Robert L. Bernstein, who rose from his position as office assistant at Simon & Schuster to chairman of Random House, where he oversaw the creation of the country's largest trade publisher, died on May 27. He was 96.
During his time at RH, Bernstein oversaw a host of acquisitions that drove revenue to about $840 million at the company, which at the time was owned by the Newhouse family. In addition to purchasing companies, Bernstein's Random House published some of the country's most acclaimed authors, including James Michener, Toni Morrison, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and E.L Doctorow. Bernstein also published several Soviet dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov.
Bernstein's interest in Soviet dissidents and others who were struggling under authoritarian regimes was fueled by a trip he made to Moscow with the Association of American Publishers in 1973, which he recounted in his memoir, Speaking Freely, published by the New Press in 2016. His commitment to human rights would lead Bernstein not only to champion the cause of oppressed authors but also to found a number of rights watch groups that merged into the Human Rights Watch in 1988.
Although Bernstein had grown RH into a major publishing power during his tenure from 1966 to 1990, he was dismissed by S.I. Newhouse early in 1990—a move, Bernstein recalled in his book, that came as a surprise. His dismissal has largely been attributed to the Newhouses' drive to improve profits throughout its media businesses. He was replaced by Alberto Vitale. After his departure from RH, Bernstein served as publisher-at-large at John Wiley, where he worked until resigning in 1998.
In a Publishers Weekly Q & A conducted by PW senior writer Andrew Albanese shortly after the release of Speaking Freely in 2016, Bernstein discussed his publishing career, his involvement with human rights causes, and his belief in the future of publishing.