When Bob Bernstein arrived at Random House in 1956 he found an office full of pigeons. Kay Thompson, a friend and children’s book author who worked nearby, popped out of a closet. She explained that the pigeons were trained, but of course the prank backfired when they flew onto the light fixtures on the high ceiling and the trainer couldn’t reach them with his net.

One pigeon flew into the office of Mr. Bernstein’s supervisor, Lew Miller, and left some presents of its own on his desk.

“Depending on how you look at it, it was either an auspicious or an inauspicious start,” Mr. Bernstein recalls in his memoir, Speaking Freely. Written with Doug Merlino, the book chronicles Mr. Bernstein’s legendary career in publishing — from office boy-in-waiting at Simon and Schuster to president of Random House ­— and his many years at the forefront of human rights advocacy.

On a foggy afternoon this week, Mr. Bernstein, 93, sat on his porch overlooking Vineyard Sound and spoke freely about his career, which spanned decades. As president of Random House from 1965 to 1990, he helped foster the careers of Toni Morrison, Dr. Seuss, James Michener and many others. During the Cold War, he also created a platform for Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Vaclav Havel, who had struggled to be heard.

Publishing led naturally to human rights, in particular the issue of free speech. One turning point was the Soviet Union’s decision in the 1970s to join the Universal Copyright Convention, allowing its authors to collect royalties. He began to make inroads into the world of Soviet dissidents through American journalists and others in the west.

“There are certain things you just do, and when you look back you don’t know why you did it,” Mr. Bernstein said, recalling his early encounters with Soviet writers. “I decided that Random House was big enough that we could publish these guys, whether they’d sell or they wouldn’t sell. But we could make a statement by starting to publish them.” Over the years, Random House picked up books by Yuri Orlov, Roy Medvedev and many others, drawing both praise and criticism from the publishing community.

“We went behind the Iron Curtain,” Mr. Bernstein said.

New memoir chronicles Mr. Bernstein's legendary career.

At the same time, the company was experiencing unprecedented growth, with new acquisitions and an ever-growing list of authors. But Mr. Bernstein doesn’t take all the credit.

“The only thing I really think I did well at Random House was to hire terrific people,” he said. “I really saw my job as getting them to come to Random House, being sure that they felt well compensated, and leaving them alone.”

He also did his best not to corporatize the business. Things have changed, he said, but at the time it was almost like a family. He recalled once seeing William Faulkner arrive unannounced at the Random House headquarters (in the elegant Villard Mansion in Manhattan) with a manuscript in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. Mr. Faulkner and his editor, Albert Erskine, would disappear for days when a new manuscript arrived.

“We’d publish his book without a contract because we just hadn’t gotten around to it,” Mr. Bernstein said, noting just how casual the business could be.

His early employers at Simon and Schuster were much more than bosses. They welcomed him into their social circles and offered advice that lasted a lifetime. In the 1950s, Albert Leventhal, who was a vice president of Simon & Schuster, also introduced Mr. Bernstein and his wife, Helen, to the Vineyard, where he often connected with writers and colleagues. William Styron, who was signed with Random House, was a regular Islander, and his wife Rose Styron is now a leading figure in human rights. (Next Thursday, July 14, Mrs. Styron will host a public conversation with Mr. Bernstein at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven.)

Pivotal relationships seemed to emerge on their own when the time was right. When Random House bought a small textbook company called L.W. Singer, for example, Mr. Bernstein decided to make a visit to Syracuse and have a look around. He soon struck up a conversation with an employee by the name of Toni Morrison.

“She told me what she was working on and she shone like a diamond,” he recalled. “I said, ‘What would you like to do now that Random House has acquired L.W. Singer?’ And she said, ‘The obvious. I’d like to be an editor at Random House.’ So I said, ‘I’m president, I can do that.’ And we brought her down and she became an editor.”

Ms. Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, recalls the same encounter in the forward to Speaking Freely.

“I remember a cigar (Fidelistic), height (much too tall), and restless, impatient eyes,” she writes. “The cigar was gone the next time I saw him, but the height remained as did the impatience. But the restlessness seemed to have been replaced by what I understood now to be an intense curiosity: things interested him; people interested him; ideas interested him.”

When Mr. Bernstein started the Fund for Free Expression in the 1970s, he put together an all-star board of directors — including Ms. Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow and others — which issued statements in support of dissident writers in the Eastern Bloc. That work drew the attention of the Ford Foundation and others hoping to enforce the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, an agreement between the Soviet Union and western states that was based partly on the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Mr. Bernstein agreed to form a new nonprofit, Helsinki Watch, which later grew into the global Human Rights Watch organization, which he chaired until 1990. (He still serves as chairman emeritus.) His connections through Random House were essential in getting those efforts off the ground. On a number of occasions, he said, major donations virtually fell into his lap.

“I got known as a great fundraiser,” he said, although he suggested that it was mostly a matter of being in the right place at the right time — and knowing the right people.

“Looking back, there was no planning,” he said of his career in publishing. When RCA acquired Random House in the 1960s, he said, they had asked him for a five-year plan. “I told them I had none, I just muddle through. And that was the way publishing was. We couldn’t decide when James Michener was going to finish a book and be a huge bestseller and our profits would go up.”

But he believes publishers all have a responsibility to uphold the principles of free speech and human rights.

“I think the one thing I’ve learned — forced upon me — was the importance of the written and spoken word and what it does to our society,” he said. Looking forward, he hopes publishers will continue pressing for free speech as he has, and standing up against governments that spread hate. “I think there is a huge job to be done by publishers, which will never be done,” he said. But sitting calmly by the water, which now had reappeared through the fog, he seemed undaunted by the task.

For those looking to get into the business, his advice is the same as it was years ago. “Get into the publishing house,” he said. “Take any job. And from the minute you’re there, start to work to get the job you really want. But get in. Don’t wait.”