The Life and Times of Alfred A. Knopf
Chip McGrath Reveals the Truth Behind Blanche and the Borzois
The following is excerpted from a special edition history of Alfred A. Knopf, on the occasion of the company’s 100th anniversary.
Alfred A. Knopf was born on Central Park West in 1892, the son of a successful adman. He was a bookish child and at 16 entered Columbia, where he proved a mostly indifferent student (and even flunked economics, a bad omen for a future businessman). Years later he compared Columbia to the prison at Sing-Sing. But while there he came under the sway of Joel Spingarn, a popular comp lit professor, who encouraged the young Knopf to abandon his law school plans and go into publishing instead. At that point (and for years to come), Knopf’s tastes were mostly Anglophile and a little snobbish; while still in college he began a pen-pal friendship with the British novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, who out of sheer generosity and goodwill, it seems, became a mentor, benefactor, and unofficial scout.
Knopf’s first job, which his father helped him to get, was with the publisher then known as Doubleday, Page. He went through the place “like a shot,” he later recalled, lasting for 18 months and mostly working in accounting and advertising, though he did have a minor editorial success resuscitating the American career of Joseph Conrad, to whom he had been introduced by Galsworthy. Knopf ’s next stop—with Mitchell Kennerley, a noted British publisher who had transplanted himself to America—lasted just 14 months and ended when Knopf, who already had plans to start a publishing house of his own, was caught trying to poach Joseph Hergesheimer, probably Kennerley’s most profitable author.
Knopf was just 22 when he started out on his own in September 1915, with $5,000 advanced to him from his father. (In today’s money, that would be more like a $100,000.) The company’s first office was in the Candler Building, on West 42nd Street, in space rented by Knopf’s father, and besides Alfred the staff consisted of a secretary, an office boy, and an editorial assistant named Blanche Wolf, who happened to be Knopf’s fiancée. The new firm’s first publication was not an auspicious start: a translation of four plays, bound in orange and blue, by the exceedingly minor French playwright Émile Augier—a book for which, Clifton Fadiman once said, “no crying need existed.” The upside for Knopf was that he probably got the rights for next to nothing.
Knopf published eleven other books in his first year of business, nine of them translations (including works by Gogol and Gorky). The first real hit was W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, published in 1916, which Knopf knew about thanks to Galsworthy again. The novel was actually in the public domain, having flopped in America when Putnam brought it out in 1904. Now reissued by Knopf, Green Mansions became the fledgling firm’s first real hit and also established an almost foolproof formula. The great majority of books published by the company in its early years were by Europeans. In some cases Knopf simply imported and bound sheets that had already been printed by English publishers. This low-cost, practically risk-free publishing enabled Knopf over just a few years to assemble a list of authors that now reads like a syllabus for a college course in great 20th-century literature: Thomas Mann, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun, Halldór Laxness, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Oswald Spengler, Max Beerbohm, Wyndham Lewis, E. M. Forster, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, and Edith Sitwell. In retrospect, it seems astonishing that so much writing of this quality was just lying around, so to speak, and that until the Knopfs came along (Blanche and Alfred married in 1916, and she quickly became a force in the company, a director and vice-president), no Americans had thought to import it.
The Knopfs had energy and taste, but they were also operating out of necessity. Near the end of his career, Alfred was asked once why the company’s early focus had been so much on foreign books, and he replied that the answer was simple: anti-Semitism. “An American author wanted to be published by Harper Brothers, by Scribner, by Houghton Mifflin,” he explained. “He did not want to be published by a Jew.”
