Authored By: Amy Clements
Blanche Wolf Knopf was an American publisher who served as vice president and director of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. from 1918 to 1957 and was the firm’s president from 1957 until her death in 1966. She was essential to the launch of the company in 1915, when she and Alfred were engaged, and can arguably be regarded as a co-founder.
While her husband received his literary education at Columbia University, Blanche was also very well educated by the standards of her time through French and German governesses and The Gardner School for Girls, where she immersed herself in a bountiful library of nineteenth-century European classics. In addition to being an avid bibliophile, she nurtured her passion for the humanities by attending concerts to hear compositions by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, coming of age in Manhattan at a time when events such as the Armory Show of 1913 sparked debates regarding a variety of new movements in the visual arts.[i] Throughout her career as a publisher, her taste would veer in a more experimental direction than Alfred’s, though they both were quick to acquiesce to censors.
A lifelong New Yorker, Blanche was the daughter of Bertha and Julius Wolf, who were co-directors of the Wolf Manufacturing Company, a producer of apparel.[ii] Residing at 40 East 83rd Street, the Wolfs summered on Long Island, not far from the Knopf home in the town of Lawrence. Blanche and Alfred’s courtship began there in 1911, and they were married five years later in a secular ceremony at the St. Regis hotel.[iii] Their only child, Alfred Abraham Knopf, Jr. (known as “Pat”), was born in 1918, following in his parents’ footsteps when he launched Atheneum Publishers in 1959.
By the time they wed, Alfred had worked as an assistant in the accounting department at Doubleday, Page & Co. and served as an apprentice to the literary publisher Mitchell Kennerley. When Blanche joined her fiancé in the small office space of his new venture, she quickly mastered all aspects of the book trade, from production to publicity, though she usually remained in New York while he traveled throughout the country forging partnerships with booksellers, almost all of whom were men.
It was Blanche who proposed a leaping Russian wolfhound, or borzoi, for the firm’s logo, and she invented the alliterative, enduring “Borzoi Books” phrase for the house of Knopf.[iv] In the company’s early years, Blanche occasionally used the phrase to assert her independence as a publisher, as if to compensate for the fact that the company was named entirely for her husband (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). Evidence of this independent spirit includes an anomalous New York Times advertisement in which Blanche proclaims, “my first catalog of first editions of (for the most part) younger English and American writers is now ready. . . . A few desirable French titles are also listed. BLANCHE W. KNOPF/The Borzoi,” with no mention of Alfred, much less the official name of the company that was actually publishing these works.[v] The wolfhound eventually replaced Alfred’s initials as the company’s logo.
Blanche’s rise to prominence was indeed tied to “desirable French titles” as she formed a lifelong friendship and business partnership with literary agent Jenny Bradley in Paris and and also negotiated directly with the house of Mercure de France. She was soon introduced to future Nobel Prize winner André Gide and published an American edition of his novel Strait Is the Gate in 1924, in addition to his novels The Immoralist and The School for Wives, as well as his literary criticism of Dostoyevsky. In subsequent decades, she championed works by Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, leading to her knighthood in the Légion d'Honneur in 1949. In 1960, she rose to the rank of officer.
