Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Bennett Cerf

Bennett Cerf, president of Random House publishers and long-time panelist on the game show What's My Line, talks to Wallace about what is wrong with television, reading, and censorship.

Watch Video

Guest: Bennett Cerf

WALLACE: Good evening, my guest tonight leads a double life. He's a well known figure in two controversial fields, television and book publishing. His name is Bennett Cerf. Bennett, in a moment I shall ask you, what do you think is wrong with television. And I shall confront you with a charge that book publishers are wantonly exposing young readers, to obscene trash. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Philip Morris.


WALLACE: We'll talk with Bennett Cerf in just a moment.


WALLACE: And now to our story. Bennett Cerf is a veteran panelist on “What's My Line” and the president of Random House, one of the largest book publishing firms in the world. As such, he plays an important role in two fields, that have a profound impact on all of us. Bennett, you call book censorship, quote, "One of the most dangerous things in America today," end quote. And we're going to talk with you about that in just a moment, but first of all, I'd like to ask you this. Everybody is talking about what they think is wrong with television. And I'd like to put it squarely to you: What do you think is wrong with television?

CERF: Mike, I don't think I should talk too much about what's wrong with television, I feel qualified to talk about what's wrong with book publishing... Television isn't quite my racket. Appearing on a panel show does not qualify me to be an expert on television.

WALLACE: We're not talking to you as an expert; we're talking to you as Bennett Cerf, who's a fellow who would sit around in his living room, and talk about westerns, spectaculars, quiz shows, or dramas or public affair shows, and has opinions, Bennett.

CERF: Well, my opinion is, that possibly, the good shows, all are bunched together in such a way, that the people who want to see them, have to make a very, very difficult choice. There's this Sunday afternoon ghetto, I think they called the intellectual shows, all pushed together on Sunday afternoon possibly because they can't get sponsors any other time. And, you want to see, let's say “Wide, Wide World,” and you want to see the “Seven Lively Arts.” And almost always, there are two shows and appeal the same kind of audience, and they are at the same time.

WALLACE: I think that's a very valid criticism, among that it distresses... a fact that I think distresses a good many television viewers. But you're talking about, there, about a couple of good shows that you want to see.

CERF: That's right.

WALLACE: What are the shows that you don't like to watch? What are the shows that you wouldn't give house room to?

CERF: Well, there, er... in my opinion, I guess shared by an awful lot of people, fad takes hold, like this years westerns, which become so overpowering, that somebody once said: "You shoot a gun off on NBC and the bullet whizzes through ABC and finally hits two gun Harry Moll in CBS." (LAUGHS) I think that, er... I think there are too many of those shows, but the ratings would indicate that the people know what they're doing. After all, television is a commercial enterprise, and I suppose the sponsors are paying spends of fortune for a program, is the title to get one, that gets them the biggest number of listeners.

WALLACE: And then you think television should be regarded then, simply as a business which is to entertain period and it will entertain with whatever kind of material...

CERF: No, I don't. No I don't. I think television people, have a definite responsibility just like book publishers. Er... I think maybe er... a certain amount of their time, should be devoted to cultural projects. Not only Sunday afternoon, not only the bad hours, that can't be sold for other purposes. But, programs that are really fun can be put in, here and there in the good evening time.

WALLACE: Do you watch quiz shows and panel shows?

CERF: Er... Well, I participated in “What's My Line,” and I watch others, once in a while, to see just how far they are encroaching on our territory (CHUCKLES).

WALLACE: But you don't think that, this is quite seriously now, that you don't think that the panel shows, let us say, are adding much to the sum of human intelligence, are you?

CERF: They're fun, “To Tell the Truth” is a fun show, ah, “21” is a fun show, I like to watch them once in a while.

WALLACE: Bennett, in a very real sense, you are an intellectual figure in America. You are a lecturer, columnist, anthologist, the president of Random House, one of the biggest book publishing firms in the world. Why does a man of your stature, and I put this to you very sensibly, with your dissatisfaction, with television's mediocrity which you have stated, to some extent, and I think you're a little reluctant to state what you really believe. Why do you lend yourself for seven years to “What's My Line,” a television parlor game, what... What, er... What do you get out of it?

CERF: You stacked that question a bit, Mike.

WALLACE: All right...

CERF: I don't think that television is necessarily mediocre. I think there are a lot of very good shows on the air, and I think they'll be more as time goes on. I'm very, very much in favor with television.

