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Robert Bernstein, Random House publisher and human rights advocate, dies at 96

Robert L. Bernstein was the publisher of Random House and founding chairman of Human Rights Watch. (Elisabeth D. Bernstein)

Robert L. Bernstein, who dominated the publishing industry for more than two decades as the chief executive of Random House, and who helped pry open closed societies around the world as the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch, died May 27 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 96.

The cause was respiratory failure, said a son, Peter Bernstein.

Standing at 6 foot 3, with freckled features and a low-key leadership style, Mr. Bernstein began his career as a junior office boy at Simon & Schuster and rose to become the president, chief executive and chairman of America’s most renowned publishing house.

Under his direction, Random House expanded into the world’s largest general-interest publisher, increasing revenue from $40 million in 1966, when he was named president, to more than $800 million in 1989, when he was forced into retirement. The company added paperback divisions, enlarged its college textbook and nonfiction offerings, and negotiated a lucrative distribution deal with smaller publishers, including Warner Books and Reader’s Digest Press.

As the industry was transformed by corporate consolidation and a growing thirst for best-selling titles, Mr. Bernstein retained Random House’s reputation for literary excellence — as well as what the New York Times once described as “the rambling quirkiness of a large bookstore run by somebody with a passion for books.”

A courtly Harvard graduate, Mr. Bernstein hired Toni Morrison as an editor, then arranged to release her novels through one of his many imprints, Knopf. He also published writers including Cormac McCarthy, James A. Michener, E.L. Doctorow, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Robert Ludlum and Dr. Seuss, who became a family friend.

For decades, he spent what few free hours he had promoting human rights, a passion that deepened in the 1970s when he visited Moscow with a delegation of American publishers.

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His meetings with dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, led him to create the Fund for Free Expression, a group of writers, editors and other literary figures concerned with rights abuses around the world.

In the aftermath of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, he also formed Helsinki Watch to monitor the protection of basic freedoms behind the Iron Curtain. It was followed by similar organizations centered on the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, which merged in 1988 to form Human Rights Watch.

Mr. Bernstein sometimes held board meetings for the organization out of Random House’s headquarters in Manhattan and participated in its research activities firsthand. In 1985 he flew to Nicaragua and drove “to within 20 miles of the Honduran border,” according to a Times report, “to investigate charges that acts of terrorism were being waged by the contras against unarmed civilians.”

“You don’t find many publishers or many chief executives driving around in a war zone,” one of his companions on the trip, Orville Schell Jr., told the newspaper.

Combining his interests, Mr. Bernstein published works by dissidents around the world, including Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner; Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner; Jacobo Timerman, who was tortured by Argentina’s military government in the 1970s; and Vaclav Havel, the Czech statesman and playwright.

Like his predecessor, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf, who successfully pressed for the full publication of James Joyce’s “dirty” masterpiece, “Ulysses,” Mr. Bernstein also took on government censorship — notably with “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence” (1974), a critical account of the agency by Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks.

After the CIA demanded the removal of 339 passages on national-security grounds, Mr. Bernstein and Knopf filed a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The agency relented on many of the changes, and the book became a bestseller after it was released with 168 blank sections, marked with the word “Deleted.”

Mr. Bernstein’s tenure at Random House was shaken by the arrival of S.I. Newhouse Jr., who bought the company from RCA in 1980 for $70 million. Although the two got along well at first — Newhouse had reportedly insisted Mr. Bernstein remain to run the company — they ultimately battled over Mr. Bernstein’s decentralized approach to management.

Mr. Bernstein had described Random House as “a mountain range instead of a mountain” and gave wide latitude to his executives and editors, a group of all-stars that included Jason Epstein, André Schiffrin and Robert Gottlieb. But after Mr. Bernstein and Random House acquired imprints including Crown Publishing, Fodor’s travel guides and Schocken, costs soared and profits dried up.

“The company got so big, it needed a more hands-on style of management,” Newhouse told the Times, explaining his decision to replace Mr. Bernstein with a more business-minded executive, Alberto Vitale.

Mr. Bernstein shifted his focus to Human Rights Watch, which was active in 70 countries by the time he stepped down as chairman in 1998. That same year, President Bill Clinton honored him as one of the first recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights, calling Mr. Bernstein “a pathbreaker for freedom of expression and the protection of rights at home and abroad.”

The older of two children, Robert Louis Bernstein was born in Manhattan on Jan. 5, 1923. His father worked in the textile business, and his mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Bernstein received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1944, served in India with the Army Air Forces, and was working toward a career in television or radio when a family friend arranged a meeting with Albert Leventhal, an executive at Simon & Schuster.

The friend, Mr. Bernstein once said, “thought that I wanted to be a writer. He was wrong.” He kept the appointment anyway, thinking it would be rude to decline, and was offered a job as “assistant to the office boy” — with weekly pay that was $5 better than his radio gig.

Mr. Bernstein rose through the ranks but was fired in 1956, amid a wave of cutbacks and battles with executive Leon Shimkin. He was working out of the Plaza Hotel, helping children’s author Kay Thompson develop a merchandise line based on her Eloise character, when Cerf recruited him to join Random House.

Mr. Bernstein was named president within a decade, CEO in 1967 and added the title of chairman in 1975. After leaving the company, he joined John Wiley & Sons as publisher-at-large and founded organizations including Human Rights in China and Advancing Human Rights. Human rights fellowships and institutes were named in his honor at Yale and New York University.

In 2009, he took the unusual step of criticizing the organization he had founded, writing in an op-ed column for the Times that Human Rights Watch had issued reports “on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”

The group, he argued, was better served focusing on closed authoritarian states such as Iran than condemning violations of international law in Israel. (Two chairs of the organization disagreed with his reasoning, writing in a letter to the Times that “it is essential to hold Israel to the same international human rights standards as other countries.”)

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Helen Walter of Manhattan and Bedford, N.Y.; three sons, Peter Bernstein, Tom Bernstein and William Bernstein, all of Manhattan; a sister; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In interviews, Mr. Bernstein often credited his success at Random House to the close ties he fostered with his writers — including Thompson, who celebrated his first day at the publishing house by placing six pigeons in his desk area as a prankish welcome gift “from Eloise.”

“An author has to feel that they know an editor,” Mr. Bernstein told Newsday in 1991. “A book company is a service company for authors — it edits them, promotes them and, in a way, it has to love them. I remember Bennett telling me he once lost an author because he didn’t send a car to the airport. That may be an overstatement, but that’s one of the ways I felt some other publishers were hurt. They didn’t pay attention to the chemistry between themselves and their authors.”

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