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
Game show appearances
3 Later life
8 External links
Bennett Cerf was born on May 25, 1898, in Manhattan, New York, to a
Jewish family of Alsatian and German origin. 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. He spent his
teenage years at 790 Riverside Drive, an apartment building in
Washington Heights that was home to two friends who became prominent
Howard Dietz and Hearst newspapers financial editor Merryle
Rukeyser. He received his
Bachelor of Arts from Columbia College of
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
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 &
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 popularity of
the series and, in 1927, they began publishing general trade books
which they had selected "at random." This 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
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
In 1933, Cerf won
United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, a landmark
court case against government censorship, and thereafter he published
James Joyce's unabridged Ulysses for the first time in the United
States. (One chapter had been published in Margaret Anderson's and
Jane Heap's The Little Review, a Chicago-based literary magazine,
which had led to its being found "a work of obscenity.") In 1933,
Random House had the rights to publish the book in the United States,
and they arranged for a test case to challenge the implicit ban so as
to publish the work without fear of prosecution. The publisher
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 arrived carrying the work. Despite advance warning to Customs
of the anticipated arrival of the book, the local official declined to
confiscate it, stating that "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. The Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to assess the work's
obscenity felt that it was a "literary masterpiece"—yet 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
In 1944, Cerf published the first of his collection of joke books Try
and Stop Me, with illustrations drawn by Carl Rose. A second book
Shake Well Before Using was published in 1949. It was at this time
that he became a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, serving
from 1946 through 1967, then returning to the board from 1970 to 1971.
Additionally, he served as Chair Juror of the Peabody Jurors Board
from 1954 to the end of his first term in 1967 and published a weekly
column titled "The Cerf Board," in the Sunday supplement magazine This
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 named Cerf Lane
runs from Croton Avenue and is named after him. Cerf married actress
Sylvia Sidney on October 1, 1935; they divorced six months later on
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 became known as "The
Cream of the Master's Crop," a compilation of Cerf's jokes, gags,
stories, puns, and wit.
Game show appearances
Left to right: Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Arlene Francis, Hal
Block, host John Daly on the game show What's My Line?
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?
What's My Line? and continued for 16 years until
the show ended its run on CBS in 1967. Until his death, Cerf continued
to appear regularly on the CBS Films, Inc. (now 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 interviewed in 1967 and 1968 by Robin Hawkins, a freelancer
working for the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University.
Cerf claimed that, of all the awards which he'd received in his life,
he was "genuinely proud of" those bestowed on him by humor magazines
The Yale Record
The Yale Record and The Harvard Lampoon. Cerf was the subject of
Jessica Mitford's exposé, published in the July 1970 issue of
Atlantic Monthly, which denounced the business practices of the Famous
Writers School which Cerf had founded.
S. J. Perelman's 1945 feuilleton "No Dearth of Mirth, Fill Out the
Coupon", describes Perelman's fictionalized encounter with a jokebook
publisher named Barnaby Chirp. Perelman's 1962 play, The Beauty Part,
features the caricature Harry Hubris, who was based on Cerf and played
on Broadway by Bert Lahr. He was similarly portrayed as publisher
"Bennett Blake" on
The Patty Duke Show
The Patty Duke Show in the 1964 episode "Auld Lang
Syne". In 2006,
Peter Bogdanovich portrayed Cerf in the film Infamous.
Cerf died from natural causes in Mount Kisco, New York, on August 27,
1971, aged 73, survived by his wife and sons.
Random House published his autobiography, At Random: The Reminiscences
of Bennett Cerf, in 1977.
Bennett Cerf Drive, just outside the City of Westminster in Carroll
County, Maryland, is named after him. This is the location of the
Random House Westminster Distribution Center & Offices, one of two
Random House distribution facilities in the U.S., as well as the
Bennett Cerf Park.
The Bedside Book of Famous American Stories (anthology, 1936)
The Bedside Book of Famous British Stories (anthology, 1940)
Try and Stop Me (1944)
Famous Ghost Stories (anthology, 1944)
Laughing Stock (1945)
Anything for a Laugh: a collection of jokes and anecdotes that you,
too, can tell and probably have (1946)
Shake Well Before Using (1948)
The Unexpected (anthology, 1948)
Laughter Incorporated (1950)
Good for a Laugh (1952)
The Life of the Party (1956)
The Laugh's on Me (1959)
Laugh Day (1965)
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
Bennett Cerf (New York: Random House, 2002).
Bennett Cerf's Book of Laughs (New York: Beginner Books, Inc., 1959)
Bennett Cerf's Book of Riddles
Bennett Cerf's Bumper Crop (2 volume set)
Bennett Cerf's Houseful of Laughter
Bennett Cerf's Treasury of Atrocious Puns (1968; possibly the last
book he published before he died)
^ a b c Whitman, Alden (August 29, 1971). "
Bennett Cerf Dies;
Publisher, Writer; Bennett Cerf, Publisher and Writer, Is Dead at 73".
The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-12-12. Bennett Cerf, one of the
country's foremost book publishers, died late Friday night at his
estate in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 73 years old.
^ Mitgang, Herbert (January 23, 1982). "
Modern Library Giant, 80
Today, Still Active". The New York Times. One thing that has changed
is personal - there isn't anti-Semitism in the profession, Mr. Klopfer
said. In the 20's and 30's, Bennett and I and other Jewish publishers
were looked down upon.
^ Reimer-Torn, Susan (December 16, 2012). "The Good Old Days Of The
Future Of Publishing". The Jewish Week. New York.
Bennett Cerf Biography". www.BookRags.com.
^ Cerf, Bennett (August 12, 1977). At Random. New York: Random House.
p. 65. ISBN 978-0394478777.
^ Cerf, Bennett (August 12, 1977). At Random. New York: Random House.
pp. 249–253. ISBN 978-0394478777.
Bennett Cerf Discusses Ayn Rand". Objectivism Reference
^ Cerf, Bennett. At Random. New York: Random House, 1977. p. 93.
^ "George Foster Peabody Awards Board Members". The Peabody
^ "Show Overview: Who Said That?". TV.com. Retrieved June 12,
^ "Notable New Yorkers". Columbia University.
^ Mitford, Jessica (July 1970). "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers".
Atlantic Monthly. p. 48.
Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and
Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. pp. 95–96.
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
Bennett Cerf at Find a Grave
Bennett Cerf interviewed by
Mike Wallace on The
Mike Wallace Interview
November 30, 1957
Bennett Cerf on IMDb
Jaillant, Lise (2015). "Shucks, we've got glamour girls too! Gertrude
Bennett Cerf and the Culture of Celebrity". Journal of Modern
Literature. 39 (1): 149–69.
ISNI: 0000 0001 1069 5537
BNF: cb108893664 (data)