they initially produced elegant (and expensive) limited editions of classics—an enterprise that failed with the Wall Street crash in 1929—but by the mid-1930s they were publishing thirty or so trade books a year by some of the century's leading writers. In 1933 Cerf successfully challenged a federal law banning the importation of James Joyce's Ulysses—ina landmark case based on the First Amendment—and established his reputation for defending liberal causes and encouraging literary freedom.

On the cusp of the 1960s Cerf was the proud and energetic president of a medium-size publishing house, best known for its well-edited books and two strong children's lines: Landmark Books (principally history) for teenagers, and Beginner Books (featuring Dr. Seuss), both of which had been developed by Cerf's second wife, Phyllis Fraser, whom he had married in September 1940 and with whom he had two sons. (Cerf was married briefly to the actress Sylvia Sydney in 1935.) In 1959 Random House went public, offering 30 percent of its stock to investors, with Cerf and Klopfer retaining equal shares of the remainder.

The sale of Random House shares on the New York Stock Exchange was part of the dramatic change that had come to publishing since World War II. Once a small-market world of gentlemen publishers, bookselling by 1960 was big business. Sales of individual titles reached into the millions in hardcover and paperback as books were sold in drugstores, airline terminals, and supermarkets as well as traditional bookshops. With fortunes to be made, publishing stocks were the darlings of Wall Street.

Cerf had anticipated much of this as early as 1944, when he had written Klopfer, then serving with the army in England, that the "future of the book business lies in … mass markets," and despite a wistful glance at the past that had given them "days of easy living," he and Klopfer successfully moved Random House through this maze of changes. By 1960 they had increased the number and diversity of titles on their annual list and updated the Modern Library (now numbering more than 450 titles), which they offered in paperback editions. They added new departments, notably a reference division that published The Random House Dictionary of the English Language in 1966 in a direct and successful challenge to Merriam-Webster.

What made this smooth (and lucrative) transition possible was the remarkable business friendship that Cerf and Klopfer sustained for forty-five years. They were, an editor wrote, "opposites in temperament and taste" who sat across from each other at matching desks, sharing the same room and the same secretary and drawing the same salary and benefits. At the outset in 1925 they agreed that the mercurial, dynamic Cerf would handle editorial and promotional matters and the soft-spoken, self-effacing Klopfer would manage production and sales, but in practice their roles were interchangeable. Between them they created what many editors believed was the best publishing climate in the country, as Cerf had a talent for selecting first-rate editors and giving them a free hand to operate.

In 1960 Cerf effected a merger with Alfred A. Knopf, whose imprint was arguably the most distinguished in America, with a strong history list and writers like Albert Camus and André Gide. In a kind of last hurrah for traditional publishing practices, the sale was initiated by the principals over lunch at the Stork Club and sealed by a handshake in Knopf's office. In 1961 Cerf acquired Pantheon (the publisher of Boris Pasternak and Mary Renault) and three smaller specialized houses. Five years later RCA purchased Random House for $40 million and a guarantee of editorial independence.

For Cerf the 1960s were a celebratory and, as it turned out, valedictory decade. He was easily the best-known publisher in America (perhaps, some said, the only publisher in America with instant recognition) because of his role as a principal performer, since 1951, on What's My Line?, a highly popular television game show. (The show ended in 1967.) He appeared regularly in advertising (donating the money to charity; what he wanted, he wrote, was his picture in print). His daily collection of jokes and puns was syndicated in more than 300 papers nationwide, and through the 1960s he continued to turn out a steady stream of bestselling joke books, riddles, and puns, which, by the time of his death in 1971, numbered more than twenty titles, with total sales in excess of five million copies. In the 1960s he edited three collections of contemporary plays (his "secret love," he told an interviewer).

Despite his reputation as a literary boulevardier—Cerf made no secret of his desire for celebrity status and his longing to be part of the glamorous world of Hollywood and Broadway—he took his publishing duties seriously, taking great pride in the quality of his books and the authors who had come to Random over the years: from Eugene O'Neill in the 1920s to William Faulkner in the 1950s to popular writers like James Michener and literary figures like William Styron in the 1960s. In interviews and his own writings, he celebrated both the joy he found in living and his contributions to publishing and, by extension, America's cultural life.

The Bennett Cerf/Random House papers are in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Butler Library, Columbia University, where the Oral History Research Office has several hours of taped interviews, portions of which were transcribed in At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (1977), edited by Phyllis Cerf and Albert Erskine. For the relationship between Cerf and Donald Klopfer, see Dear Donald, Dear Bennett: The Wartime Correspondence of Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer (2002), and Hiram Haydn, Words and Faces (1974). For a brief history of Random House, see John W. Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in the United States, vol. 3 (1978) and vol. 4 (1981). An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Aug. 1971).

Allan L. Damon