By Laura Clar­idge; Far­rar, Straus and Giroux; 400 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Bor­zoi, The Lady With the

Blanche Knopf had an il­lus­tri­ous pub­lish­ing ca­reer by any mea­sure: Her stable of au­thors, which in­cluded Willa Cather and Thomas Mann, won Pulitzers and No­bels. Her lob­by­ing helped her author and friend Albert Ca­mus win the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture in 1957. Blanche and her hus­band, Al­fred Knopf, were in their early twen­ties when they started the in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ing house Al­fred A. Knopf in 1915. She would later be­grudge the fact that he never added her maiden name — Wolf — to the firm, as he had ini­tially promised to do. Blanche and the Knopf edi­tors were in charge of ac­quir­ing fic­tion, while Al­fred stuck to art and his­tory. In

Laura Clar­idge main­tains that Blanche’s role was in­dis­pens­able to the firm’s suc­cess but that her hus­band avoided ac­knowl­edg­ing the cen­tral­ity of her role, ex­cept in an in­ter­view af­ter her death. In the news­let­ters that Knopf oc­ca­sion­ally sent its read­ers, Al­fred rou­tinely re­ferred to him­self as the pub­lisher with a sin­gu­lar “I.” Set against the back­drop of Knopf’s critical and com­mer­cial suc­cess, Clar­idge’s bi­og­ra­phy tells the story of Blanche’s es­sen­tial con­tri­bu­tions to the firm, her im­pec­ca­ble work ethic, and her messy per­sonal life.

As a pub­lisher, Blanche bet on a lot of win­ning horses. With char­ac­ter­is­tic whirl­wind en­ergy, she trav­eled fre­quently to Europe to con­nect with her au­thors. Clar­idge gives some de­tails about Blanche’s long-stand­ing friend­ship with An­glo-Ir­ish nov­el­ist El­iz­a­beth Bowen and her bond with Ca­mus (there is a brief but touch­ing ac­count of Ca­mus’ death in a car ac­ci­dent). Oc­ca­sion­ally, this read­able bi­og­ra­phy be­gins to feel like a month-by-month di­ary: Blanche trav­eled to tend to Ray­mond Chan­dler in Los Angeles, and she helped Mann re­lo­cate to the U.S. — but when McCarthy­ism broke out, Mann couldn’t take it any­more and moved to Switzer­land. The book leaves one wish­ing Clar­idge had gone deeper into the lit­er­ary sub­stance of Blanche’s friend­ships with au­thors such as Mann. In the same vein, we are not given in­sights into Blanche’s lit­er­ary as­sess­ments of her au­thors’ work, but rather the nuts and bolts of her per­sonal story, com­bined with a cat­a­logu­ing of her pro­fes­sional life, both sto­ries be­ing deeply en­tan­gled with each other.

Blanche’s re­la­tion­ship with Al­fred was dif­fi­cult to be­gin with, and it be­came strained af­ter he al­lowed his father, Sam Knopf, to join the firm. Sam seemed to take spe­cial plea­sure in needling Blanche, treat­ing her as a sec­re­tary and or­der­ing her to make cof­fee for him, though she was the firm’s vice pres­i­dent. Even­tu­ally, the Knopfs’ mar­riage de­volved into a lais­sez­faire sit­u­a­tion, with each party main­tain­ing sep­a­rate res­i­dences. There are sor­did de­tails here, di­vulged by a chauf­feur, about the af­ter­math. The strains in the mar­riage con­trib­uted to the sour­ing of their re­la­tion­ship with their only son, Pat. He was so dis­ap­pointed in the way Blanche con­ducted her per­sonal life that he seem­ingly never for­gave her. Pat even­tu­ally left his par­ents’ firm to co-found Atheneum Pub­lish­ers in 1959.

Al­fred comes across as an ego­ist, but there were some ex­cep­tions to his lifelong habit of min­i­miz­ing Blanche’s con­tri­bu­tions to Knopf — he no­tably feted her at a Knopf an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion. Their trou­bled re­la­tion­ship is rife with con­tra­dic­tions: De­spite their con­stant bick­er­ing and at­tempts to hu­mil­i­ate each other at Knopf ed­i­to­rial meet­ings, many ob­servers re­marked that on other oc­ca­sions, he looked at her as though he were still very much in love. Some em­ploy­ees knew Blanche was cen­tral to Knopf, though Al­fred kept up the stance that she merely as­sisted him in his ef­forts. He was ver­bally abu­sive to her, and af­ter her death, ac­cord­ing to one ob­server, he ver­bally abused his sec­ond wife as well.

With all the per­sonal con­flict in Blanche’s life, it’s a re­lief to know that from the very be­gin­ning of her ca­reer, she did what she loved. She could not fathom re­tir­ing, un­like her hus­band, who had de­vel­oped a love for the West and ached to spend more time there. Blanche was too busy nour­ish­ing her au­thors to dream of do­ing any­thing else. Re­mark­ably, she con­tin­ued to travel to Europe even af­ter she knew she was very ill. The med­i­ca­tion she had taken for years to stay slim ef­fec­tively ren­dered her blind — a tragic out­come for a pub­lisher. She made a last at­tempt at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Al­fred, even as she likely knew she was dy­ing.

Blanche’s in­ten­sity, her un­ceas­ing ac­tiv­ity, and her ded­i­ca­tion to her au­thors are deeply mov­ing. A largely un­ac­knowl­edged pi­o­neer of pub­lish­ing, she would nev­er­the­less pave the way for fe­male edi­tors and pub­lish­ers, such as Nan Talese, who are now cel­e­brated in the field. Blanche did get some recog­ni­tion in the form of awards from France and Brazil, where she worked tire­lessly to find au­thors to bring to the at­ten­tion of Amer­i­can read­ers. Work­ing at a time when pub­lish­ing was a more hands-on and fam­ily-based busi­ness than it is to­day, Blanche had a de­vo­tion to lit­er­a­ture — and not to the bot­tom line — that nonethe­less yielded ma­jor div­i­dends for Knopf. — Priyanka Ku­mar

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