Knopf, Blanche (1894–1966)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Knopf, Blanche (1894–1966)

American publisher, and full partner with her husband in one of the world's most successful publishing firms, who wielded power in an era when few women served as executives and brought authors of the stature of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir to America's attention. Pronunciation: KUH-noff. Born Blanche Wolf on July 30, 1894, in New York City; died on June 4, 1966, in New York; daughter of Julius W. Wolf (a jeweler) and Berta Wolf (both immigrants from Vienna); educated by governesses at home; attended the Gardner School and Columbia University; married Alfred A. Knopf (a publisher), on April 4, 1916; children: Patrick Knopf.

Helped husband to found Alfred A. Knopf publishing company (1915); traveled with husband to acquire European writing talent (1921); was vice-president of the firm (1921–56); was the first American talent scout to seek literary talent in South America (1943); named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her literary work in France (1949); made a Cavaliero of the Brazilian National Order of the Southern Cross (1950); served as president of Alfred A. Knopf (1957–66); Knopf merged with Random House (1960); decorated a second time in Brazil, receiving the rank of Oficial in recognition of her literary contributions (1964).

The foyer of the glamorous Ritz Hotel in Paris has long been famous as a gathering place for fashionable women meeting in the afternoon for tea, but in the morning the room can usually be found empty. In the years leading up to and after World War II, however, a couple could sometimes be seen at one of its tables at midmorning, speaking French over their coffee, bourbon, or Badois. He smoked the black Gaulois cigarettes beloved by the French, while she puffed on American Chesterfields. On the chair between them lay the raincoat which he often wore in photos for jackets of his books; she had had the coat made to order for him at Brooks Brothers in New York. The talk at the table was mostly about writing—American writers, English writers, Boris Pasternak—and about the past, the future, and themselves, for clearly these two people knew each other well. He was Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer and eventual winner of the Nobel Prize; she was Blanche Knopf, the American publisher who had made his works famous throughout the world. Camus was only one of many literary discoveries made by Blanche Knopf, and one of many great writers who counted her as a close friend.

Blanche Knopf was born Blanche Wolf in New York in 1894, the daughter of Julius W. Wolf, a prosperous jeweler, and Berta Wolf . Both had emigrated from Vienna. Educated at home by French and German governesses and at the Gardner School in New York, Blanche became fluent in several languages, especially French, which she spoke as if it were her native tongue. In 1911, she was 17 when she met Alfred Knopf, an undergraduate at Columbia and the son of a successful advertising executive and consultant, Samuel Knopf. Two years older than Blanche, Alfred graduated from Columbia in 1912 and went abroad before going to work for the publishing house of Doubleday, Page and Company. The couple were engaged by this time, and Blanche encouraged her fiancé's interest in publishing.

In 1913, while at Doubleday, Alfred was assigned the job of publicizing Chance, a novel by Joseph Conrad, who was relatively unknown in America. Alfred enlisted several notable American writers in praising the book, and the resulting publicity made Chance an enormous success, selling over 50,000 copies. Conrad wrote to Alfred, "If you had not happened along, all these books would have remained on the back shelves of the firm where they have been reposing for the last ten years."

At the beginning of his career, Alfred moved restlessly from job to job. In 1915, he was employed at the firm of Mitchell Kennerley when he was fired after the publisher learned that he was about to start his own company. With $5,000 from his father, Alfred set about launching his new firm, and Blanche rolled up her sleeves to help. Already knowledgeable about literature, she also began to learn a great deal about typography, paper, ink, and printing. On April 4, 1916, she married Alfred, cementing the bonds of marriage and work that would keep the two inextricably bound.

From the start, the Knopfs were noted for high standards of bookmaking. Their books were bound in bright cloth-covered boards and wrapped in jackets of arresting design; the typography was pleasing to the eye, the paper of exceptional quality. The logo of the new firm was an elegant borzoi, a long-haired Russian wolfhound. At the time of the founding, Blanche was particularly fond of her two wolfhounds, though she later grew to dislike the breed, preferring Yorkshire terriers for her canine companions. Whatever the borzois' deficiencies as pets, they were a striking symbol of an up-and-coming publishing firm, and the borzoi continues to grace Knopf books.

I don't think a lady publisher is any different than a man publisher.

—Blanche Knopf

A partner in every decision made at the top in the firm, Blanche Knopf was a vice-president after 1921. She and Alfred secured about twothirds of the book contracts themselves. Only three people in the company were allowed to sign contracts—the Knopfs and their general manager. In weekly staff meetings, Knopf sat with her husband at one end of a conference table facing their gathering of employees; since the couple rarely agreed on the issues under discussion, the meetings were often heated. Seeing the two as rivals, employees often struggled to avoid taking sides, although the couple always reached a mutual objective in the end. Summing up their partnership, Alfred noted, "You have two heads, both with strong personal tastes, who often insist on publishing books that are almost sure to lose money." Although the first part of this statement was certainly correct, the second may be taken as poetic license, since the Knopfs ran an extremely profitable business.

