Columns

Buried Treasure

RICHARD VAN CAMP

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

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 216, 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 tried-and-true advertising, author events and bookseller-schmoozing, and with thoroughly modern American techniques such as billboards and street hawkers.

Knopf produced twenty-nine 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 192s 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 196s, 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 196s, 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 newsletters, 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 192, 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 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 193s, 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” when the truth was “she,” and occasionally “we.”

In fact, the word prestige comes from the Latin praestigiae, which gives us prestidigitation (sleight of hand), tricks in which spectators are complicit—everyone loves a great magic show. Blanche Knopf understood this dance perfectly: consumers of Borzoi Books were members of an exclusive club.

McGrath seems not to understand that the image Blanche projected—the clothes, the hairstyles, the parties, the world travels—was part of her stock-in-trade as an arbiter of literary taste. Luckily for the company, she happened to enjoy it. “She relished the glamorous side of publishing,” he writes, “and, like her husband, became a clotheshorse… she grew her red-painted fingernails so long they resembled talons.” Oh dear.

“She was a far more complicated and interesting character [than Alfred],” McGrath continues; “brilliant and ambitious but also lonely and self-thwarting.” In other words, if she was unhappy and unfulfilled, it was her fault. Alfred, on the other hand, “was needier than she, a bit of a blowhard… he didn’t like giving credit to anyone…” No self-thwarting there, just a couple of executive tics. (Then eighty-three words on why there is not yet a biography of Alfred.)

Blanche “began a series of affairs,” McGrath writes; then, coyly enlisting the reader: “not with authors, as you might guess… ” Why would we guess that? It is highly unprofessional to dance on the same table you eat from, as McGrath must know. In fact it was Alfred who took up with a Knopf author, whom he married less than a year after Blanche’s death. But McGrath plows on, offering no evidence: “The affairs seem less grand passions than attempts to assert her own importance.”

“Blanche was also a victim of sexism, and not just her husband’s,” McGrath writes, apparently without irony. He points out that in 1965, a year before her death, Blanche was still barred from meetings of the guys-only Publishers’ Lunch Club; and that her stellar work in Brazil inspired this headline in the New York Herald Tribune: Brazil Honors Mrs. Knopf: Makes Publisher’s Wife a Chevalier in Order of the Southern Cross. But there is no mention of Blanche’s lifelong eating disorder and her ingestion of “diet pills” containing DNP, an ingredient of dynamite. Or her obituary in the New York Times, reassuring readers that “Mrs. Knopf was petite and chic; she was once plump, but for the last 35 years of her life weighed no more than 1 lbs.”

“Claridge argues that Blanche was actually the more important and influential of the two Knopfs,” McGrath continues. He declares, again with no evidence, “That’s a stretch,” then deftly commends Blanche while keeping her well away from the male bastion: “but her book is still a long-overdue acknowledgement of the pioneering role Blanche played at a time when women were nearly invisible in the business world.”

Then McGrath scurries back to the real problem: Blanche “could be her own worst enemy, and many people… found her impossible to get along with.” Well, everyone is their own worst enemy. And nowhere does McGrath mention the scores of writers, publishers, booksellers, et al. who adored Blanche—especially in the years she could make time to accompany her irascible, tactless husband on selling trips. No, for McGrath the real trouble seems to be a woman who refuses to turn herself inside out to accommodate others. Blanche’s long red talons say it all.

Only twice in his 2,7-word review does McGrath write, without overt qualification, that Blanche was under-acknowledged: “She was hardworking and brought to the book business both passion and intellectual fierceness. She read manuscripts, accompanied her husband on sales trips, and entertained writers at their home… And it was Blanche… who signed up Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain, establishing a tradition of publishing high-end thrillers that remains a Knopf hallmark.” And: “she never received the credit she deserved.” But even these are miserly versions of the truth. It is as if McGrath cannot forgive Blanche for being better at publishing than most men.

Toward the end of the article, McGrath complains that the biographer, Laura Claridge, “largely ignores [Alfred’s] importance as a marketer, businessman, and literary impresario.” Um, excuse me, Claridge was writing a biography of Blanche Knopf.

Finally, McGrath opines, almost sentimentally, that “the Knopfs had [accidentally] stumbled on a very successful publishing formula: an outsized, public personality balanced by a more sensitive and thoughtful one.” Good grief. Where are those long red talons when we really need them?

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RICHARD VAN CAMP

Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.


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