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Bennett Cerf Discusses Ayn Rand

Bennett Cerf was one of the founders of Random House, the company that published Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and For the New Intellectual. In his memoirs, titled At Random, Cerf recalls a number of authors he worked with. Below are excerpts from his discussion of Rand. (Cerf's memoirs were written in the late 1960s and early 1970s and published in 1977, when Rand was still alive. Hence, he often refers to her in the present tense.)

[D]uring the four years [Hiram Hadyn] was at Random House he brought us a number of authors we were very happy to have and who remained with us after he left.

The first of these was Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead had been published by Bobbs-Merrill while Hiram was there. I had never met Ayn Rand, but I had heard of her philosophy, which I found absolutely horrifying. The Fountainhead is an absorbing story, nonetheless. She was very dubious about coming to Random House, she told Hiram, because her sycophants had told her that we were way over on the left and that she didn't belong with us. But this rather intrigued her -- being published by a liberal house rather than one where she would ordinarily be expected to go. Furthermore, she had heard about me -- one of the extra dividends you get from being known. She had lunch with Hiram, Donald and me at the Ambassador Hotel, now unfortunately torn down, and asked us a lot of questions. I found myself liking her, though I had not expected to.

She has piercing eyes that seem to look right through you and a wonderful way of pinning you to the wall. You can't make any loose statements to Ayn Rand; she hops on you and says, "Let us examine your premises." [...] She asked me an infinite number of questions. Later on, after she came to Random House, she showed me a chart she had kept. She had visited about fifteen publishers, and when she got home she rated them on all the things they had said. I didn't realize, of course, that I was being examined this way, but I came out very high because I had been absolutely honest with her. I had said, "I find your political philosophy abhorrent." Nobody else had dared tell her this. [...]

At any rate, Ayn and I became good friends. What I loved to do was trot her out for people who sneered at us for publishing her. She would invariably charm them. For instance, Clifton Fadiman, who had snorted at the idea of our publishing Ayn Rand, sat talking with her until about three in the morning. George Axelrod, author of The Seven Year Itch, toward the end of a long, long evening at Ayn's, disappeared with her into another room and we couldn't get him to go home. Later he said, "She knows me better after five hours than my analyst does after five years."

Ayn is a remarkable woman, but in my opinion, she was not helped by her sycophants. She's like a movie queen with her retinue, or a prize-fight champion who's followed by a bunch of hangers-on, or a big crooner and his worshipers. They all come to need this adulation. These people tell her she's a genius and agree with everything she says, and she grows more and more opinionated as she goes along. You can't argue with Ayn Rand. She's so clever at it, she makes a fool out of you. Any time I started arguing with her, she'd trick me into making some crazy statement and then demolish me. [...]

A very peculiar thing happened early in our relationship -- the first time Phyllis [Cerf's wife] met her, Ayn came to our house and said to Phyllis for openers, "We have met before." Phyllis said, "Oh, Miss Rand, you must be mistaken." Ayn Rand said, "We have met before." Phyllis said, "It's impossible. I would certainly remember you if I had met you." Ayn said, "No. You wouldn't. Do you remember when you were a baby starlet at RKO in the movies?" Phyllis said, "Yes." Ayn said, "I was working in the costume department there at twenty-five dollars a week, and I handed you several of your costumes." Incredible, but true.

Ayn's a very simple and modest woman. We were on our way to lunch in Radio City once, and as we passed one of those junk shops with all kinds of statues and knickknacks, she saw a little blue bracelet in the window, and like a twelve-year-old girl, Ayn said, "Isn't that a beautiful bracelet!" So I went in and bought it for her. It cost exactly one dollar, but she was as happy as a child. [...]

I thought she was one of the most interesting authors we've ever had. Many people who disapproved of a lot of the books we published worshipped Ayn Rand; and wherever I go lecturing, somebody is sure to pop up and say, with adoration, "Tell me about Ayn Rand." When she gave a talk at Harvard, the hall was full of students who came to hoot but stayed to applaud. They weren't convinced by her but they were impressed by her sincerity. This is a brilliant woman.

From At Random by Bennett Cerf, pp. 249-253. Editorial clarifications are marked with brackets. Omissions from the text are shown with bracketed ellipses. All other punctuation and spelling is from the original.

Additional keywords: Ann Rand, Anne Rand, Any Rand, Bennet Cerf, Benett Cerf

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