Alfred Knopf publicly acknowledged his wife’s achievements, but when he created a lunch club called The Book Table, he deemed it an all-male enterprise. This was despite the fact that he had formed it because he was subjected to discrimination himself, being snubbed by the Publishers’ Lunch Club as a result of his Jewish heritage. Blanche attempted to form a lunch club of women in publishing but said “there were never enough of us to make it work.”[vi]
While numerous scholars have written about the vanguard Jewish publishers who revolutionized American publishing in the early twentieth century, loosening the grip of old-guard WASP houses such as Charles Scribner’s Sons, it is important to underscore that Blanche Knopf had to continually fight against being marginalized by the marginalized. Lise Jaillant aptly proves in “The New Publishers of the 1920s” that the notion of a cohesive, allied group of upstart, daring Jewish publishers working together during this decade is more the stuff of legend than fact;[vii] Alfred was more conservative in his publishing choices compared to those of his upstart peers. For Blanche, the dearth of professional peers (as result of her gender) is a defining feature of her identity as a publisher. Without access to the insider news and word-of-mouth recommendations that continue to make such publishers’ clubs valuable, Blanche had to work twice as hard to make herself known.[viii]
Although Blanche’s career spanned more than five decades, she did not live to see other women rising to the top ranks in the American adult trade publishing industry. Three of Blanche’s contemporaries were Mary Norton, who assisted her husband, William Warder Norton, at the firm of W. W. Norton & Company; Ellen Knowles, who became a director and stockholder at Harcourt, Brace & Company; and Amy Loveman, head of the editorial department at the Book-of-the-Month Club. None of them shared Blanche’s passion for being personally immersed in the international literary scene. Yet Blanche was certainly not isolated in the company of the many authors who professed their devotion to her. While it’s impossible to know whether the proliferation of appreciative letters from authors to Blanche that proliferate in the Harry Ransom Center are evidence of a writer’s genuine affection, they are surely evidence of Blanche’s eventual power.
It would be reasonable to assume that Blanche Knopf hoped to establish a publishing partnership with Virginia Woolf; there was considerable similarity between their professional interests and literary tastes. However, evidence indicates that Woolf, first and foremost an artist, did not experience an affinity for Blanche, who called on her at least once in England during the 1930s.[ix] The Hogarth Press and Knopf published many of the same authors, among them E. M. Forster, Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, and the American poet John Crowe Ransom.[x] Yet the overlap occurred most commonly through agents, indicating that in the transatlantic publishing world, the house of Knopf and Hogarth were seen as having similar “brand traits,” as we might say in the twenty-first century, despite the fact the Woolfs and the Knopfs themselves perhaps did not find solidarity in each other. Virginia Woolf’s American publisher of choice was Harcourt.
In a keepsake book published on the sixtieth anniversary of Alfred A. Knopf, Alfred included a photograph he took of an elderly Leonard Woolf at an unspecified “dinner party in the country,” sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. In his caption, Alfred recalls that “sometime in the mid-twenties, I called on him at the offices of his publishing house, The Hogarth Press,” but evidence of any sustained publishing partnership directly between Hogarth and Knopf remains an opportunity for further research.[xi]
In sharp contrast is Blanche’s long-sought-after meeting in 1935 with Dubliner Elizabeth Bowen, whose fiction seemed ideal to Blanche, striking a balance between modernism and accessible realism.[xii] Blanche persuaded Bowen to let Knopf publish The House in Paris in 1936, and a lasting (and very well-documented) friendship subsequently flourished between the two women, interwoven with successful business transactions between publisher and author.
During the summer of 1942, as civilian travel to Europe was difficult because of the war, Blanche Knopf expanded her circle of influence to include South America, flying to Colombia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil as an unofficial envoy of the U.S. State Department.[xiii] On the first of multiple trips to that continent, her quest for progressive voices was fulfilled in the acquisition of Jorge Amado’s The Violent Land, which would eventually be translated into almost fifty languages. In 1950, she was made a Cavaleiro of the Brazilian National Order of the Southern Cross.
The roster of American authors she signed is equally lengthy, luminous, and varied, ranging from detective novelist Dashiell Hammett to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. The common element in each of her publishing relationships was the pursuit of accessible yet thought-provoking literary excellence: “We’re not avant-garde,” Blanche once told a Publishers’ Weekly reporter, “but we’re not pure middle-brow either.”[xiv]
Her contributions to book-design choices are noteworthy as well, a reflection of the fact that Knopf, Inc. touted its high-quality book design as a reflection of the high quality of the writing itself. Sydney Jacobs, who served as the production manager for Knopf for more than forty years, observed that Blanche’s “reaction to color and texture has always been subtle and sensitive: the shock of a cloth manufacturer when he was given a lovely crêpe de chine handkerchief and asked to match it for color is something I still remember.”[xv]
Though Blanche and Alfred shared a commitment to sensible business practices paired with critically acclaimed writing and aesthetically pleasing book production, the contrast between their personalities was marked. Booksellers remembered his loud wardrobe, particularly his crimson silk shirts, that matched his garrulous pitches, while Blanche exuded refinement. In 1928, when the Knopfs built their expansive Tudor-style house in Westchester County, Alfred thrived there despite the requisite commute. He relished building up his wine cellar and furnishing the rooms with a nod to the old world. Blanche, on the other hand, acquired a sleek apartment in midtown Manhattan and decorated it in shades of white, only occasionally joining Alfred in Westchester on weekends.[xvi] In their later years, Blanche and Alfred often engaged in bitter office feuds, appearing more to be rivals than partners.
