Biographer Laura Claridge gives well-deserved center stage to publisher Blanche Knopf in The Lady with the Borzoi, released last month—a century after Blanche Wolf married Alfred Abraham Knopf and cofounded a house that many consider to be the crown jewel of American publishing. Bringing to life an enigmatic tastemaker who introduced an international roster of award-winning authors to American audiences, Claridge delivers a portrait of a shrewd, driven, elegant luminary who transformed the literary landscape but was continually denied full credit for her achievements because of sexism. As late as 1965, a year before her death, Blanche Knopf was still barred from the all-male Publishers’ Lunch Club despite the multiple Nobel Prize–winning authors she had published.
In researching my history of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., The Art of Prestige: The Formative Years at Knopf, 1915–1929 (UMass Press, 2014), I read hundreds of documents written by Blanche, evidence of countless hours she spent competing for important acquisitions, negotiating contracts, requesting editorial revisions, making design choices, overseeing advertising plans, and every other minute facet in the life of a book, yet the letterhead omitted her name; Alfred named the firm for himself, emblazoning his identity on all correspondence.
In 1922, the company trademarked the term Borzoi Books, along with the emblem of a Russian wolfhound. Some readers notice the phrase “This is a Borzoi Book” on copyright pages and think it refers to a special Knopf imprint, but in fact every Knopf book is a Borzoi Book, and the term was used heavily in marketing promotions throughout the company’s early years. Alfred always attributed the choice of a borzoi colophon to Blanche, and it’s my opinion that she hoped the firm would become known as Borzoi Books so that the branding would reflect a neutral partnership, putting the spotlight on the flair of the authors, not the ego of her husband. In one of the rare advertisements that features Blanche’s name, appearing in the New York Times in 1922, she omits Alfred’s name altogether to proclaim that “my first catalog of first editions of (for the most part) younger English and American writers is now ready and will be sent on request post free. . . . A few desirable French titles are also listed. Blanche W. Knopf/The Borzoi/220 West 42nd St., New York.”
Claridge’s book left me with a tantalizing what-if. What if Blanche had used the sizable inheritance from her mother to strike out on her own? Would her firm have become the favored crown jewel, outpacing Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in revenue, prizes, and laudatory reviews? Blanche lacked a college education, while Alfred’s first literary alliances were the result of his coursework at Columbia. Yet perhaps that was one of Blanche’s advantages: he was steeped in an old-world canon of male European authors, mirroring the priorities of the faculty, while she enthusiastically embraced modernism. Neither was she at a disadvantage in terms of professionalization. Alfred was fortunate enough to learn the ropes through apprenticeships with Frank Nelson Doubleday and Mitchell Kennerley, but Blanche soon caught up, rapidly completing her phase as Alfred’s apprentice. She easily learned the systematic details while mastering the aspects of successful publishing that can’t be taught (how to be fiercely competitive yet financially rational; how to manage talent; how to influence cultural tastes, not just react to them).
Of course, this is a decidedly twenty-first-century question; in American book publishing today, a majority of the professionals are women. Blanche Knopf would surely have excelled as a digital media magnate.
Amy Clements is the author of The Art of Prestige: The Formative Years at Knopf, 1915–1929 (UMass Press, 2014) and associate professor of English at St. Edward’s University.
For a review of Clements’s book along with Claridge’s, please see the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Book Trailer for The Art of Prestige