A prestigious publishing house and the strong-willed woman who guided it.
In 1911, when 17-year-old Blanche Wolf (1894-1966) met Alfred Knopf, she felt immediately “drawn to his intellectual manner and self-possession.” By the time they married in 1916, they had already begun a publishing firm “devoted to high-quality fiction and nonfiction.” Biographer and journalist Claridge (Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners, 2008, etc.) details the firm’s development, unfortunately allowing chronology to dominate the narrative. In charge of fiction and poetry, Blanche amassed an estimable list of writers: within a few years, that list included T.S. Eliot, Willa Cather, Robert Graves, Elinor Wylie, Ezra Pound, H.L. Mencken (who became Blanche’s confidant), and Carl Van Vechten, who became a close friend and “perfect scout.” Through Van Vechten, Blanche connected with, and published, many Harlem Renaissance writers and modernists. Yet despite her ability to lure authors, she found herself “blithely dismissed” and often rudely disdained by Alfred and his overbearing father, who interfered relentlessly in the couple’s personal and professional lives. Rather than standing up for his wife, Alfred always “defended to the last the father he chose to remember as always being there for him.” Along with documenting Blanche’s prowess as a publisher, Claridge diligently chronicles her difficult marriage. Alfred was as obstreperous at home as he was at the office—to her and their only son, Pat. She was so worried about Alfred’s nastiness to Pat that she enrolled him in boarding schools, although she herself showed little maternal warmth. Pat said that earning his pilot’s wings was the only time his father seemed proud of him. Blanche responded to her marital problems by taking many lovers, including Leopold Stokowski, Jascha Heifetz, and Serge Koussevitsky. A chain smoker and heavy drinker, Blanche ruined her health by dieting to alarming thinness. Nearly blind, she died of cancer in 1966.
A straightforward recounting of the difficult life of a woman of discerning literary taste.