PER­FECT BOUND

For half a cen­tury, Blanche Knopf, one of the most pro­duc­tive, ver­sa­tile, savvy prin­ci­pals at Al­fred A. Knopf, Inc., was ig­nored, shouted down, bul­lied and passed over

Geist - - News - Mary Schendlinger

Buried Trea­sure

Just by hang­ing around the book busi­ness for a few decades I have been vaguely aware that in the past there was a Blanche Knopf as­so­ci­ated with Al­fred A. Knopf, Inc. That was all I knew of her. Then, in spring 2016, I opened The New Yorker to find a long re­view of The Lady with the Bor­zoi: Blanche Knopf, Lit­er­ary Tastemaker Ex­traor­di­naire (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux), a bi­og­ra­phy of Blanche by Laura Clar­idge. I signed up for it on the li­brary hold list and tucked right into the re­view—which filled me with dis­may.

From the get-go, Charles Mcgrath, the re­viewer, seems un­able to ad­mire or even re­spect the bi­og­ra­pher or her sub­ject. I found pas­sage af­ter pas­sage dis­mis­sive, even con­temp­tu­ous. In The New Yorker. Was it a bad book about a bad pub­lisher?

No. The Lady with the Bor­zoi is a well-re­searched, metic­u­lously com­piled bi­og­ra­phy filling four hun­dred pages, in­clud­ing notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, ac­knowl­edge­ments and in­dex.

In 1915, when large parts of the world were at war and Amer­i­can women did not yet have the right to vote, the new com­pany Al­fred A. Knopf, Inc., made its dar­ing de­but in the New York book pub­lish­ing scene. The founders, in their early twen­ties, did not ex­pect to be in­stantly wel­comed into po­lite pub­lish­ing so­ci­ety: they were Jewish, and they didn’t come from money. But they lived for books and read­ing, they had iden­ti­fied their lit­er­ary mar­ket niche, they had a few con­tacts and they un­der­stood brand­ing, decades be­fore the term came into use.

Their idea was to ac­quire lit­er­ary books pub­lished in Europe and to trans­late them into English, set the text in sump­tu­ous type, wrap them up in posh de­signs and mar­ket them as a glam blend of old-world tra­di­tion and dy­namic new lit­er­a­ture. The books would be pro­moted through triedand-true ad­ver­tis­ing, au­thor events and book­seller-schmooz­ing, and with thor­oughly mod­ern Amer­i­can tech­niques such as bill­boards and street hawk­ers.

Knopf pro­duced twen­ty­nine ti­tles in 1915–16, its first year in busi­ness, six­teen of them trans­lated from Rus­sian.

The next year they brought out thirty-seven, in­clud­ing a book of prose by Ezra Pound. By the late 1920s the com­pany had also pub­lished T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Robert Graves, Nella Larsen, Eli­nor Wylie, Wyn­d­ham Lewis, H.L. Mencken,

Knut Ham­sun, Emile Zola,

James Bald­win and many oth­ers, and the pro­lific Willa Cather had moved from Houghton Mif­flin to Knopf with her novel One of Ours, which in 1923 won the first Pulitzer Prize for the com­pany. Knopf had also de­vel­oped the wildly pop­u­lar Bor­zoi Mys­tery Sto­ries, the De­pres­sion-era hard-boiled de­tec­tive nov­els by Dashiell Ham­mett, James M. Cain, Ray­mond Chan­dler, Eric Am­bler and oth­ers. By the 1960s, Knopf’s list in­cluded books by Vir­ginia Woolf, El­iz­a­beth Bowen, D.H. Lawrence, Ethel Wa­ters, Ed­ward Al­bee, John Updike, Wal­lace Stevens, Lil­lian Hell­man, Muriel Spark and Sig­mund Freud, and trans­lated works by Si­mone de Beau­voir, Jean-paul Sartre and Al­bert Ca­mus, and Knopf au­thors had won twenty-seven Pulitzer Prizes and six­teen No­bel prizes—an ef­fort of lit­er­ary ex­cel­lence and di­ver­sity that we can envy to­day. The prin­ci­pals of this up­start com­pany were, in or­der of author­ity, Al­fred A. Knopf, Sam Knopf (Al­fred’s fa­ther) and Blanche Wolf Knopf (Al­fred’s wife).

The story of Al­fred A. Knopf, Inc., like other suc­cess sto­ries, comes with buried trea­sure. From its found­ing in 1915 to the 1960s, one of the firm’s most pro­duc­tive, ver­sa­tile, savvy, loyal prin­ci­pals was de­lib­er­ately de­val­ued, ig­nored, si­lenced, shouted down, bul­lied, passed by and passed over. That per­son was Blanche Wolf Knopf, Al­fred’s wife, who co-founded the com­pany and worked tire­lessly from day one un­til she died in 1966. Al­fred took credit for her work for half a cen­tury; Laura Clar­idge wrote The Lady with the Bor­zoi to set the record straight.

