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