BENNETT CERF, the late cofounder and for many years head of Random House, was my friend, but that was no particular distinction because he had thousands of them. In fact, in the early days of his marriage to Phyllis Fraser, she was, as he says, "bewildered at first by the number of people who seemed to be my intimate friends." Weekly television exposure later on the popular program, "What's My Line?" made him a familiar figure everywhere in America, as no other book publisher has been.
He had his enemies, too, or more accurately, people who deplored him for various reasons since it was not possible for any reasonable individual to hate Bennett. There were those who were put off by his total self-confidence, a superior kind of chutzpah in which his brash, eager personality was likely to intimidate those who were obscure or less confident. For his part, Bennett loved practically everyone, some more than others, but it is characteristic that in the long parade of publishing and show business personalities which pass through these pages, covering the range from endearing to insufferable. Bennett can bring himself to say unkind things about only two or three of them, and then he is half-hearted about it.
The book itself is the product of devotion on the part of his widow (since remarried to former New York mayor Robert F. Wagner) and Albert Erskine, one of the great editors who worked for Bennett. As they explain in an editors' note, they put the book together from atypescript of 1000 pages which Bennett had dictated to the Oral History Project at Columbia University, and from which he expected to write his autobiography under the title he had chosen. They were also able to draw on a mass of documentation from Bennett's own files. Like the supergoist he admittedly was, he had diaries dating back to his days at Columbia, a formidable collection of massive scrap-books, and of course the "Trade Winds" columns he wrote for the Saturday Review for ten years, the "Cerfboard" columns he did for the syndicated Sunday magazine This Week, and other contributions to various periodicals. Finally, there was his neatly filed correspondence; apparently he was determined to save everything for posterity.
From these sources are pieced together smoothly (one sees Erskine's highly professional hand at work) these reminiscences. The result is like hearing Bennett himself telling you the story of his life, with all the obvious faults and virtues tat might entail. But what a story it is! There is absolutely nothing like it in the history of book publishing, which itself is the history of "sharp and downright (somethimes magnificently so) pigheaded individualists," as John Farrar once observed.
Bennett's life story is an account of unbroken success as a book publisher and as a public personality who himself was the friend of the famous. Even in P.S. 10, at 117th Stree and St. Nicholas Avenue in what is now Harlem, his friends were Howard Dietz and Morty Rodgers, whose kid brother was Richard. In high school he added Merryle Rukeyser, later financial editor of the Hearst papers, and Elliot Sanger, who later founded New York's noted good music station, WQXR. At the Columbia School of Journalism (then an under-graduate program) his friends were Gorge Sokolsky, Morrie Ryskind, Corey Ford, Max Schuster and Richard Simon, who was in Columbia College.
That was how it was to be the rest of his life. When he got his start in publishing with horace Liveright, an incredible man in his own right, there in the office were George S. Kaufman's wife, Beatrice; Manuel Komroff, Lilliam Hellman, Ted Weeks (later editor of the Atlantic) and Julian messner. There he came to know Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, and Dorothy Parker, among many others. In 1925, he bought the Modern Library from Liveright with a partner, Donald Klopfer, and the Random House colophon made its first appearance in February 1927. With Klopfer and his other partner, Robert K. Haas, and using the Modern Library as the most solid of foundations (it even resisted the Crash), Bennett built the firm into a $40 million dollar business whose list of authors read like a Who's Who of famous American writers, playwrights, and show business personalities, reflecting Bennett's self-confessed love affair with the theater and his unabashed hamminess.
Laced together with anecdote after anecdote, like all of Bennett's writing (it was his stock in trade), glittering with big names, the story emerges essentially as a book about publishing, as he meant it to be. The millions who knew him as a television personality may or may not find this absorbing, but the stories about famous people may save it for them. For those in publishing, at least those of us who are older, it is a walk down memory lane; I have no idea what the new generation of people in the business will make of it, if anything.Benneett's publishing world was a special one to begin with, and the scene of which he was so much a part is disappearing. One thing remains constant, however. In spite of his outspoken disdain for the old guard, the pre-'20s generation of publishers, Bennett shared with them the two characteristics that until now have marked the proprietors of the great houses for 150 years or more. He was a shrewed man with a dollar, but more than anything else, he was in the book business because he loved books, an authentic publisher, not a paper salesman.