The company's first major success was W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions, published in 1916, followed by Thomas Mann's Royal Highness, H.L. Mencken's A Book of Prefaces,Willa Cather 's Youth and the Bright Medusa, Max Beerbohm's Seven Men, and Clarence Day's This Simian World. In 1921, following World War I, the Knopfs took the innovative step of touring Europe in search of foreign authors, initiating a practice that would become standard among American publishers in future decades.

Their tours of Europe usually lasted three months, and Blanche felt very much at home there. In the couple's partnership, she was the one who possessed the charm and social graces that won over the European authors, including such notables as André Gide, Jules Romains, Simone de Beauvoir , Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ilya Ehrenburg. Her enjoyment of conversation, travel and reading new works brought the firm a constant stream of new talent.

After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Blanche Knopf saw a change in Europe that did not bode well for its future. After her travels in 1936, she claimed, "There is not a German writer left in Germany who is worth thinking about. The gifted writers and enterprising publishers who had any independence left Germany. Only the Nazi writers and publishers remain. They write to please the Nazi government." The outbreak of war ended her travels on the Continent, but she made several trips to war-torn Britain, risking danger in order to maintain contact with Knopf authors there.

In search of new authors, she blazed yet another literary path in 1943 by traveling to Latin America. Soon she had signed Eduardo Mallea, Germán Arciniegas, Jorge Amado, and Gilberto Freyre, among others, an effort that led to her being recognized as a Cavaliero of the Brazilian National Order of the Southern Cross in 1950. In 1964, Blanche was again decorated by Brazil, receiving the rank of Oficial. This followed similar recognition in France, where she had been named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1949.

Blanche Knopf also revolutionized the publishing of detective and crime novels by introducing writers in the genre who won mainstream critical respect. Her firm published all the major works of Dashiell Hammett, including Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, and The Thin Man, and she introduced the first four books by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, and The Lady in the Lake. James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Kenneth Millar (Ross Macdonald), who wrote The Goodbye Look, are two other Knopf discoveries whose works became enormously popular in Europe as well as the United States and are still recognized as classics.

The Knopf marriage was marked by the same individuality as their business relationship. Said Blanche, "A man and his wife don't become Siamese twins bent on identical pursuits and craving the same foods, friends, and diversions." Their differences in taste were particularly evident in dress, since Alfred enjoyed tailored silk shirts in dramatic shades worn with colorful jackets and ties, while Blanche preferred conservative designer clothes. While he collected and drank fine wines, she remained a bourbon drinker. During the week, the two were together at the office all day, but at night she retreated to a nearby apartment and spent evenings enjoying the concerts, parties, and other entertainments provided by the city, while he commuted to their country home in Purchase, New York. She would join him there on weekends. Sharing their love of people, travel, and the publishing of good books, the Knopfs recognized those areas where they were opposites in traits and tastes as a source of strength in their relationship.

"Book publishing is very hard for women in America," said Blanche. "In the early days, I commuted, ran a house, had a baby, read manuscripts all night and held open house (Were 5 coming or 30? It makes a difference)." At a time when few women were company officers, much less full partners in American firms, she worked in a world dominated almost entirely by men. Women in publishing were usually relegated to clerical tasks and rarely rose even to the position of editor. They were also excluded from membership in organizations like the Publishers' Lunch Club and the Book Table that might have helped to enhance their positions. When Knopf attempted to establish a female counterpart to the Publishers' Lunch Club, she attributed her failure to the fact that "there were never enough of us to make it work," and she freely expressed her resentment at the exclusion of women in the field. When a women's college invited her to speak about the future of women in publishing, she declined, saying there was "no future worth mentioning." Nevertheless, she was made president of Alfred A. Knopf in 1957, one of the few women of her era to attain such a position.

Blanche Knopf was a gracious hostess who enjoyed people, and, unlike Alfred, she was a good listener. She created social as well as working relationships with many of her authors, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom she introduced to the non-French public. At a time when she knew little about France's existentialists, she met with Sartre in Paris, declared that she wanted to know more about this group of French philosophers, and asked for a list its members. Sartre replied, "Well, there's Simone de Beauvoir and myself, and that's all."

Knopf also loved to give celebrity-studded parties which not only introduced the up and coming to the famous but also brought publicity to the firm. Alfred A. Knopf published women writers such as Willa Cather and Katherine Mansfield , and black writers such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. Some of its other U.S. authors included Julia Child , Samuel Eliot Morrison, William Shirer, and John Updike.

In 1960, the head of Random House, Bennett Cerf, suggested Knopf merge with his company. One year previous, Patrick Knopf had decided to found his own publishing house, Atheneum, instead of inheriting his parents' firm. A distinguished veteran of World War II, Pat Knopf had frequently demonstrated a spirit of independence akin to that of his parents. Without a need to preserve family ownership, the couple welcomed the Random House merger, which allowed the firm to maintain its independence and its own imprint.

