When Publisher’s Notes Were More Honest

Bennett Cerf’s At Random conveys an amusing anecdote concerning Gertrude Stein. Stein told Cerf that she loved seeing her writing in print and asked Cerf how he felt about it. Cerf replied that if there was anything that Stein wanted to see in print, Random House would do it. So when Stein published The Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind, he was exceptionally bewildered. This bafflement was also conveyed when Cerf wrote the jacket copy:


This space is usually reserved for a brief description of a book’s contents. In this case, however, I must admit frankly that I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title.

I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein, tells me, is because I am dumb.

I note that one of my partners and I are characters in this latest work of Miss Stein’s. Both of us wish that we knew what she was saying about us. Both of us hope, too, that her faithful followers will make more of this book than we are able to!

Bennett A. Cerf


  1. You cannot be old enough to share this memory, but I recall Bennett Cerf when he made appearances as a panelist on “What’s My Line,” a 50s television “game show.” Even then, when I was a wee lad, I sensed that Cerf was a formidable wit. Your posting confirms by childhood instincts. Moreover, it argues succinctly that many publishers today (especially the folks in their marketing divisions) and people (celebrities) who write blurbs for bookcovers have a thing or two to learn from Mr. Cerf.

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