A tall, pipe-smoking, well-tailored man with an urbane manner and Cheshire cat grin, Bennett Cerf headed Random House, one of the nation's most prosperous and prestigious publishing houses for more than four decades. His list of authors included Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, John O'Hara, Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood and Andre Malraux.
But it was his lectures, columns, 14 anthologies of humor and his regular appearances on "What's My Line?" with panelists Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen and moderator John Charles Daly that won him personal fame.
Cerf was born May 25, 1898, in New York to a lithographer and the daughter of a wealthy tobacco dealer. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Columbia College, where he edited the humor magazine and wrote a column for the campus newspaper.
After an interruption for officer training in Virginia just before the end of World War I, Cerf received his A.B. from Columbia in 1919 and a Litt. B. from Columbia's school of journalism in 1920.
His first job was as a reporter on the New York Herald Tribune and his second was with a Wall Street brokerage firm. With his third — as vice president of publishing firm Boni & Liveright — he found his field.
In 1925, Cerf and a boyhood friend, Donald S. Klopfer, bought Boni & Liveright's list of 109 Modern Library titles for $225,000. Two years later they began publishing books "at random" — hence the name of their new publishing house — starting with a version of Voltaire's "Candide" illustrated by Rockwell Kent. In 2 1/2 years they had made back their initial investment.