By 1932, James Joyce’s Ulysses had been banned from the USA on grounds of obscenity. A brave publisher, Bennett Cerf, decided to challenge the ban in court, by arranging for a smuggled copy of the book, filled with favorable essays pasted onto it, to be seized by American customs officials. He won the case and, in the process, made literary history.
Bennett Cerf was born Bennett Alfred Cerf on May 25th, 1898 in New York City to Gustave Cerf and Frederika Wise. He acquired a taste for reading at a young age and by 1920 he had already earned a B.A. from Columbia University and a B. Lit. from its School Of Journalism. While studying at Columbia, Cerf worked for the college newspaper, the Spectator, as a columnist and for the college humor magazine, the Jester, as an editor. It was also during his studies at Columbia that he would meet and befriend Donald Klopfer, with whom he bought, in 1925, The Modern Library and, in 1927, cofounded the publishing company Random House.
Bennett Cerf’s impeccable literary taste, shrewd business instincts, boundless stamina and determination, as well as an inherent knack for publicity and salesmanship, helped transform Random House from “a company that published a few collectors’ editions per year, at random” to a massive publishing giant, that boasted such revered authors as Gertrude Stein, Eugene O’Neill, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, John O’Hara, Budd Schulberg, Irwin Shaw and Dr. Seuss (in addition to Joyce).
Cerf attributed most of his success to good luck when, actually, it was his ability to create opportunities and blazing optimism that made him one of the best in his profession. Bennett Cerf passed away in 1971, leaving behind an undeniably important contribution to the world of books. Today, he is mostly remembered as one of the great publishers of the twentieth century, as well as a columnist, anthologist, author, story-teller, lecturer, radio host, punster and humorous panelist on the entertaining television show What’s My Line?.
Bennett Cerf recorded an extensive interview with the Columbia University Oral History Office in 1968, for an upcoming autobiography. The recordings, as well as transcripts, are available at Columbia University’s website and are filled with witty and insightful stories. Link
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