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Bennett Cerf

Bennett Alfred Cerf (May 25, 1898 - August 27, 1971) was a publisher and founder of Random House, 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 What's My Line?.


Bennett Cerf was born and brought up in New York City, where he attended the same public school as Richard Rodgers. He received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1919 and his Litt.B. in 1920 from its School of Journalism. On graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and for some time in a Wall Street brokerage, before becoming vice president of the Boni and Liveright publishing house.

In 1925 Cerf and his childhood friend Donald Klopfer bought the rights from Boni and Liveright to the The Modern Library and went into business for themselves. They made the series quite successful and in 1927 they started to publish general trade books selected "at random" -- Thus began their formidable publishing business, Random House. It used as its logo a charming little house drawn by Cerf's friend Rockwell Kent.

Cerf's talent in building and maintaining personal relationships brought contracts with writers such as William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and others among the greatest writers of the day, who supported Random House just as Random House suported them. He published Atlas Shrugged and For the New Intellectual , by Ayn Rand. Even though he disagreed with her philosophy vehemently, they became lifelong friends.

In 1934, Cerf won a landmark court case against government censorship, and published James Joyce's unabridged Ulysses for the first time in the United States. Critical reviews of the book were pasted into a special copy, which was duly imported and seized by U.S. Customs. Cerf later presented the book to Columbia University.

Recognising a need for humorous reading during World War II, Cerf produced the first of many compilations of other people's jokes under the title Try and Stop Me. It was a runaway success, and he continued with similar compilations for the rest of his life.

During the Great Depression, while maintaining a Manhattan residence, Cerf managed to acquire inexpensively an estate at Mount Kisco, New York, which became his country home for the rest of his life. Cerf was married in 1936 to actress Sylvia Sidney, but the couple soon divorced. He was married to former child star Phyllis Fraser , a cousin of Ginger Rogers from September 17, 1940 until his death. They had two sons, Jonathan and Christopher.

In 1960 Cerf bet Dr. Seuss $50 that he couldn't write an entire book using only fifty words. The result was Green Eggs and Ham. Curiously, Cerf never paid him the $50.

Cerf began appearing weekly on What's My Line in 1951 and continued until the show's network end in 1967. He continued to appear occasionally on the syndicated version with Arlene Francis until his death. The cable/satellite network GSN (formerly Game Show Network) often programs Cerf's What's My Line? episodes in the early morning hours.

Last updated: 05-03-2005 02:30:17