Blanche Knopf died at the age of 71, two months after Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Despite failing eyesight and a diagnosis of abdominal cancer, she continued to work until the end. The books and authors mentioned in this biography remain widely in print, a testament her extraordinary literary acumen.
In 2020, the publishing-industry veteran Reagan Arthur was named Knopf’s publisher, the first woman to hold that title at the firm.
[i] Claridge, Laura. The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016, p. 11.
[ii] “New York Incorporations,” New York Times, 8 February 1907, and Claridge, Laura. The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016, pp. 49–50. Although Blanche seems to be the origin of the statement that her father was a jeweler, this myth was definitively refuted in Peter Prescott’s interviews with family members and in Julius Wolf’s immigration papers, in addition to the list of incorporations referred to at the beginning of this citation. Nonetheless, the myth persists in older published sources, including a 1986 volume in the Dictionary of Literary Biography and in Blanche Knopf’s profile in the American National Biography Online.
[iii] Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records, Harry Ransom Center. Alfred Knopf’s unpublished memoir, 610:2, p. 122.
[iv] Hellman, Geoffrey. “Publisher: A Very Dignified Pavane.” The New Yorker, 20 November 1948, p. 52.
[v] Advertisement, New York Times, 23 April 1922. Digital page 64 (print edition page 30, Sunday Book Review and Magazine).
[vi] “50 Years of the Borzoi,” Publishers’ Weekly, 1 February 1965, pp. 49 and 54.
[vii] Jaillant, Lise. “The New Publishers of the 1920s.” American Literature in Transition, 1920-1930, edited by Ichiro Takayoshi, Cambridge University Press, 2017, pp. 397-416.
[viii] Hench, John B., “Publishers Who Lunch: Networking of American Book Publishers,” Book History 18, 2015: pp. 273-301.
[ix] Battershill, Claire, and Helen Southworth. “Woolf, the Hogarth Press, and Global Print Culture.” A Companion to Virginia Woolf, edited by Jessica Berman (Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2016), p. 381.
[xi] Knopf, Alfred. Sixty Photographs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1975, p. 12.
[xii] Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records, Harry Ransom Center. Series III: Blanche Knopf, 692.1, letter from Storm Jameson to Blanche Knopf, 20 April 1928.
[xiii] Claridge, Laura. The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016, pp. 214 –219.
[xiv] “50 Years of the Borzoi,” Publishers’ Weekly, 1 February 1965, pp. 49–50.
[xv] Sidney Jacobs, “There Is a Borzoi Style,” in Portrait of a Publisher, 1915–1965, vol. 2, edited by Paul Bennett (New York: The Typophiles, 1965), p. 281.
[xvi] Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Records, Harry Ransom Center. Alfred Knopf’s unpublished memoir, 610:3, p. 187.
Claridge, Laura. The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016.
Clements, Amy Root. The Art of Prestige: The Formative Years at Knopf, 1915 –1929. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.
––. “Young Americans: Transatlantic Connections in the Early Years at Knopf.” Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry, edited by Lise Jaillant, Edinburgh University Press, 2019.
Henderson, Cathy, and Richard Oram. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 355: The House of Knopf, 1915–1960. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Cengage, 2010. Authors featured are Elizabeth Bowen, James M. Cain, Albert Camus, Willa Cather, Raymond Chandler, Roald Dahl, Kahlil Gibran, Dashiell Hammett, John Hersey, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, H. L. Mencken, Kenneth Millar (whose pseudonym was Ross MacDonald), Yukio Mishima, and Carl Van Vechten.