‘The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf’ by Laura Claridge

Charles McGrath in The New Yorker:

41-pkLXSkPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Knopf itself has been bought and sold several times, and now belongs, along with hundreds of other publishing imprints, to a mega-company created by the merger of Penguin and Random House. Yet somehow Knopf has held on to its identity as a publisher that prides itself on being singular—on publishing books that are not just good but good-looking and, without neglecting the bottom line, also caring about literary excellence. At last count, the company had published twenty-five Nobel laureates, sixty Pulitzer Prize winners, and more than thirty winners of the National Book Award. As much as it’s a business, it’s now practically a cultural institution.

The company’s founder, Alfred Knopf, was one of the first generation of Jews brash enough to infiltrate the stuffy Wasp citadel of book publishing. The son of a New York clothing manufacturer turned salesman and bank director, he brought to a nearly ossified business a much needed jolt of energy and advertising savvy. Unlike other publishers, he made his own sales calls and wrote his own ads, which were broadcast on the radio, displayed on Broadway billboards, and toted around by men wearing sandwich boards. Knopf was just twenty-two when, in 1915, he started the business with five thousand dollars from his father. His assistant and only employee, besides an office boy, was his fiancée, twenty-year-old Blanche Wolf, whom he married a year later and who worked for the company the rest of her life. Not always a reliable witness, she later claimed that they had an oral prenup guaranteeing her equal partnership in the fledgling business. But if Alfred ever made such a promise he failed to keep it. Her share never exceeded twenty-five per cent, and she never received the credit she deserved for the success of the firm that bore her husband’s name. In 1965, when a great fuss was made over its fiftieth anniversary, Blanche Knopf was barely mentioned.

In a new biography, “The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Laura Claridge argues that Blanche was actually the more important and influential of the two Knopfs.

More here.