Bennett Cerf Talks About Books And Book Publishing – 1956 – Past Daily: “Talking About . . . .”
– Bennett Cerf – Lecture at Illinois State University – 1956 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
Bennett Cerf is probably a name that doesn’t ring any bells to most people these days. For your information Bennett Cerf was an American writer, publisher, and co-founder of the 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 weekly television appearances for over 17 years on the panel game show What’s My Line?
Bennett Cerf, in this lecture given at Illinois State University in 1956, recalls an era that has long gone – an era when reading a book was one of the primary activities most people throughout the world did. How reading a book was sometimes the only form of entertainment available to people at the time. How the printed word was one of the most powerful tools in our society. And that, how publishing was an artform – how publishing as a business form relied on taking chances – timing – gauging the audience.
The relationship between writer and publisher was almost unique among the Arts. How the publisher did as much to build a writers career as it was to promote the writer’s work.
Bennett Cerf was also a noted humorist and his appearances later in his life on the Television program What’s My Line probably did more to make him a household name than Bennett Cerf as a Publisher did.
In 1925, Bennett 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 that 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 Rockwell Kent.
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, though he vehemently disagreed with her philosophy of Objectivism. He admired her “sincerity” and “brilliance”, and the two became lifelong friends.
In 1944, Cerf published the first of his books of jokes and anecdotes, Try and Stop Me, with illustrations drawn by Carl Rose. A second book, Shake Well Before Using, was published in 1949. Then, he became a member of the Peabody Awards board of jurors, where he served from 1946–1967 and 1970–1971. He was chair juror of the Peabody Jurors Board from 1954 to the end of his first term in 1967, and published a weekly column, “The Cerf Board”, in the Sunday supplement magazine This Week. Cerf was also inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa in 1967 at Florida Southern College.
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.
Bennett Cerf died of natural causes in Mount Kisco, on August 27, 1971, aged 73. He was survived by his wife and sons.
If you’re not familiar with the name or the accomplishments, press the play button and get a rundown from the man himself, as he spoke to an overflow crowd at Illinois State University in 1956.
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