Date: 11 Aug 2006
The frequent mentions on the show of Mount Kisco, the town where Bennett lived, got me curious about what his home may have been like.
The local historical society conducted a tour of his home earlier this year, and I obtained the written history of the home that was provided to the tour participants. Below is their description of the Bennett and Phyllis Cerf home.
BENNETT CERF HOME - THE COLUMNS
In the early 1930s, Bennett Cerf, head of the Modern Library and Random House publishing companies, bought an estate on the banks of the Kisco River in northeast New Castle. It contained a comfortable Colonial Revival house, built in 1927, with a two-story veranda that gave the estate its name -- the Columns. Cerf married Phyllis Fraser in 1940, and in the succeeding decades he became even more celebrated as a compiler of humor books and as a panelist on the television show What's My Line. The Cerfs made the Columns their country home until Bennett's death in 1971. Phyllis Cerf then married former New York City mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., and the Wagners continued to live part-time at the estate until Robert's death in 1991. Over the past 13 years, the current owners have substantially renovated the house without sacrificing its basic character.
You will enter the house from the driveway by a relatively modest porch, which leads to the floor-through center hall. At the end of the hall is the "real" front of the building, with a two- storied pillared verandah facing the river. In the hall you will get a preview of the country antiques, folk art, and handsomely designed utilitarian objects, that typify the interior as a whole. The pine sideboard and the bobbin rack hanging over it are 19th-century Irish pieces, as are many of the other antiques in the house. On the sideboard are constructed a hand-carved wooden trencher from Indonesia and an antique grape-harvesting basket of natural reeds from France. On the wall toward the back are displayed a pair of colorfully embroidered Turkish camel saddlebags, collected by the owners during their extensive travels.
At the foot of the stairs, you will enter the living room. Prominent among the Irish country antiques is a hanging kitchen drying rack, its sturdy lattice form serving as a wall sculpture. The pictures on the walls are views of Venice and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and many of the other furnishings are from Italy and the Middle East. The bottles on the mantel, for example, are Venetian, and the pierced ceramic architectural blocks on a corner table are Sicilian. From Turkey come the shoes on the hearth, the copper table and tall pitcher by the door, and the large, museum-quality blue-and- white hand-painted bowl over the mantel. Other notable objects include an Asian musical instrument and covered dishes from Turkistan on the coffee table, carved woodblocks for printing textiles from Turkey, a large antique Balinese shadow puppet near the back wall, and a framed pair of Caucasian saddlebags hanging nearby.
Return to the hall and cross to the dining room, also largely furnished with Irish country antiques, plus a set of ten American Windsor chairs. On the dining table, a large brass bowl from Istanbul serves as a centerpiece. The decorative objects displayed here are mostly Asian, including Balinese and Indian puppets, musical instruments, and architectural elements. On the sideboard is a set of whirling dervish dolls made by an artist in Istanbul.
From the dining room, pass through a serving pantry to the kitchen, designed by architect Anthony Romano in collaboration with one of the owners. The pantry walls feature decorative pierced ceramic platters from Italy. Throughout the kitchen and dining area are displayed a wide range of tools and utensils, some American antiques, some collected in Turkey and elsewhere.
In a bay at one end of the kitchen is an informal sitting area, which features a collection of finely crafted grass baskets from Bali. A second bay, at the other end, serves as a family dining area, with a broad view of the river. The decorative pictures on the wall include a colorful Louisiana bayou landscape, Poule d'Eau, Pecan Island, by New Orleans folk artist Earl Hébert.
Return to the center hall and enter the paneled library, used as a den and office by one of the owners. It contains a variety of personal keepsakes and souvenirs, but the most conspicuous object is a sculpture of a helmsman, inherited from the owner's grandmother.
You will exit the house from the back of the hall, where you will see the tall, columned veranda that gives the estate its name. It overlooks the Kisco River as the stream widens and flows toward the nearby Croton Reservoir. The estate originally included land across the river, where Bennett Cerf planned to build another house for the use of relatives, but increasingly stringent environmental rules made this project impossible. The land has been made subject to a conservation easement that will permanently protect it.
As you walk around the house back to the entrance driveway, you may wish to visit the simply but comfortably furnished guest cottage, which provided hospitality to many Cerf and Wagner family members, friends, and business associates over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and John F. Kennedy. And you may also wish to stroll around the estate grounds, which include a swimming pool, a tennis and basketball court, a caretaker's cottage, and a two-hole golf course.