‘The Lady With the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire’

Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times:

Laura-Claridge-author-Ettlinger-500-pxIf you’ve ever struggled with the task of composing a guest list for the ultimate fantasy dinner party, Laura Claridge’s biography of Blanche Knopf (née Wolf) will show you whom to put at the head of your table. That dream guest is, of course, Claridge’s subject: the petite, intense and, as Robert Gottlieb once put it, “fierce and exigent” co-founder of the great literary publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. She was an intuitive and visionary champion of contemporary authors, a voracious bookworm, a tireless hobnobber, a snappy dresser and a lifelong dog-lover (of tiny, fluffy ones, not of the imposing, austere borzoi she chose to grace the Knopf colophon, a breed she regarded as “cowardly, stupid, disloyal, and full of self-pity”). To round out the notional gathering, you might wheedle the illustrious publisher into bringing along some of her devoted friends, from Thomas Mann, H.L. Mencken, Albert Camus and Muriel Spark to Langston Hughes, John Hersey and Willa Cather. Or you could invite one of her many musical boyfriends, a group that included (but was not limited to) Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski and Arthur Rubinstein. An added perk: You wouldn’t need to worry about entertainment. Her pals Paul Robeson and George Gershwin could be counted on to drop by and provide the music, while Blanche herself (and chums Helen Hayes and Anita Loos) could dance the Charleston, the Lindy Hop and the Black Bottom. In 1925, at one of her dinner parties, Blanche performed a spirited medley of all three while sporting a top hat and cane, prompting her husband and business partner, Alfred, to “applaud vigorously; even as the guests seemed unsure what to think.” This, Blanche’s biographer makes plain, was a rare instance of spousal approval.

The typical tenor of the couple’s rapport, Claridge establishes early on, was acrimonious. Indeed, the Knopf conference room seems to have resembled the living room in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (published by Knopf in 1962), with Blanche intentionally “nettling” Alfred, provoking him to shout, and Alfred “swooping down on her just as she thought there was an all-clear.”

Picture: Laura Claridge has written books ranging from feminist theory to biography and popular culture, most recently the story of an American icon, Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners (Random House), for which she received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

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