Monday, May 26, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Bennett Cerf: Published at Random

PHOTO: Library of Congress
While older Americans may recognize Bennett Cerf from CBS Television’s “What’s My Line?” many may not know he was also a syndicated columnist and the author of 21 joke books. Cerf was also one of the 20th century's greatest publishers, whose imprint literally and figuratively changed the world of publishing.

Cerf was born in Manhattan in 1898. When he was 16, his mother, the scion of a wealthy merchant died, leaving him a $125,000 trust fund. Cerf entered Columbia's School of Journalism in 1915, where he wrote a daily column for the school paper and edited the humor magazine.

After graduating, Cerf became a financial columnist for the New York Tribune, while simultaneously becoming a Wall Street stockbroker. Balancing the two jobs was difficult, but then Cerf got a lucky break.

Richard Simon of Boni & Liveright, a major publishing firm, resigned to form a new publishing house called Simon & Schuster. Short of cash, Horace Liveright offered to make Cerf the vice president of Boni & Liveright, provided Cerf would lend him $25,000. Cerf agreed.

Boni & Liveright published 60 titles a year and founded the Modern Library, a series of the best-known titles in publication. Subsequently, when Liveright was again short of cash, he sold Modern Library to Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer.

The Modern Library turned into a cash cow, providing them with hefty salaries. And as the Library grew, Cerf and Klopfer decided to start their own publishing company. Picking the name randomly, they called it Random House. At first Random House distributed high-priced limited editions, but when the stock market crashed demand for limited editions disintegrated. Their Modern Library, however, remained Depression-proof.

Publishing was then a gentleman's profession. Books were sold with dignity and decorum, but Cerf saw it differently. "Everyone has a streak of pure, unadulterated ham," he proclaimed. "Many won't admit it. I revel in it!"

Cerf wanted James Joyce's "Ulysses," but it was banned in the United States. In 1932, he met with Joyce in Europe, and returned with a copy of "Ulysses." Upon arrival in New York, Cerf forced a reluctant customs officer to seize the book.

 Cerf anticipated the case would end up in court, so he inserted special reviews of "Ulysses" by notable literati into the copy that customs seized, to ensure their admissibility at trial. The court decided for Cerf and dealt a staggering blow to censorship. Today, "Ulysses" seems about as shocking as "Green Eggs and Ham."

Random House grew after the Depression. Merging with Smith & Haas, whose list included William Faulkner, Random House became a very important publisher.

Cerf continued to staff Random with exceedingly competent editors, including Albert Erskine Jr. and Jason Epstein. He was also known to keep his authors happy. In 1960, Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf for 135,000 shares of Random House stock, worth roughly $3 million, followed a year later by the purchase of Pantheon books. In 1966 RCA acquired Random House.

Cerf died in 1971, at his 42-acre country home in Mount Kisco. His legacy? Under his leadership, publishing entered the 20th century and Random House became the world's largest English-language trade book publisher.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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