WALLACE: Well, I'm in favor with television too, but I think that you'll agree that...

CERF: I think, I think, it's become fashionable for the snobbish egghead today to make fun of television. I've heard many people, boast, "I would never have a television set in my house," well, these people are fools...

WALLACE: I agree.

CERF: They miss one or two very good shows every night.

WALLACE: That is correct.

CERF: Now you ask me why I go on “What's My Line” once a week?

WALLACE: Uh-hum...

CERF: Well, there are several extremely good answers to that. One is, er... I... I'm sort of a ham; I wouldn't be here with you if I wasn't. I like being on television, it's fun for me. Second, it pays very well, helps to take care of that place we have up in Mount Kisco. I wouldn't be able to hobnob with Arlene Francis at Mount Kisco and Josh Logan and Gilbert Kong, unless I had this extra income. You don't get it out of book publishing.

WALLACE: Well, out of the column, and lecturing, and book publishing, and books that you have published of your own, I dare say that even without your... considerable fee on What's My Line, the Cerf family would eat. It would not hold...

CERF: I would say that the main reason is that I am a ham, I love to do it, love to lecture.

WALLACE: Bennett, let me cite something, you say you love to lecture, all right, let me cite something you yourself said recently and I quote from The Chicago Tribune of September 17th of this year, "Bennett Cerf," quote, "Bennett Cerf flew into Chicago to speak before the executive club last week. He berated TV for its sameness. He said: "TV's sameness has destroyed many things, such as the American urge toward independent thought." End quote John Finke Chicago Tribune.

CERF: Yes, I think that I wrote a note to John Finke, that I thought he had stated much more strongly than I had. I did say that I thought there were many, too many westerns on the air, and many, too many imitations of the $64,000 Question. And I did say that I hoped that as the year went on, some of the newer ideas would be given a chance.

WALLACE: Well now, tell me this: You talk about the American urge toward independent thought; can you tell me one single independent thought expressed on “What's My Line,” in the past seven years?

CERF: Good Lord! That's not the kind of show it is. Er... it's a pleasant show. I think it owes its success to the fact that we have a pleasant group. I think John Daly does a superb job as moderator...


CERF: ...he's articulate, he's intelligent. A fellow on a cable car in San Francisco, one of the fellows who pulled the plug, you know, that kept them on the rail, saw me one day on the car and said: "Oh gee! Now I won't be able to go on “What's My Line.” You've seen me," and I promised him I wouldn't remember him. And I said, why do watch this? I had to ask you, and he said: "My wife and I like to hear good English spoken." Well, that was very gratifying.

WALLACE: That's true, that's true. I... I imagine the sponsors of “What's My Line,” will feel they've made a real contribution then to... raising the cultural level of America. I must confess, Bennett, I watch it virtually every Sunday night for the same reason that everybody else does...

CERF: It's not culture, it's fun.


CERF: Pleasant pass time.

WALLACE: And er... let's go back to your ham motive, which you, which is self-confessed one. Again The Chicago Tribune, July 7th quotes you as saying: "Television, I love it, everything that happened before television lumped together, never caused folks to turn on a street to stare at me, or waitresses to ask for autographs." Bennett, why is being stopped on a street or stared at, asked for your autograph so important to you?

CERF: It isn't terribly important, it's pleasant now. I think anybody who says it isn't, is not quite telling the truth. I've seen lots of movie stars complain about the autograph hunters; but if you try to find some special exit for them, whereby they can miss the autograph hunters, they don't talk to you for the rest of the evening.

WALLACE: (LAUGHS) And you confess that you have the same kind of yearning in you that the motion picture star has?

CERF: I think everybody's got it in them. It's my theory that we're all hams a little bit under the surface. You get at it in a different way with different people.

WALLACE: In a sense you're the poor man's egghead.

CERF: Well, take a college professor; you give him an honorary degree and a cap and gown, that's the way he hams it up. You make a business man, chamber of the board and give him a key to the private bathroom, that's his way of getting fun.

WALLACE: Uh-hum...

CERF: I like to be recognized by people, it's fun.

WALLACE: Bennett, the point that I'm making about television, and I'm sure you're aware of it, is this; we are in a serious struggle for supremacy now with Soviet Russia. Every night in America, millions of us sit in front of our television sets; we watch a panel show or a spectacular, or a western. When Eleanor Roosevelt returned from Soviet Russia recently, she wrote as follows, she said: "There is a hunger among men and women alike, for education in the Soviet Union. And in the subway, on trains, everywhere, young and old read as though their lives depended on mastering what is on the pages of the book they read."