Al­fred and Blanche had talked about their pub­lish­ing com­pany end­lessly dur­ing their courtship, and—blanche be­lieved—had vowed to be equal part­ners in the firm. But Al­fred and his fa­ther, Sam, ar­ro­gated author­ity and as­sets from the start, giv­ing Blanche only 25 per­cent of the com­pany and a ti­tle that was al­ways be­neath Al­fred’s, even when ev­ery­one got pro­moted. The men ex­plained that “three names on the door would be ex­ces­sive.” In quar­terly newslet- ters, Al­fred wrote about the com­pany’s ac­com­plish­ments and growth, al­ways in the first per­son, with no sign of Blanche. To cel­e­brate Knopf’s fifth an­niver­sary in 1920, Al­fred pub­lished an elab­o­rate book of tes­ti­mo­ni­als about “my first five years,” “my au­thors,” “my staff,” etc.—and men­tioned he was pon­der­ing an in­ter­est­ing new man­u­script “found by Mrs. Knopf.” All his life Al­fred de­nied hav­ing made any equal part­ner­ship agree­ment with Blanche. “Look­ing back to the days when I was on the board,” he said, three years af­ter Blanche died, “the idea of a woman be­ing part of it is some­thing that I sim­ply can­not be­come rec­on­ciled to.”

The trou­ble with Charles Mcgrath’s New Yorker ar­ti­cle on Blanche Knopf starts at the top of the page, with the “dek”—that bit of teaser text that runs un­der the ti­tle and au­thor of an ar­ti­cle. It read: “How Blanche Knopf helped make Knopf.” Helped? Blanche did the lion’s share of ac­qui­si­tions—find­ing out what was be­ing seen, heard, talked about, read and writ­ten, then sign­ing up the best books and writ­ers to be found, usu­ally in per­son, at the mod­est rates the com­pany could af­ford. She scru­ti­nized manuscripts and trans­la­tions, por­ing over ev­ery page with an ear to the sub­ject, tone and mu­sic of the writ­ing, and she worked with ty­pog­ra­phers and de­sign­ers to en­sure the per­fect “look” of many a fin­ished prod­uct. She took care of writ­ers, staying in touch, en­cour­ag­ing them, load­ing them back on the wagon long enough to fin­ish a man­u­script, send­ing food over­seas dur­ing food ra­tioning, cam­paign­ing for their well-de­served lit­er­ary awards, walk­ing them through con­tracts and sched­ules, talk­ing them in off the ledge when they were stuck. Nine days be­fore she died painfully of liver can­cer, she was dic­tat­ing cor­re­spon­dence to au­thors and agents. The writer El­iz­a­beth Bowen said of Blanche: “She never asks a sin­gle ques­tion which is hurt­ful or im­proper to the per­son of cre­ative imag­i­na­tion.” Blanche hosted din­ners and af­ter­noon gath­er­ings for artists, mu­si­cians and writ­ers, en­cour­ag­ing them in their work, ex­chang­ing views on the cul­tural scene, build­ing com­mu­nity and gen­er­at­ing new book ideas. These at­ten­tions are gold: to this day many au­thors will choose an en­thu­si­as­tic, re­spect­ful pub­lisher over a higher ad­vance.

Blanche trav­elled ev­ery­where she could, when­ever she could, to main­tain

From the get go, the re­viewer seems un­able to ad­mire or even re­spect the bi­og­ra­pher or her sub­ject.

her con­nec­tions with au­thors, agents and pub­lish­ers, and to im­merse her­self in lo­cal cul­ture to meet new ones. Then she fol­lowed up, re­spond­ing to let­ters, con­tracts and manuscripts that had been gen­er­ated or come in as by­catch on scout­ing trips. In 1942, when it was un­safe for Amer­i­cans to travel to Europe, she went to South Amer­ica as an un­of­fi­cial en­voy for the US State De­part­ment. There she vis­ited gov­ern­ment lead­ers as part of Washington’s at­tempt to dis­cour­age con­nec­tion with Axis pow­ers, then spent sev­eral days in each of six coun­tries, car­ry­ing out her pub­lish­ing work. In 1943, Blanche flew to London and met her au­thors and agents as planned, de­spite the nightly bomb­ings. She and Al­fred were so highly thought of that they were in­vited to wit­ness the Nurem­berg tri­als in 1946, and Blanche did so. In 1949 she be­came a cheva­lier of the Le­gion of Hon­our for her work with French writ­ers.

