Bennett Alfred Cerf was a publisher and co-founder of 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 television appearances in the panel game show What’s My Line?.
Bennett Cerf was born and brought up in New York City in a Jewish family of Alsatian and German descent. His father, Gustave Cerf, was a lithographer, and his mother, Frederika Wise, was an heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune.
Cerf attended Townsend Harris High School, 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 Heights 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 Journalism. On graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, and for some time in a Wall Street 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.