Bennett was born on May 25, 1898 in Manhattan, New York to a Jewish family of Alsatian and German origin. Cerf's father Gustave Cerf was a lithographer; his mother Frederika Wise was heiress to a tobacco-distribution fortune. She died when Bennett was fifteen; shortly afterward, her brother Herbert moved into the Cerf household and became a strong literary and social influence on the teenager.
Cerf attended Townsend Harris High School, the same public school as publisher Richard Simon and playwright Howard Dietz. He spent his teenage years at 790 Riverside Drive, an apartment building in Washington Heights that was home to two friends who became prominent as adults: Howard Dietz and Hearst newspapers financial editor Merryle Rukeyser. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Columbia College of Columbia University (1919) and his Litt.B. (1920) from its School of Journalism. After graduation, he briefly worked as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune and for some time in a Wall Street brokerage. He then was named a vice-president of the publishing firm Boni & Liveright.
In 1925, Cerf and Donald S. Klopfer formed a partnership to purchase the rights to the Modern Library from Boni & Liveright, and they went into business for themselves. They increased the popularity of the series and, in 1927, they began publishing general trade books which they had selected "at random." This began their publishing business, which in time they named Random House. It used as its logo a little house drawn by Cerf's friend and fellow Columbia alumnus Rockwell Kent.
Cerf's talent in building and maintaining relationships brought contracts with such writers as William Faulkner, John O'Hara, Eugene O'Neill, James Michener, Truman Capote, Theodor Seuss Geisel, and others. He published Atlas Shrugged, written by Ayn Rand, even though he vehemently disagreed with her philosophy of Objectivism admired her "sincerity" and "brillian[ce]," and the two became lifelong...