Bennett Cerf 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. He admired her "sincerity" and "brillian[ce]," and the two became lifelong friends.
In 1933, Cerf won United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, a landmark court case against government censorship, and thereafter he published James Joyce's unabridged Ulysses for the first time in the United States. (One chapter had been published in Margaret Anderson's and Jane Heap's The Little Review, a Chicago-based literary magazine, which had led to its being found "a work of obscenity.") In 1933, Random House had the rights to publish the book in the United States, and they arranged for a test case to challenge the implicit ban so as to publish the work without fear of prosecution. The publisher therefore made an arrangement to import the French edition of the book and to have a copy seized by the United States Customs Service when the ship arrived carrying the work. Despite advance warning to Customs of the anticipated arrival of the book, the local official declined to confiscate it, stating that "everybody brings that in." He and his superior were finally convinced to seize the work. The United States Attorney then took seven months before deciding whether to proceed further. The Assistant U.S. Attorney assigned to assess the work's obscenity felt that it was a "literary masterpiece"—yet he also found it obscene within the meaning of the law. The office, therefore, decided to take action against the work under the provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930, which allowed a district attorney to bring action. Cerf later presented the French-language book to Columbia University.
In 1944, Cerf published the first of his collection of joke books Try and Stop Me, with illustrations drawn by Carl Rose. A second book Shake Well Before Using was published in 1949. It was at this time that he became a member of the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, serving from 1946 through 1967, then returning to the board from 1970 to 1971. Additionally, he served as Chair Juror of the Peabody Jurors Board from 1954 to the end of his first term in 1967 and published a weekly column titled "The Cerf Board," in the Sunday supplement magazine "This Week."
In the early 1950s, while maintaining a Manhattan residence, Cerf bought an estate at Mount Kisco, New York which became his country home for the rest of his life. A Mount Kisco street named Cerf Lane runs from Croton Avenue and is named after him. Cerf married actress Sylvia Sidney on October 1, 1935; they divorced six months later on April 9, 1936. He married Hollywood actress Phyllis Fraser, a cousin of Ginger Rogers, on September 17, 1940. They had two sons, Christopher and Jonathan.
In 1959, Maco Magazine Corporation published what became known as "The Cream of the Master's Crop," a compilation of Cerf's jokes, gags, stories, puns, and wit.
Prior to 1951, Cerf was an occasional panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That?, in which celebrities try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports. In 1951, he began appearing weekly on What's My Line? and continued for 16 years until the show ended its run on CBS in 1967. Until his death, Cerf continued to appear regularly on the CBS Films, Inc. (now Viacom) syndicated version of What's My Line?, along with Arlene Francis. Cerf was known as "Bennett Snerf" in a Sesame Street puppet parody of What's My Line?. During his time on What's My Line?, Cerf received an honorary degree from the University of Puget Sound.
Cerf was interviewed in 1967 and 1968 by Robin Hawkins, a freelancer working for the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University. Cerf claimed that, of all the awards which he'd received in his life, he was "genuinely proud of" those bestowed on him by humor magazines The Yale Record and The Harvard Lampoon.
Cerf was the subject of Jessica Mitford's exposé, published in the June 1970 issue of Atlantic Monthly, which denounced the business practices of the Famous Writers School which Cerf had founded.
S. J. Perelman's 1945 feuilleton "No Dearth of Mirth, Fill Out the Coupon", describes Perelman's fictionalized encounter with a jokebook publisher named Barnaby Chirp. Perelman's 1962 play, The Beauty Part, features the caricature Harry Hubris, who was based on Cerf and played on Broadway by Bert Lahr. He was similarly portrayed as publisher "Bennett Blake" on The Patty Duke Show in the 1964 episode "Auld Lang Syne". In 2006, Peter Bogdanovich portrayed Cerf in the film Infamous.
Cerf died from natural causes in Mount Kisco, New York, on August 27, 1971, aged 73, survived by his wife and sons.
Random House published his autobiography, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf, in 1977.
Bennett Cerf Drive, just outside the City of Westminster in Carroll County, Maryland, is named after him. This is the location of the Random House Westminster Distribution Center & Offices, one of two Random House distribution facilities in the U.S., as well as the location of Bennett Cerf Park.