Wher­ever she was, Blanche was alert to pub­lish­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. In the 1930s, when Dashiell Ham­mett at­tended a meet­ing with Blanche and brought his lover, the fa­mously prickly Lil­lian Hell­man, Blanche ac­quired her play The Chil­dren’s Hour. In 1962, dur­ing the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, she went scout­ing for a book on the sub­ject. A few years later, when she was spend­ing long hours with hair­dressers be­cause of the ef­fects of can­cer treat­ments, she ac­quired a mem­oir by one of them. Al­fred and his fa­ther Sam han­dled sales and fi­nances, and they were aces at it, but they’d have had lit­tle to sell with­out Blanche’s skill at iden­ti­fy­ing win­ners and pre­sent­ing them to dis­cern­ing Amer­i­can au­di­ences.

So: “helped make Knopf.” It would be a supreme in­sult even to sug­gest that Al­fred “helped” make Knopf, so why is it okay to say it about Blanche? Charles Mcgrath likely did not write that dek, but the New Yorker copy­writer who did would have done so based on a quick read of Mcgrath’s text. Which in­cludes this pas­sage, a few lines later: “[Al­fred] Knopf was just twenty-two when, in 1915, he started the busi­ness… his as­sis­tant and only em­ployee, other than an of­fice boy, was his fi­ancée, twenty-year-old Blanche Wolf, whom he mar­ried a year later…” Even Al­fred would de­scribe Blanche as a col­league, not a hireling. And my good­ness, how smoothly Mcgrath’s sen­tence rel­e­gates Blanche to “em­ployee,” at the level of an of­fice boy.

Even a punc­tu­a­tion mark can twist a fact. Blanche’s “for­mal ed­u­ca­tion ended with the Gard­ner School,” Mcgrath writes, “which was mainly a fin­ish­ing school for Jewish girls who couldn’t get into Brear­ley or Chapin.” In other words, Blanche wasn’t smart enough to get in. Had Mcgrath or one of The New Yorker’s leg­endary fact-check­ers in­serted a comma af­ter “Jewish girls,” that pas­sage would read “mainly a fin­ish­ing school for Jewish girls, who couldn’t get into Brear­ley or Chapin,” mean­ing that Jewish girls were ex­cluded from Brear­ley and Chapin—which, with very few ex­cep­tions, was true.

As a trade­mark, Mcgrath writes, Al­fred “stamped his books with a bor­zoi.” No. Most of “his” books were prod­ucts of Blanche’s ex­per­tise and at­ten­tion, and the pow­er­ful leap­ing bor­zoi im­age was her con­cept, not his. As for Al­fred’s “big­gest suc­cess… Kahlil Gi­bran’s The Prophet,” in fact Al­fred came close to driv­ing that cash cow right out of the pas­ture. The com­pany had pub­lished a few chap­books by Gi­bran that didn’t catch on, and Al­fred and Sam rec­om­mended that Gi­bran be re­leased. But Blanche had a hunch about Gi­bran; she put up a fight and some­how per­suaded the com­pany to keep him. The Prophet came along soon af­ter; it has been trans­lated into some forty lan­guages and has not gone out of print in English since Knopf, Inc., first pub­lished it in 1923.

Mcgrath men­tions Blanche’s claim of an equal-part­ner agree­ment, then fol­lows it with “Not al­ways a re­li­able wit­ness, Blanche…,” sug­gest­ing dis­hon­esty. Or per­haps he is re­fer­ring to Blanche’s rein­ven­tion of her­self, at age twenty(!), when Knopf got un­der­way with tiny cash and big ideas. The com­pany she and Al­fred con­ceived would be ex­clu­sive rather than flashy, em­pha­siz­ing qual­ity rather than volume, trad­ing in pres­tige, a sort of bou­tique pub­lisher ahead of its time. For each ti­tle they fussed over ev­ery de­tail of type, pa­per, cover de­sign and mar­ket­ing strat­egy. Even Knopf’s mod­est sales fig­ures be­came part of the Knopf brand, em­pha­siz­ing qual­ity over mass. Blanche and Al­fred placed them­selves in the pub­lic eye as fash­ion­able, globe-trotting, thor­oughly mod­ern cul­tural tastemak­ers, and they dressed the part in­side and out. Al­fred be­came known for his flam­boy­ant out­fits; Blanche wore de­signer clothes, shoes and jew­ellery, and spent many an hour read­ing manuscripts and con­tracts while in the care of the staff at El­iz­a­beth Ar­den. She tarted up her lin­eage as well, de­scrib­ing her fa­ther, Julius Wolf, as a “gold jew­eller from Vi­enna” when in fact he had been a Bavar­ian farm labourer and later a gar­ment man­u­fac­turer in New York. If Mcgrath sees this as dis­hon­esty, we might draw his at­ten­tion to the hun­dreds of times Al­fred Knopf said “I”

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