Robert L. Bernstein, a publishing executive and human rights activist who presided over a generation of dynamic growth at Random House and advocated for dissidents around the world, from the Soviet Union to Argentina, died Monday at age 96.
Bernstein died in a Manhattan hospital after a brief illness, according to his son, Peter Bernstein.
The tall, sandy-haired Bernstein was president of Random House from 1966 to 1990, when authors included Toni Morrison, James Michener and E.L. Doctorow. He also helped found Helsinki Watch, Human Rights Watch and other organizations. He was among the first recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights, presented to him in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, who called Bernstein “a pathbreaker for freedom of expression and the protection of rights at home and abroad.”
Through his years in the book industry and his travels worldwide, Bernstein came to know a remarkable range of artists, celebrities and historical figures, from Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov to Oscar-winning actress Claudette Colbert to children’s author Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss). He worked in publishing from 1946 to 1990, beginning when companies such as Random House, Alfred A. Knopf and Simon & Schuster still were run by their original owners, and departing during an era of growing consolidation and corporate control.
In the 1970s, he visited the Soviet Union and became a leading voice in publishing for the rights of Soviet writers, and later for those in South America, China and Czechoslovakia. He helped found Helsinki Watch, a watchdog for the human rights provisions in the Helsinki Accords signed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1975. A handful of related organizations followed, including Asia Watch and Americas Watch, before all were combined under Bernstein’s leadership into Human Rights Watch in 1988.
Meanwhile, Bernstein managed an artful balance at Random House between making enough money to satisfy his bosses and advancing his belief that literature should contribute to the common good. Sakharov; his wife, Yelena Bonner; Natan Sharansky and many other dissidents released works through the publisher.
One of Bernstein’s proudest memories was of Argentine author Jacobo Timerman’s damning memoir of persecution, “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number,” which came out in 1981, around the time Americas Watch arranged for Timerman to testify against President Reagan’s appointment of Ernest Lefever as assistant secretary of state for human rights. (The nomination was eventually withdrawn).
“As I read it (‘Prisoner Without a Name’), I had something of an epiphany — I saw what we could do if we brought the advantages of a book publishing house with national and international contracts and hooked it up to the human rights movement,” Bernstein wrote in his memoir, “Speaking Freely,” published in 2016.
Bernstein married Helen Walter in 1950. They had three sons.
Descended from Jewish immigrants, Bernstein was born and raised in Manhattan, attending the progressive Lincoln School as a teenager and entering Harvard University in 1940, a year before the country entered World War II. Presuming he would be drafted, he enlisted in the Army in 1943 and was eventually stationed in Casablanca and India. His military service left deep impressions on him, whether the segregated North Carolina community where he trained or the extreme poverty of Calcutta.
After the war, he was hired as an assistant office boy at Simon & Schuster and eventually rose to sales manager, with a special eye for children’s books. In the mid-1950s, he helped “Eloise” creator Kay Thompson market a line of merchandise related to the Plaza’s most famous fictional resident. Thompson would call his home on occasion and, in the voice of Eloise, invite the Bernstein children to the Plaza.
“When we got to the Plaza, Kay would come out and say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. You just missed her,'” Bernstein wrote in his memoir. “The kids didn’t mind that much, though, because they loved going and having cocoa with Kay.”
Fired by Simon & Schuster in 1956 after clashing with rival executive Leon Shimkin, Bernstein was recruited by Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf and joined the publisher as a sales manager. He was named first vice president in 1962 and was Cerf’s chosen successor for company president, starting in 1966. Among those he promoted was a young educational editor named Toni Morrison.
Alternately hard-headed and diplomatic, Bernstein guided Random House through its rise to become the world’s largest publisher. Shortly before he became president, Random House was purchased by RCA, which in 1980 sold the company to Advance Publications (Random, later owned by Bertelsmann AG, now is part of Penguin Random House). Thanks in part to Random’s acquisition of the Crown Publishing Group, revenues soared from $40 million in 1966 to more than $800 million by the time Bernstein was forced into retirement 24 years later.
After his departure, which stunned the publishing industry, The New York Times described Random House under Bernstein as “a large and unusually harmonious empire, comprised of semi-autonomous fiefdoms, presided over by a benevolent emperor.”
Bernstein headed Human Rights Watch from its founding to 1998, but later became a critic, saying the organization was unduly focused on Israel and relatively indifferent to human rights violations by neighboring Arab countries. In 2010, he started Advancing Human Rights, which advocated the internet as a way of protecting freedom of expression.
Bernstein’s was a muse for at least one author. In “Speaking Freely,” he remembered corresponding frequently with Geisel and visiting his studio in La Jolla, California, where “Dr. Seuss” would read from a work in progress. In 1982, for Bernstein’s 25th anniversary with Random House, Geisel honored him with an original poem:
Since that memorable day
back in Nineteen Five Seven,
most witnesses, long since
have packed off to heaven
But to those who still breathe
the great memory’s still fresh
of the wild wind that blew
with a woosh and a wesch
when Bob Bernstein showed up
in his fine freckled flesh