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Bennett Alfred Cerf (May 25, 1898August 27, 1971) was a publisher and co-founder of Random House, also known for his own compilations of jokes and puns, for regular personal appearances lecturing across the United Statesmarker, and for his television appearances in the panel game show What's My Line?.


Bennett Cerf was born and brought up in New York Citymarker in a Jewish family of Alsatiamarker and German descent. His father, Gustave Cerf, was a lithographer; his mother, Frederika Wise, was an heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune.

Cerf attended the same public school as composer Richard Rodgers, the publisher Richard Simon, and the playwright Howard Dietz, and he spent his teenage years at 790 Riverside Drive; this apartment building in Washington Heightsmarker was home to two other friends who became prominent as adults, Dietz and the Hearst newspapers financial editor Merryle Rukeyser. He received his B.A. from Columbia University in 1919 and his Litt.B. in 1920 from its School of Journalismmarker. On graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and for some time in a Wall Streetmarker brokerage, before becoming vice president of the Boni & Liveright publishing house.

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

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

In 1933, Cerf won United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 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.

In 1944, Cerf published the first of his collection of jokebooks, Try and Stop Me, with illustrations by Carl Rose. A second book, Shake Well Before Using, was published in 1949.

In the early 1950s, while maintaining a Manhattanmarker residence, Cerf managed to acquire inexpensively an estate at Mount Kisco, New Yorkmarker, which became his country home for the rest of his life. Cerf married actress Sylvia Sidney on October 1, 1935, but the couple divorced on April 9, 1936. He was married to former Hollywood actress Phyllis Fraser, a cousin of Ginger Rogers, from September 17, 1940 until his death. They had two sons, Christopher Cerf and Jonathan Cerf.

In 1959, Maco Magazine Corporation published what has since become known as "The Cream of the Master's Crop." This groundbreaking compilation of jokes, gags, stories, puns, and wit became recognized, in time, as the essence of Bennett Cerf and his humor.

Cerf began appearing weekly on What's My Line? in 1951 and continued until the show's CBS network end in 1967. Cerf continued to appear occasionally on the Viacom syndicated version with Arlene Francis until his death. 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 Soundmarker.

Late in life he suffered the embarrassment of an exposé, written by Jessica Mitford and published in the June 1970 Atlantic Monthly, denouncing the business practices of the Famous Writers School, which Cerf had founded.

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 vicious caricature of Cerf. A somewhat less vicious caricature of Cerf, named Harry Hubris and portrayed by Bert Lahr, appears in Perelman's 1962 play The Beauty Part.

Cerf died in Mount Kisco, New Yorkmarker, on August 27, 1971, at the age of 73. In 1977, Random House, the company that Cerf had co-founded, published his autobiography, which he had titled At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, posthumously. A street (Cerf Lane) off of Croton Avenue bears his name.


  • 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)
  • 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 Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer. (New York: Random House, 2002). ISBN 037550768X.
  • Bennett Cerf's Book of Laughs (New York: Beginner Books, Inc., 1959) LOC 59-13387


  1. Profile at NNDB
  3. Sesame Street clip with Bennett Snerf

External links

  • 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.

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