CERF: We have that here too, Mike. You have to differentiate there are one hundred-seventy million Americans. I think the ones that want to learn, the people who want to read good books, are reading them today. I think the people who want to study, and there are more of them every year, are studying. But there is a mass of people, we might as well admit, who if they weren't watching television, would be doing absolutely nothing else. We're not taking people away from books, by televi... we're taking away people who would be idling there way in some other manner.

WALLACE: Bennett, here's an interesting statistic. According to a Gallup poll, the United States has the lowest proportion of book readers of any major English-speaking democracy. In 1955 only thirty nine percent of us, read even one book or more, despite the fact that we have the highest level of formal education in the world. How do you account for that?

CERF: I don't know that we have the highest level of formal education; I think something's got to be done about our school system... It's gotten a little bit slack, and lacks. But, the... the fact that we don't read more books in America, can be traced squarely to the fact that we have newspapers that are about a hundred times as big as the newspapers anywhere else. Take Soviet Russia, its best years a four-page paper. Look at The New York Sunday Times, it weights about four tons, yet you drop it on your foot, you brake a toe.

WALLACE: You are suggesting we'd cut down the size of our newspapers?

CERF: Well, I think the people that are reading The Sunday Times, are getting a great deal out of it. There's some wonderful things, I don't know why I picked the Times, but I do know it's the best paper I think in the world... but er... there we also have magazines like Time, and Life, and Newsweek, This Week Magazine, Saturday Review.

WALLACE: In other words we have so much more material.

CERF: We have so much more reading matter that the other countries haven't got, that you really in all fairness to make the statistics stand up, should ere, something for the newspaper and magazine readers that other countries haven't got.

WALLACE: Let's take a look Bennett, if we may, at what's wrong with the books we do read? And what's wrong with book publishing in general? Last week, you told our reporter, you said this: "One of the greatest threats facing book publishing and the entire country for that matter is censorship." Well, I think you'll agree that our book stores are crammed with frequently lurid reading matter. So, specifically, why is censorship such a great threat?

CERF: I don't think that book stores have as much lurid matter in them, as possibly two issues of a daily tabloid. I don't think books, hard bound books, on the whole are lurid. There will be an occasional book that might go beyond the bounds, but as far as book publishing concern, I think, they hew closer to the line of decency and what people should be reading than any other kind publisher or any other provider of entertainment.

WALLACE: Well, yet you say, one of the greatest threats facing book publishing and the entire country is censorship.

CERF: That's right.

WALLACE: What is the... Who does the censoring, and what is the motive of those who censor?

CERF: Well, now that would take a lot of exploration Mike. I think there are an awful lot of people in this country, who are not satisfied to govern themselves and their own families. Or the people who belong to the same cult that they do, but who have taken upon themselves, to tell everybody else what they should read, what they should see, and what they should think.

WALLACE: For what reason do they do it?

CERF: I guess, they think it will make them more sure of getting to heaven. I don't know why they do it. I think they're selling short, the good taste of the American public.

WALLACE: Who are these people, who would like to inflict this kind of censorship upon the American public? What are the groups?

CERF: Self-appointed snoop hounds.

WALLACE: Such as... such as...

CERF: They come from all... walks of life, er... in all the way back to colonial days, and in times of the Puritans. There were people who were telling others, what they most think, how they must behave, and what their morals must be. These people cannot resist butting in.

WALLACE: Are you a member... are you a member of the American Book Publishers Council?

CERF: I'm most certainly am.

WALLACE: Well, the American Book Publishers Council pointed the finger last December, specifically at the National Office of Decent Literature, which was established and is run by the Roman Catholic Church. The National Office of Decent Literature, called the NODL, was also attacked last May by the American Civil Liberties Unit, which charged that the NODL has, quote, "Prepared blacklists, threatened and imposed general boycotts and awarded unofficial certificates of compliance, to book dealers who remove from their shelves, books which the NODL finds objectionable." The charge against the NODL was signed by such leading publisher as the Alfred Knopf, and Emily van Schuster, do you agree with the statement?

CERF: I think every publisher in America agrees with that statement.

WALLACE: What, and... and you think the motive, let's say now, specifically of the NODL, is what?

CERF: I think the motive of the NODL is a totally laudable one, in their eyes; they are protecting the morals of the American public.

