By Tara Mae
Knopf Publishing may be better associated with Alfred A., but it was his wife Blanche who was the driving force behind the establishment and growth of the publishing house. As half of a couple whose passion, romance, and livelihood revolved around books, it was her drive and interest that compelled her to diversify the voices of American literature. An arbiter of good literature and proponent of multicultural voices, Blanche championed the work of Kahlil Gibrain, Willa Cather, and James Baldwin, among others, making them more accessible to a broader audience.
Born Blanche Wolf on June 4, 1894, to Jewish parents of disparate backgrounds, she grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Although she apparently told friends that he had been a jeweler in Vienna, her father Julius was a day laborer in Bavaria before eventually becoming the owner of the second biggest children’s hat company in America. Her mother Bertha was the daughter of Lehman Samuels, co-owner of Samuels Brothers, at one time the largest exporter of cattle in the country.
As the only child of wealthy parents, her status allowed her freedoms not granted to other women. Even her parents did not see the need to send her to college, but she made the most secondary education at Gardner School for Girls. Located on the Upper East Side, it catered to wealthy Jewish girls. There, Blanche developed her lifelong fervent affection for 19th century novels and French literature, language, and culture.
An avid reader with time to pursue her interest, this devotion is what initially connected her and Alfred A. Knopf. At the age of seventeen, she met him at a party at Lawrence Athletic Club in Lawrence, Long Island. They bonded over a shared love of the written word. Blanche frequently preferred the company of books to that of her peers. She was known to walk her Boston terrier while reading a book. In Alfred, she found someone who shared her enthusiasm and this mutual interest was the foundation of their marriage.”... I saw him and [all we did was] talk books, and nobody liked him — my family least of all. But I did, because I had someone to talk books to and we talked of making books.... We decided we would get married and make books and publish them.” So they did.
Her family desired that she marry a wealthy Jewish man who could solidify their position in Jewish high society, but she and Alfred had other goals. Alfred’s background was mired in family scandal; his mother Ida committed suicide the same day that his father Samuel had filed for divorce, citing her as an adulteress. Their shared vision for the future led them to form Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1915, with starting capital in the form of $5,000 from his father. Alfred already worked in publishing and counted Joseph Conrad among his friends.
They married in 1916. Their son Alfred Jr. was born in 1918. The publishing firm first consisted of three people: Alfred, Blanche, who initially worked as his assistant, and an office boy. Much to Blanche’s chagrin, Samuel would also later join the business.
Alfred and Blanche were reportedly standoffish parents, lavishing attention on their new business venture. That Alfred would be focused on his business and not primarily his family was accepted, even expected. That Blanche, when Alfred Jr. was three, hired a nurse to watch him so she could return to the office was less common and conventional.
By this point, Knopf, Inc. had already started to gain attention with the American publication of Taras Bulba by Nicolay Gogol, Ideals and Realities in Russian Literature by Peter Kropotkin, and a collection of short stories by Guy de Mauppasant. Financial success was solidified with American publication of Green Mansions by W.M. Hudson; it was the company’s first bestseller.
Despite her undeniable contribution to the world of publishing, translations, and American literature, as a woman Blanche still faced dscrimination and a lack of recognition for her contributions. By the end of the 1920s, she and Alfred were living separately, yet kept their commitment to Knopf, Inc. He saw and valued her talent, but despite her unsubstantiated claim of an oral prenup agreement that guaranteed her equal partnership of the company at its inception, Blanche never had more than a 25 percent share of the company.
Because of her gender she was denied membership to the all-male Publisher’s Lunch Club and Book Table. These organizations were designed for publishing house employees to share ideas and resources. Asked to give a talk to a women’s college about the future of women in publishing, Blanche declined the invitation, noting that there was “no future worth mentioning.”
In addition to finding, soliciting, and signing writers, she located and assigned translators, read manuscripts, designed novels, and composed advertising copy. Blanche was particularly meticulous in selecting translators, in order to achieve precise and consistent translations. For example, Helen T. Lowe-Porter translated the complete works of German writer Thomas Mann.
Blanche was peerless in her field; she was the lone woman in a position of power at a publishing house. She provided a myriad of practical and esoteric skills. She learned the technical mechanics of printing, was fluent in French and spoke German, skills that enabled them to attract French and other European writers, and even suggested the borzoi as the company symbol, still used today. As a Jewish owner of a business normally populated by WASP men, Alfred understood that the company needed a unique but profitable plan of action. He later said that as he and Blanche were building the Knopf, Inc., he did not think that a Jewish business could compete with established publishing houses like Harper Brothers and Scribner.
This is why Knopf, Inc., initially focused on American printing of European literature. It was a way to gain notice while banking on stories that were already read elsewhere. Blanche, vice president of the firm by 1921, became one of its top literary scouts and contacts. Alfred was more interested in the financial and promotional aspects of the work, Blanche sought out the talent, found the great books, and made new connections.
For someone who had previously expressed little practical interest in socialization, it was Blanche who cultivated relationships with new and established talent, both in the United States and abroad. She was the tastemaker of Knopf, Inc. and used her influence to elevate writers the public might not otherwise encounter. Blanche and Alfred frequently traveled internationally, looking for writers. Blanche also increasingly took solo trips in search of talent, which she found.
It was she who secured the rights to the works of Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, Kahlil Gibran, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Stateside, she procured the writing of Willa Cather and with the assistance of Harlem Renaissance patron Carl van Vechten, facilitated the publication of the movement’s writers, including James Baldwin, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes. Knopf, Inc. started an ongoing commitment to Black literature.
For someone who had previously expressed a lack of enthusiasm for socializing, many of these professional connections became personal friends. Cather and Blanche were close associates. Blanche and Hughes, in particular, were close; Blanche supported his writing and his business interests, and he considered her a confidant. Mann, who Blanche helped introduce to American audiences, described her as “the soul of the firm.”
When World War II made sojourns to Europe impossible, Blanche turned her focus to Latin America. Very few Latinx writers had been published in the United States, and she journeyed extensively through Central and South America, seeking talent, and finding it in authors such as Jorge Amado and Gilberto Freyre. She also ensured the popularization of a uniquely American genre: the hardboiled detective story. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were among the writers she recruited, whose very popular novels became part of American culture.
Her dedication to the work and her esteem of writers, allowed them to entrust their writing to Knopf, Inc. The firm first published Du Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1953, four years after its French debut. Printing and promoting the controversial work was a calculated risk that Blanche staunchly defended, explaining that it was an illuminating and vital book that offered important insights for both men and women.
The Knopfs were known for their biting fights and public sniping, but they continued to work together until Blanche’s death. In 1957, she became president of Knopf, Inc. and Alfred became chairman. Blanche reportedly was dogged in advancing Knopf. Inc. and had an explosive temper, but maintained warm, helpful, and encouraging relationships with young, talented, unknown writers as well as friendships with other authors.
Internationally lauded for her contributions to publishing. Blanche was named a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur in 1949 and an Officer de la Legion d'Honneur in 1960. In Brazil, she was given the Honor of the Southern Cross. By the time she died in 1966, 27 Knopf writers had won the Pulitzer Prize and 16 writers had won the Nobel Prize. Blanche’s lifelong fervor for the written word created a enduring literary legacy.