Blanche Wolf Knopf
Blanche W. Knopf made the publishing firm she shared with her husband one of the most respected in the world, bringing some of the greatest American and European thinkers of the twentieth century to an American audience. From its launch in 1915, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., was a joint husband-wife venture, and by 1921, Blanche Knopf began taking a leadership role as director and then vice president. Her business sense and fluency in multiple languages made her the ideal travelling publisher’s agent, meeting all the major European publishers and beginning to cultivate authors. Her gift for both seeking out new talent and cultivating her existing stable of writers with star-studded parties and aggressive advertising campaigns contributed massively to the publishing firm’s success.
Blanche W. Knopf was one of that small group of women who were major book publishers. Married to Alfred A. Knopf in 1916, she became a vice president of the firm in 1921 and president in 1957. During her tenure, the firm was noted for publishing such authors as André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Elizabeth Bowen, Ilya Ehrenburg, Mikhail Sholokov, Thomas Mann, and Sigmund Freud. Her intellectual interests, flawless French, and sensitivity to emerging literary trends were matched by her personal style and social prowess. Although much less known than her famous husband, she deserves a much larger share of the credit for the success of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., than usually accorded her.
Early life, marriage, and the publishing firm
Born in New York City July 30, 1893, the daughter of Julius Wolf, a successful jeweler, and Bertha (Samuels) Wolf, Blanche grew up in a privileged ambiance, tutored by French and German governesses. She attended New York’s Gardner School. One summer, around 1911, she met Alfred Knopf, two years her senior. Married on April 4, 1916, they had one child, Alfred Jr., born June 17, 1919.
Alfred A. Knopf launched his eponymous publishing firm in 1915, with his then-fiancée’s encouragement. From the beginning the firm was a shared enterprise. In 1921, five years after their marriage, hiring a full-time nurse allowed Blanche Knopf to assume a larger part of the operations; she became a director and vice president. Because of her acuity and her fluency in European languages, she soon became a traveling publisher’s agent as well as office manager. On her first trip to Europe in 1920, she and her husband met most of the major publishers. By the 1930s, she had made arrangements to publish the American editions in translation of Gide, Ehrenburg, Sholokov, and, in 1938, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism. Two years before, after a voyage to Germany, she had told a reporter for the New York Times (July 14, 1936): “There is not a German writer left in Germany who is worth thinking about. ... Only the Nazi writers and publishers remain.”
Knopf’s career development
Although her annual trips abroad resulted in manuscripts and translations for the firm, she was able to develop close relationships with several of the writers, in particular H.L. Mencken, Albert Camus, Robert Nathan, Willa Cather, and Joseph Herbesheimer. At her urging, the firm published both the classics and such popular writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Fannie Hurst, Warwick Deeping, and Kahlil Gibran. Gibran’s Prophet (1923) was one of Knopf’s all-time best-sellers. William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary was another runaway best-seller. It was Blanche Knopf who urged Mencken to enlarge his nostalgic, essentially autobiographical New Yorker articles into Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). It is a tribute to the esteem in which he held her that she was the only woman allowed to visit Mencken in his last days. In the same vein, when Camus died in an auto accident in 1960, Blanche Knopf wrote a poignant piece for the Atlantic, “Albert Camus in the Sun” (February 1961). Significantly, she was named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1948.
During the World War II years, Knopf she was successful in obtaining books from Jorge Amado, Gilberto Freyre, Eduardo Mallea, and German Arciniegas. Her “Impressions of British Publishing in Wartime” was published in Publishers Weekly (December 18, 1943). “There is a healthy, active, exciting creative spirit,” she wrote, “such as I have not seen there in fifteen years.” In 1948, as a result of her dynamic relationship with her authors and her personal supervision of the manuscripts and translations, Geoffrey Hellman described her as “aggressive, hunchy, dynamic, social, politically minded, and capable of exerting a very considerable charm” even while “she courts writers the firm would like to publish . . . and keeps those already on the roster happy with celebrity-studded parties, and promises, which she is in a position to implement, of liberal advertising and other promotion.”
Blanche Knopf’s abilities and what she added to the firm were not without their cost. During the 1950s, she and her husband, two ambitious, talented, and strong-willed people, clashed often. Each, with a stable roster of authors, established areas of control within the firm and in the industry. As Harding Lemay, the firm’s publicity director, saw it, their relationship had become one of strained politeness punctuated by outbursts of rage on his part followed by “quick sarcasm” on hers. The offices in Manhattan, he thought, looked like an “intimate royal court of eighteenth-century Germany, with its tyrannical Emperor, devious Empress, and ebullient, if somewhat apprehensive Crown Prince.” In 1957, when Alfred became chair of the board, Blanche became president. Their son, Alfred Jr., left Knopf in 1959 to become one of the founders of Atheneum Publishers. A year later, perhaps as a consequence of Alfred Jr.’s departure, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., was sold to Random House, although the Knopf imprint continued as an independent entity and Blanche, as president, remained involved.
Throughout her career she preferred to be known as Blanche W. Knopf, not as Mrs. Alfred A. Knopf. A petite woman, frail looking, fond of jewelry and high fashion, she was seen by her friends as witty, loyal, and amusing. Her satisfaction was, she wrote in House Beautiful (January 1949), that “the world of books is the world I know. I would not change it for any other, but to pretend that publishing is anything but a constant round of overcoming obstacles and frustrating difficulties would be untrue.”
In a profession historically dominated by men, Blanche W. Knopf became known as a respected professional, an editor and publisher in her own right. A bit resentful in her late years that she was still seen as someone in her husband’s shadow, thought of as Mrs. Knopf by some, she deserves to be recognized as an almost equal with Alfred A. Knopf in helping establish one of the great publishing firms of the twentieth century; she was certainly the one who was responsible for the firm’s receptivity to the newer literary trends. In her late years, plagued by ill health and failing eyesight, she continued to work. She died in New York in her sleep on June 4, 1966.
Current Biography 1957 (1958).
Hellman, Geoffrey. “Publishers.” New Yorker (November 20 and 27, December 4, 1948).
Knopf, Blanche. Personal Papers and Library. Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas, Austin.
Lemay, Harding. Inside, Looking Out (1971).
Madison, Charles A. Book Publishing in America (1966).
Obituaries. NYTimes, June 5, 1966, 86:1, and Newsweek (June 20, 1966), and Publishers Weekly (June 13, 1966).
Whitman, Alden. The Obituary Book (1971).
WWWIA 4, 5.