WALLACE: Well, then what is your objection to it?

CERF: I don't think that's what they're doing. I think they're making a mistake.

WALLACE: What is the mistake that they're making?

CERF: I think that they are over stepping the bounds of American liberty. I think the right to read, is one of our inherent rights, and I think that people in America today are intelligent enough, to decide for themselves what they want to read. Without being told, by self-appointed people; you must not read this, or you cannot read this; now the methods that some of these organizations take are themselves very questionable to me.

WALLACE: Such as...

CERF: Well, threatening boycotts, threatening a store that unless they take certain books off sale, they will not be patronized in the future. Or some police officials in various cities of the United States, have taken it upon themselves, not to censor a book, but just as effectively, take it off sale, by indicating that if the book seller persists in selling a certain book, he will be liable to prosecution.

WALLACE: Bennett, few months ago, at the specific suggestion of an editorial and the Jesuit Magazine “America,” we invited, they asked, they suggested that we invite, and we did invite, the head of the NODL, Monsignor Fitzgerald, to come on this program to discuss the problem and the Monsignor declined. Let me, though, ask you, what you think is wrong with his case? Monsignor Fitzgerald states that in the June 1st issue of “America,” he says that the NODL merely lists, pocket size books, not the hard cover, but the pocket size books, which in the opinion of the NODL are quote:

"Objectionable for you, because they glory crime or the criminal, portrays sex facts offensively, use blasphemous, profane or obscene speech indiscriminately... and so on." Now, what in the world is wrong with objecting to books like that? Don't you object to them too?

CERF: I certainly do, but let me point out to you that if you look at some of these prescribed lists, you will find on them, such books, such writers, as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Irwin Shaw, John O'Hara, and plays and books that have been such gigantic successes, as “Mr. Roberts.” A play that ran for five years in New York, I think, and was a great success as a movie. Suddenly when this came out in paper, this was declared to be objectionable, now what possible harm could “Mr. Roberts” do to anybody? I don't think books do harm people, let's take, the teenagers...

WALLACE: So do we. You mentioned “Mr. Roberts,” why do you think that the NODL would object to “Mr. Roberts,” I'm taking it for granted that that is on the proscribed list...

CERF: How do I know why would they object to it, I would suspect that because there is one episode in it, in which the sailors who have not seen a girl, a white girl, for two or three years, view some young nurses taking showers through a telescope on the deck of a battleship or the repair ship on which they work. I suspect that was it, I don't know what's in their minds.

WALLACE: I think that what's in their minds, possibly, is the protection of youth. Monsignor Fitzgerald points this out, Bennett, he says, "A campaign for good morals, is not an infringement upon freedom, but a preparation for the enjoyment of proofreading. "Morality," he says, "can be seriously damaged by the continuous reading of objectionable literature. Such reading has the power to destroy democratic ideals in young people." End of his quote. Can you seriously disagree with that?

CERF: I don't want to debate with Monsignor Fitzgerald, that's not what I came here for. But, I insist that the teenager is more damaged, let's say by the gyrations he goes under while he's doing rock 'n' roll maneuvers, than he can ever be damaged by the pages of a book. Jimmy Walker, when he was mayor of New York once said, “I never heard of anybody being ruined by a book.” Most of the things, that are supposed to be so objectionable in books, are things that every teenager, in the United States, not only knows, but has talked about at length in school, or on the way home from school. I don't think anybody has ever been really ruined by a book.

WALLACE: You mentioned boycotts, the NODL states categorically that it does not advise pressure groups to use its list of objectionable literature in order to boycott or high pressure book stores. They say the purpose of their list is merely to inform.

CERF: Mike, I didn't say the NODL institute boycotts, you said that. I don't know who institutes them...

WALLACE: You're in the book publishing business, have been for a long time. You must've studied this problem. Can you put your finger on any group -- you've made a charge that boycotts are engaged in by certain pressure groups.

CERF: We have been told by countless little druggist, and stationers, that they have been practically forced, to take off sale, particularly paperbacks.

WALLACE: By whom, Bennett, by whom

CERF: Now this is what I'm trying to tell you Mike. These are little groups that are formed in towns and cities all over the United States of America. Sometimes, it's quite impossible to trace where the original impetus comes from. Although I do believe that a great deal of it comes from the NODL. But there is, also a great independent group of people. The snoop bound is a popular conception, and I can tell you timely after time where police commissioners have stopped chasing burglars, automobile thieves and murderers to go after book sellers and tell them, you shouldn't sell a certain book.

