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Digging into a deep family history



For the Washington Post
Sunday, September 18, 2016

Knopf has long been a golden name in publishing, the home to many distinguished authors and highly regarded for the careful scholarship and esthetic elegance of its books. Its borzoi emblem – a sleek Russian wolfhound, in full stride – automatically seems to guarantee quality.

Still, the firm founded by Alfred A. Knopf and his 20-year-old wife Blanche in 1915 was by no means a success from the get-go. There were financially strapped years at the beginning and again during the Depression. In the 1920s, Liveright and Scribner’s were arguably more important to American literature.

Even in the post-World War II era, Knopf might be sometimes dismissed as the publisher to the carriage trade, while all the more vital, grittier literary excitement could be found at New Directions and Grove Press. Overall, though, for much of the past century, young writers have regularly dreamed of being published by Alfred A. Knopf.

And what of Blanche? According to Laura Claridge, she deserves equal credit for the success of the book company. In effect, The Lady with the Borzoi is a polemical biography, arguing that Blanche Knopf was ill-treated by her husband as both a wife and business partner. Claridge lays out her revisionist program early on, declaring that “in an age when white men controlled the narrative,’ Blanche stood at what Stacy Schiff in ‘Cleopatra,’ calls ‘one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power.’ ”

It should elicit no surprise, then, that this biography comes across as markedly tendentious. In these pages, Alfred is never shown as an astute businessman; he is portrayed as undersexed, meekly submissive to his rich father, given to violent temper tantrums and unsympathetic to his wife’s fervent socializing. Perhaps so. Nonetheless, by comparison with Blanche, he seems almost likable.

Few would doubt that Blanche Knopf was denied full credit for all she brought to the success of the company she co-founded. Nonetheless, Claridge depicts her less as a businesswoman or “literary tastemaker extraordinaire,” than as a cosseted, albeit troubled and unhappy socialite who regularly slept around.

There is, in fact, a thread of salaciousness that runs through these pages, as we learn of Blanche’s groupie-like eagerness to bed world-class musicians, including Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Arthur Rubinstein and Serge Koussevitzky. These affairs, by the way, were often simultaneous rather than serial, and didn’t exclude lesser mortals and even a gigolo. To her favored partners Blanche would present gold Dunham cigarette lighters.

Believing, like the former Duchess of Windsor, that one can’t be too thin, Blanche stuffed herself with pills to kill her appetite (and by so doing ruined her health). According to one of her doctors, she would have liked to have weighed 75 pounds. Apparently, she felt that only the most anorectic frame would permit her to wear the chic, made-to-order French outfits she favored. Claridge notes that even in the midst of the Depression, Blanche would make an annual trip to Paris to acquire the latest fashions.

What of Blanche’s literary judgment? It varied greatly.

During the 1920s her two favorite novelists were Joseph Hergesheimer and Carl Van Vechten. Claridge rather cruelly dismisses Hergesheimer as just a popular society novelist, though he was more than that, as readers of his novella Wild Oranges know. Van Vechten is now mainly remembered as the white champion of the Harlem Renaissance and a superb portrait photographer. (An excellent introduction to this fascinating figure and his bold, if neglected, fiction is Edward White’s “The Tastemaker.”) Both Knopfs managed to share a deep admiration for gadfly H.L. Mencken, who eventually served on their company’s board.

Claridge strongly suggests that Blanche discovered Dashiell Hammett. This seems at least slightly exaggerated, since the “Continental Op” stories in Black Mask magazine had already garnered lots of attention. But Blanche did commission Hammett’s early novels and later brought out the work of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. “The backroom boys,” as Edmund Wilson called them, greatly helped keep the publishing house afloat during the tough times of the 1930s. Later, Blanche also championed Albert Camus and energetically campaigned for his Nobel Prize.

Although the Knopfs lived glamorous, rich-people lives, their only son, Pat, was cared for by nannies, packed off to various boarding schools and pretty much ignored, except when Blanche worried that she was a bad mother. Not that Pat’s father could be viewed as a much better parent: In one of the creepiest parts of this sex-obsessed book, Claridge says that father and son would share the same prostitutes.

According to former employees, Blanche worked at her desk for long hours. Nonetheless, what she actually did remains fuzzy, although it apparently centered on reading submitted manuscripts. At editorial meetings, she and Alfred argued vociferously, though we seldom learn about what or why or to what purpose. Indeed, only in later pages does Claridge talk a bit about the nitty-gritty of publishing. Even then, it would seem that Blanche mainly threw cocktail parties and fancy dinners.

A lot of publishing does turn on sociable interaction, but Blanche combined business with pleasure – including vacation travel – seemingly all the time. Who, then, was minding the store? Might it be that Alfred, for all his faults, gets short shrift in this biography? He certainly kept loving his wife, in his fashion, up till her death from cancer in 1966 at age 71. Given a better world, Blanche Knopf might doubtless have accomplished even more in publishing than she did, but it’s hard to feel too much feminist angst over her already egregiously privileged life.