The remarkable life story of Blanche Knopf, who co-founded Alfred A. Knopf publishers in 1915, encompasses the history of 20th-century literature. Many of Knopf’s most distinguished authors—including Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir—were brought into the firm by Blanche’s wide-ranging literary interests. Inevitably, however, this is also a story about gender in the workplace: Although Blanche was an equal partner in shaping the company, she owned less of it than did her husband and his father.
Blanche’s marriage to Alfred Knopf lies at the heart of Laura Claridge’s capacious and engaging biography. Although the Knopfs shared a passionate commitment to literature, they were not well-matched intimately and quickly settled into a “open” marriage. Blanche mainly lived in an apartment in Manhattan, while Alfred preferred to settle in the nearby suburbs. Despite the distance between them, they had two children: their son, Pat, and the publishing company, which is still thriving today.
One especially timely and tragic theme in Blanche’s life concerns her lifelong drive to be thin. Beginning in the 1920s, when fashionable women pursued a skinny flapper’s body, Blanche spent an inordinate amount of time and energy dieting. Living on a menu of cocktails and olives, supplemented by a popular diet pill that damaged her eyes, Blanche seems to have channeled the stresses of the workplace into a lifelong eating disorder.
Despite her rocky personal life, Blanche’s true passion was finding and signing new authors. She was personally responsible for bringing to Knopf popular hard-boiled detective novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, and her immersion in the Harlem Renaissance led her to authors Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen: happy wheels
In The Lady with the Borzoi, Claridge triumphantly restores Blanche Knopf’s central place in 20th-century publishing history.