WALLACE: Bennett, here's what we've been talking about, if you'll take a copy of this book, it's a novel which the NODL has listed as objectionable. It's called: “Take It Out In Trade,” by Walter Wittly, published by ACE Books.

CERF: I never heard of it.

WALLACE: If you hold it for just a second, I've underlined a typical passage. Now you say that no matter how objectionable this kind of thing might be, there is no harm in letting a teenager or adult read it. We on this program, have a teenage and adult audience. So, I'll leave it up to you, if you really want to defend your point. You take a minute now, look it over.

CERF: I look at this, and I don't want to read it and I wouldn't want my children to read it. I don't say that there aren't a lot of books being published that shouldn't be. I'd be a fool if I'd said that you Mike.

WALLACE: Well, what I don't understand is, if you don't want to read it, you certainly wouldn't read it on the air, you don't want your children to read it, and that you'll defend to the death, so to speak, it's right to be sold.

CERF: You bet I will. The reason I say that is that if censorship could be confined to trash like this, that would be a fine thing. But, we all know from experience that when you start censorship, when you start letting the censor have its way, he doesn't stop at preventing books that are going to hurt youth. The next thing he stops a book seller is going to be designed for intelligent adults. And once you let him start telling you what to read, then he starts telling you what to think and what to do.

WALLACE: Bennett, I think that you state your case quite specifically and quite eloquently. I'll come back to you in just a minute, if I may, with another question, about censorship. We'll be back with Bennett Cerf in just 60 seconds.


WALLACE: Bennett, for more than a year, the novel “Peyton Place” by Grace Metalious has been a best-seller. Time Magazine says that the novel love scenes are explicit as love scenes can get without the use of diagrams and a tape recorder. The Catholic world says, "This novel is one of the cheapest, most blatant attempts, in years, to present the most noxiously common place in ideas and behavior." You have a sixteen year-old son, if he'd brought “Peyton Place” into the house to read, what would you, what would be your reaction?

CERF: I would be sorry that he was reading it, but I certainly wouldn't make no effort whatever to stop him. I think the minute you tell a boy or a girl not to read something; you're making that thing ten times more attractive to them.

WALLACE: If you have the opportunity, Bennett, to publish Peyton Place, or the novels of Mickey Spillane, would you at Random House, do it?

CERF: To be absolutely honest with you, if “Peyton Place” had been brought to us, if I could've persuaded the author to take out about three-hundred pages of it, I certainly would have published it.

WALLACE: You would've taken out about three-hundred pages off. In other words you would've asked... you would've asked to be the censor yourself.

CERF: No, not censor, I would thought the book was over long, and I thought there where several episodes on it that should've been left out. A publisher is not a censor because he can only suggest. This is something I think people ought to understand, that the publisher hasn't got the last word, the author has. The publisher can only suggest to the author, I wish you'd take this out, and if the author refuses, the publisher can only publish as is or say: "I won't publish it at all and let somebody else have it."

WALLACE: Bennett, I wish we had another half hour to keep on with this. But time has flown and I thank you so much for coming and spending this time with us. And may I say, that I have been reading from your new book Reading for Pleasure, published by Harper and Brothers and I have found it very, very entertaining reading.

CERF: Nothing censorable in that.

WALLACE: No, indeed. Thank you, Bennett Cerf, very much. Bennett Cerf takes understandable pride in his dual role in television and book publishing. At the same time, he recognizes the need to subject both views to honest criticism. Television, book publishing and the public cannot help but benefit from that.


WALLACE: Next week, on December 7th the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, we'll have a special interview from Washington. We'll discuss the dangers of another Pearl Harbor, with one of the most controversial news analysts in America. You see him behind me, he's Drew Pearson, who's syndicated column Washington Merry-Go-Round is published in six-hundred newspapers throughout the world. If you're curious to know whether the Drew Pearson predicts: the hydrogen-bomb war, or why he says that president Eisenhower should retire immediately, and his answer to the charge leveled by past presidents of the United States that Pearson is a chronic liar and an S.O.B. We'll go after those stories next week.

Welcome this evening to a new station, joining the ABC Television Network, WHDH TV in Boston. Until next week for Philip Morris, Mike Wallace. Good night.

ANNCR: The Mike Wallace Interview is brought to you by Philip Morris Incorporated, the Quality House.