Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Bennett Alfred Cerf
Bennett Alfred Cerf "There have been too many [books] in which some young man is looking forward, backward or sideways in anger. Or in which some Southern youth is being chased through the magnolia bushes by his aunt. She catches him on page 28 with horrid results."

Bennett Alfred Cerf (1898–1971)
Columbia College 1919

Generations of children may have been introduced to Bennett Cerf by his Book of Riddles, but he was more than just a compiler of humor: An extroverted punster and raconteur who published some of the twentieth century's most celebrated writers, Cerf was a celebrity in his own right, editing anthologies, writing a syndicated newspaper column, and serving as a panelist on the television show What's My Line? Cerf started Random House in 1927, two years after he and Donald Klopfer acquired the Modern Library imprint that became the foundation for the new publishing venture. "We just said we were going to publish a few books on the side at random," Cerf later said—hence the name Random House. Under his leadership, Random House published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1934, defying a ban, and created Beginner Books, which published Dr. Seuss and others. The publisher's roster of adult writers included novelists Truman Capote, John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw, and James Michener, playwrights Eugene O'Neill and Moss Hart, and journalist Edgar Snow. When Cerf bought his friend Alfred A. Knopf's publishing house in 1960, the deal was one of the industry's first, and most successful, mergers. In addition to his many illustrious authors, Cerf employed Jason Epstein (Columbia College 1949), founder of The New York Review of Books, as his editorial director. He continued as president of Random House until 1965.

Born near Columbia at 121st Street and Seventh Avenue, Cerf attended the same public school as Richard Rodgers (Columbia College 1923). As a Columbia undergraduate, he wrote a daily column for the Spectator and edited the Jester, a humor magazine. After graduating in 1919, he spent a few unhappy years as a stockbroker before getting a job at publisher Boni & Liveright, owner of Modern Library, in 1923. Cerf took the job vacated by his classmate Richard Simon (Columbia College 1920), who left to start his own publishing venture with Max Schuster (Columbia College 1917). Two years later Cerf and Klopfer, who attended Columbia but transferred to Williams, bought Modern Library. In 1969, Cerf donated to Columbia the Random House archives, which contained the memorabilia of Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Eudora Welty (Business 1930–31), among others. When Cerf died in 1971, his funeral service was held at St. Paul's Chapel.


Fellow Columbian and publisher.


Columbian composer.


Graduate School of Journalism.

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