Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Everybody's gone Cerf-in' ...."

Those of us of a certain age remember Bennett Cerf (1898-1971), one of the founders of Random House.  (He was also involved in the court case that allowed Ulysses to be published here.  I have mixed feelings: it was a great victory for freedom of the press; it had a deleterious effect on my GPA at Hiram College the term I was reading--okay, supposed to be reading--that novel.)

But those of us of a certain age remember Bennett Cerf for a different reason: he was a panel member on one of my boyhood's most popular TV shows What's My Line? a sort of quiz program that ran on CBS from 1950-1967--Sundays at 10:30 p.m.  Cerf joined the panel the second year and stayed till the show went off the air.  One of the sponsors was Stopette--an underarm deodorant that came in a little plastic squeeze bottle and didn't work--not for me, anyhow, in the heat of my Oklahoma boyhood and the furnace of my adolescent, uh, passions at Hiram High School ...

The format was fairly simple: panelists asked questions and tried to guess the profession or job ("line") of the guest.  Most were ordinary folks with weird jobs (their first guest: the hat-check girl at the Stork Club)--but each week also featured a "mystery guest," a celebrity of some sort whose appearance required that the panelists wear masks.

Check out YouTube for some What' My Line? moments like this ... Liz Taylor as mystery guest, 1954 ...


Okay ... so what does this have to do with anything?  Well, one of Random House's most popular writers during the 1950s and 1960s was ... John O'Hara, whose complete works I've nearly ... completed.  O'Hara wrote lots of letters to Cerf (some very businesslike, others, well, obnoxious).  But they were personally pretty close, and when O'Hara died in 1970, Cerf arranged for a memorial service at the Random House offices;  Cerf was one of the speakers; the other, Charles Poore, a New York Times reviewer who had always done his best to give O'Hara decent notices.  That day, Cerf called O'Hara "the most generally unappreciated author in American literary history" and placed him alongside Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald (a ranking O'Hara himself thought he deserved--and was never too shy to assert!).  And Poore called him "the Chaucer of our age of violent affluence."

Well, I'm not so sure about all of that.  But it was a memorial service--can't have eulogists saying things like "O'Hara was a great writer, in his own mind."  Or: "John O'Hara could be both petty and a major pain in the ass."

In 1976 (after Cerf's death) Random House issued Cerf's incomplete memoirs, At Random, a book that focuses on his years as a publisher.  In it, he has some kind pages for O'Hara.  "It  doesn't take a genius," he says, "to make a best seller out of books by John O'Hara" (228).  But what most impressed Cerf about O'Hara (besides the vast income he brought to Random House) was this: "O'Hara in his work was the true professional, always in complete control of what he was doing.  ... He took great pride in delivering his manuscripts on the precise day he had promised, sometimes months in advance."  O'Hara was, wrote Cerf, "writing books faster than we could publish them" (271).

Albert Erskine, O'Hara, Cerf & O'Hara's Rolls

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