- The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire by Laura Claridge
By Laura Claridge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
In one of several striking passages in Laura Claridge’s engrossing new biography, an elderly, emaciated, and nearly blind Blanche Knopf undergoes emergency surgery in New York City, and appears to have finally reached the end of her drama-packed life. Yet, within twenty-four hours, she rebounds. Her husband, Alfred, who had left the hospital late in the evening fully expecting her to die, instead arrives in the morning to find her awake, miraculously talking, and “chipper.” (He, on the other hand, feels “pooped.”) Within a month of surgery, she is fashionably attired onstage and accepting an award. Within six months, she travels to London and Paris to meet with her favorite writers—while there, she falls, returns to the hospital in New York, flies back to finish her European trip—then commissions a book on the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs as it is happening and returns to Washington, D. C., in time to meet with the potential author and to attend a conference of editors and publishers. Three countries, two hospitalizations, one award, and several book commissions covered within four breathless pages. The vivid, extravagant, feminist Knopf who materializes in these pages sheds her more well-known moniker, “Mrs. Alfred A. Knopf,” and reclaims her own: “Blanche.” By the end of the biography, there is no question that she is worth knowing not only as a fascinating figure of twentieth-century literary life, but also as one of its great protagonists. We can identify her as such in large part because she bought, shaped, and published the books by which we know that life.
Reading is, in fact, the primary subject of the biography, for it was Blanche’s first, and probably only, consistent love. She was unquestionably more passionate about books than she was about marriage or motherhood. Her authors and their books were her children, and she knew instinctively how to nurture them so that they would flourish. She seems to have cherished but neglected her only son and felt betrayed when he finally left Knopf to form his own competing publishing house. Her psychological acuity, evident in her conversations with her authors and in her sensitivity to their words, needs, and desires (made manifest in her relationships with Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Albert Camus, and Thomas Mann), often deserted her at home. Her confidence in her own ideas—through a mind which she felt most deeply connected to while she was reading—also seemed to desert her when she was with her husband Alfred. He took full advantage of his higher status (in her eyes as well as his own) as an Educated Male. Self-educated and self-taught as a reader, editor, and publisher, Blanche spent most of her life trying to convince Alfred (and sometimes herself) that she was his equal. [End Page 144]
Her authors, though, who knew her best as a reader, needed no such convincing. She read attentively and quickly, then hosted parties for writers and artists that crackled with verve, intelligence, and excitement. Next to reading was her love of music (extending to affairs with a remarkable list of the greatest twentieth-century soloists and conductors) and beautiful clothes, and among the international worlds of books, concerts, and fashion, she made friends everywhere. Her connections and the uses she made of them were crucial to the long-term success of the publishing house, but were dismissed by Alfred as the byproducts of an innate feminine charm rather than the good business they actually were. Alfred remained the official mouthpiece of Knopf for most of its formative years, and so the record of her remarkable achievement, like that of many women, was elided through those journalists complicit with his mode of self-promotion. Luckily, though, Claridge has recovered documentation of Blanche’s achievement through private documents—personal letters, unpublished diary pages, and interviews with her writers and employees—that attest to a truer history of the publishing house. These crucial...