Inside Knopf, employees continued to address their bosses as "Blanche" and "Alfred," the couple continued to review all manuscripts chosen for publication, and their disagreements remained frequent. For a while, Blanche managed to keep secret from outsiders the fact that she had become virtually blind. Old friends in Paris, London, and Rome now scouted for works overseas, and her secretary read parts of manuscripts to her aloud. Her publishing sense and her awareness of trends and coming reputations remained strong, and some even felt that the handicap made her hunches better than ever. No one in the offices, including her husband, ever mentioned her handicap, and she never allowed it to intimidate her. One employee described the sight of her hailing a taxi: "She plunged five or six feet into the street with one thin, bangled arm upraised while brakes around her screeched. So far as I know, she was never injured."

On June 4, 1966, at age 71, Blanche Wolf Knopf died unexpectedly in her sleep at her New York apartment, having worked with her beloved books until the last. The Borzoi Quarterly was a Knopf publication devoted to a variety of in-house topics. The only exception came when Blanche Knopf died. Excerpts from more than 700 letters, cards, and telegrams sent in condolence from writers, editors, publishers, and public figures around the world were used to fill the entire issue.

Following Blanche's death, Alfred took a long trip West, filling his days with friends, conferences, and visits to national parks, but, without Blanche, his intense interest in books almost ceased to exist. Although he had been honored frequently for his immense contributions to the field, he described himself as "more a presence than a publisher" and appearances at his office became increasingly rare. Similarly, publication of the Borzoi Quarterly soon came to an end. (Alfred later married Helen Hedrick and lived with her happily until his death at 91.) The successful partnership forged by Blanche and Alfred Knopf had changed the world's literary landscape. The leaping borzoi on an Alfred A. Knopf book is still a reminder of the company's original elegance, creativity and style.

sources:

"Alfred A. Knopf," in American Literary Publishing Houses 1900–1980: Trade and Paperback. Edited by Peter Dzwonkoski. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

"Blanche Wolf Knopf," in Publishers Weekly. Vol. 189, no. 24. June 13, 1966, pp. 103–104.

Cerf, Bennett. At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf. NY: Random House, 1977.

Commager, Henry Steele. "Speaking of Books: The Knopfs' Half Century," in The New York Times Book Review. October 31, 1965, pp. 2–3, 72.

"A Conversation with Alfred A. Knopf," in U.S. News and World Report. October 17, 1983, p. 88.

Fadiman, Clifton. Fifty Years. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Feldman, Gayle. "The Borzoi Three-Quarterly," in Publishers Weekly. Vol. 237, no. 43. October 26, 1990, pp. 46–51.

"Fifty Years of The Borzoi," in Publishers Weekly. February 1, 1965, pp. 48–54.

"Golden Anniversary of Excellence," in Life. Vol. 59, no. 4. July 23, 1965, pp. 37–38, 40.

Hellman, Geoffrey. "Profiles, Publisher—I: A Very Distinguished Pavane," in The New Yorker. November 20, 1948, pp. 44–57.

——. "Profiles, Publisher—II: Flair is the Word," in The New Yorker. November 27, 1948, pp. 36–52.x

——. "Profiles, Publisher—III: The Pleasures, Prides, and Cream," in The New Yorker. December 4, 1948, pp. 40–53.

Hersey, John. "The Greatest Publisher This Country Ever Had," in Publishers Weekly. Vol. 226, no. 9. August 31, 1984, p. 316.

Kauffman, Stanley, "Album of the Knopfs," in The American Scholar. Vol. 56, no. 3. Summer 1987, pp. 371–380.

Knopf, Blanche, "Albert Camus in the Sun," in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 207, no. 2. February 1961, pp. 77–79, 84.

——. "An American Publisher Tours South America," in The Saturday Review of Literature. Vol. 26, no. 15. April 10, 1943, pp. 7–10.

——. "Impressions of British Publishing in Wartime," in Publishers Weekly. Vol. 144, no. 25. December 18, 1943, pp. 2232–2233.

"Mrs. Blanche Wolf Knopf of Publishing Firm Dies," in The New York Times. June 5, 1966, p. 86.

Schwed, Peter. Turning the Pages: An Insider's Story of Simon & Schuster 1924–1984. NY: Macmillan, 1984.

Scribner, Charles, Jr. In the Company of Writers: A Life in Publishing. NY: Scribner, 1990.

Tebbel, John. Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of Book Publishing in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

——. "Publisher to an Era," in Saturday Review. Vol. 46, no. 35. August 29, 1964, pp. 131–133, 185.

Whitman, Alden. "Blanche W. Knopf," in The Obituary Book. NY: Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 69–73.

Karin Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia