The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire

Reviews and praise for The Lady with the Borzoi

Lady-With-the-Borzoi-cover-500-wide“If you’ve ever struggled with the task of composing a guest list for the ultimate fantasy dinner party, Laura Claridge’s biography of Blanche Knopf will show you whom to put at the head of your table . . . . That dream guest is, of course, Claridge’s subject: the petite, intense and, as Robert Gottlieb once put it, ‘fierce and exigent’ co-founder of the great literary publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. She was an intuitive and visionary champion of contemporary authors, a voracious bookworm, a tireless hobnobber a snappy dresser and a lifelong dog-lover.
To round out the notional gathering, you might wheedle the illustrious publisher into bringing along some of her devoted friends, from Thomas Mann, H.L. Mencken, Albert Camus and Muriel Spark to Langston Hughes, John Hersey and Willa Cather. Or you could invite one of her many musical boyfriends, a group included (but not limited to) Jascha Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski and Arthur Rubinstein. An added perk: You wouldn’t need to worry about entertainment. Her pals Paul Robeson and George Gershwin could be counted on to drop by and provide the music, While Blanche herself (and chums Helen Hayes and Anita Loos) could dance the Charleston, the Lindy Hop and the Black Bottom.
The typical tenor of the couple’s rapport, Claridge establishes early on, was acrimonious. Blanche intentionally ‘netting’ Alfred, provoking him to shout, and Alfred ‘swooping down on her just as she thought there was an all-clear.’
What was it, one wonders, that made Blanche Knopf, who was so gifted, so insightful, so strong-willed, stay in a marriage that tormented herself and her partner? The British publisher Sir Robert Lusty suggested that ‘there existed between them a most touching devotion.’ Could this have been enough? Really, such a conundrum is precisely why you yearn to have Blanche Knopf at the dinner table, so you could ask her yourself . . . if you dared.” New York Times

“Laura Claridge has written a deeply researched biography of an important but often unacknowledged publisher.”  New York Times Editors’ Choice

“Claridge succeeds at what she has set out to do.  The Lady with the Borzoi not only argues convincingly for the centrality of Blanche Knopf’s place in publishing history but makes it difficult to look at the Knopf logo with considering how closely the sleek Russian wolfhound reflects Blanche’s sense of herself and her public persona: streamlined, intelligent, elegant, and driven to run ahead of the pack.” New York Review of Books
“Like its subject, The Lady with the Borzoi marks an impressive achievement.” TLS Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A long overdue acknowledgment of the pioneering role Blanche played at a time when women were nearly invisible in the business world . . . she was a far more complicated and interesting character [than her husband, Alfred]: brilliant and ambitious.” The New Yorker

“[Laura] Claridge is the first to bring Blanche Wolf Knopf fully out of the shadows in this meticulous, groundbreaking biography. . . . Blanche signed epoch-defining writers, including Willa Cather, Thomas Booklist_StarReview_badgeMann, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. Blanche knew everyone, loved to party, had many affairs . . . Claridge illuminates a radiant facet of American publishing and women’s history as she portrays Blanche Knopf in all her brainy and aesthetic glory and elegant fortitude.” Booklist Starred Review

“Claridge (a well regarded biographer whose other subjects include Emily Post and Norman Rockwell) wants to rub some of [the] Knopf radiance off on Blanche. And Blanche did spend much time in the limelight during her days as a literary headhunter. She was a jet-setter when there were only propellers, seeking culture: high or unconventional, as long as it had the stuff. . . . Blanche worked like a dog – a stylishly dressed, artfully spoken dog who was also an astute listener with a taste for bourbon and caviar to sign vanguard talent: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Wallace Stevens, William Shirer, John Hersey, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, Simon de Beauvoir, and Jorge Amado.
Once she did sign them, of course, Alfred took the credit. Claridge handles the theme of a woman’s struggle for power and recognition with aplomb. . . . Claridge also does well in delineating Blanche’s role in furthering Modernism; embracing the New Negro Movement, which morphed into the Harlem Renaissance; nursing her authors along (an exquisitely touchy mob, to get them to write at all may have been Blanche’s greatest accomplishment); encouraging preludes to New Journalism. . . . These are smart notes toward understanding Blanche Knopf. Blanche was a force for good: building a brilliant catalogue, continuing to work for years even as her eyesight failed. . . . The achievements of the Knopfs were remarkable and readers today owe much to their legacy – and to Blanche in particular.” Christian Science Monitor.

“Laura Claridge builds a compelling case that it was Blanche, far more than Alfred, who was responsible for [Knopf’s] superiority, who pursued and persuaded writers to sign on—often for low salaries and pitiful advances—for the sake of the firm’s reputation and for her own devoted personal attention.” New Republic

“[Claridge] manages to synthesize an enormous amount of research and biographical information to paint a complete picture of a complex figure. Packed with interesting literary anecdotes, this biography reveals a powerful woman who played an integral role in 20th-century publishing.” Publishers Weekly

“It took all of Blanche’s wiles to attract great writers despite the invariably mean royalty advances offered by her husband, who believed that the cachet of Knopf was its own reward.” Wall Street Journal

“A fascinating look at Blanche Knopf . . . Filled with insights into the literary intrigues of the times . . . highly recommended to readers.” Library Journal Starred Review

“Overall . . . for much of the past century, young writers have regularly dreamed of being published by Alfred A. Knopf.” Washington Post

“Claridge triumphantly restores Blanche Knopf’s central place in 20th-century publishing history.”  BookPage

“Claridge’s lucid and sympathetic portrait of an unconventional and path breaking woman mired in a marriage that left her emotionally bereft but professionally empowered, will resonate with any reader who, like Blanche Knopf, has ever found salvation in books.” —Emily Bingham, author of Irrepressible

“At turns reviled and adored, fragile and invincible, free and shackled, Blanche Knopf was often denied credit for the success of the publishing firm she founded with her husband, and that bears his name alone. With a winning eye to detail, with empathy and wit, Laura Claridge gives Blanche Knopf her hard-earned seat at the high table of literary modernism.” —Alice Kaplan, author of Dreaming in French

“Blanche Knopf emerges as a revelation in this first biography: Elegant, highly strung, unappreciated and lonely in her marriage, she was a brilliant editor, a writer’s best reader, and essential to the creation of the great house of Knopf. No Blanche, no Knopf.” —Dorothy Gallagher, author of Lillian Hellman: An Imperious Life

Left off her company’s fifth anniversary tribute but described by Thomas Mann as “the soul of the firm,” Blanche Knopf began her career when she founded Alfred A. Knopf with her husband in 1915. With her finger on the pulse of a rapidly changing culture, Blanche quickly became a driving force behind the firm.A conduit to the literature of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, Blanche also legitimized the hard-boiled detective fiction of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler; signed and nurtured literary authors like Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, and Muriel Spark; acquired momentous works of journalism by John Hersey and William Shirer; and introduced American readers to Albert Camus, André Gide, and Simone de Beauvoir, giving these French writers the benefit of her consummate editorial taste.

As Knopf celebrates its centennial, Laura Claridge looks back at the firm’s beginnings and the dynamic woman who helped to define American letters for the twentieth century. Drawing on a vast cache of papers, Claridge also captures Blanche’s “witty, loyal, and amusing” personality, and her charged yet oddly loving relationship with her husband. An intimate and often surprising biography, The Lady with the Borzoi is the story of an ambitious, seductive, and impossibly hardworking woman who was determined not to be overlooked or easily categorized.

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