Like most publishers, Alfred didn’t like spending money, but he was scrupulously fair and paid royalties on Green Mansions, for example, even though strictly speaking he was not required to. Most of his authors came to trust and appreciate him because he brought a particular flair not just to acquiring books but to selling them. He made sales calls himself, believing that he could do it better than any sales rep; he sent out direct mailings and even corresponded with individual readers. He quickly embraced new advertising technology, buying ads on the radio, for example, and even on Times Square billboards. He wrote all the early ads himself, and the tone is partly that of a chatty confidant and partly that of a busker. This is what he wrote in his first message to booksellers: “In the first place, these books of mine are good books, and though I have been thinking about it for a long time, I cannot recall a single good book out of which both bookseller and publisher have failed to make money… Well, the first of the books are ready. You will sell a lot of them, and you will go right on selling them as long as you remain in the book business.”
Perhaps Knopf ’s most innovative idea was the notion that he could turn his books into a brand and sell them by the label alone. He wanted a trademark, something along the lines of the windmill used by Heinemann, a British publisher he admired, and his wife, who had taken a fancy to Russian wolfhounds, or imagined she had, suggested that he use a drawing of one. She later bought a couple of the dogs—and almost immediately regretted it. Calling borzois “cowardly, stupid, disloyal, and full of self-pity,” she quickly switched over to Yorkshire terriers, but by then it was too late. The borzoi stuck, and in time Alfred even began to personally identify with the wolfhound. He wrote in one of his ads that “the Borzoi feels exceedingly complimented by the cordial reception that has vindicated his taste in those… books which he is offering to the present generation.”
The first Knopf colophon—the little note at the back of the book describing the type—appeared in 1925, according to Amy Root Clements’s The Art of Prestige, a history of the company from 1915 to 1929. But practically from the beginning, Knopf cared as much about the appearance of his books as he did about what was in them, and he knew that just the way they looked and felt would make them desirable to the customer. “I love books physically,” he wrote in his 1917 catalog, “and I want to make them beautifully… I have found the prevalent idea that a good-looking book must necessarily cost too much to manufacture wholly fallacious.”
Knopf was in person a bit of a dandy. He affected a bushy, Franz Josef mustache and wore Savile Row suits and silk shirts and ties (sometimes quite loud ones) made by Sulka. John Updike once compared him to a cross between a Viennese emperor and a Barbary pirate. And it was often suggested—among others, by Geoffrey Hellman, in a famous three-part New Yorker profile—that he liked to dress his books as handsomely as he dressed himself. He loved handmade papers, top stains, colored endpapers, batik bindings, and typographical ornaments of every kind. In his catalog copy he sometimes sounds more like a haberdasher than a publisher. “Half canvas with purple Japanese Toyogami sides stamped in gold . . . printed on Warren’s India Tint Old Style paper and half bound in black cloth, with Chinese-orange board sides spattered with gold . . . Perusia handmade paper . . . lavender boards bearing a black-and-lemon foliage design.”
Similarly, his enthusiasm for typography sometimes caused him to tell readers much more than they probably wanted to know. The colophon for Night Clubs, a book by Jimmy Durante and Jack Kofoed, explains that the typeface is Estienne, “created by Mr. George Jones, the eminent English printer and designer of Granjon,” and adds that “typographers and printers will be particularly interested in the notably new type texture Estienne provides—a distinctive, wholly charming pattern and appearance when set in mass form that is unlike that of any other face. Estienne capitals are compellingly attractive, possessing a dignity and beauty seldom approached by present-day book faces. The limpid, flowing grace and charm of the lower-case letters with their tall ascenders and long descenders makes reading easy.” All this, as Hellman points out, for a book that begins: “A piano banged by a kid in a black sweater, its tinny notes inching through the voices of singing waiters, clattering glassware, shuffling feet. Louder, you bum.”
The real stars at Knopf for most of Alfred’s tenure were not the editors but the designers and typographers—people like Claude Bragdon, Elmer Adler, Frederic Goudy, W. A. Dwiggins, Rudolph Ruzicka, and Paul Rand. Unlike the two men who succeeded him (Robert Gottlieb and Sonny Mehta, respectively), Knopf himself was not much of an editor. His correspondence was hearty and businesslike and seldom ventured to make editorial suggestions. (A good example is the letter he wrote to Updike in 1967 after reading Couples. He called the novel a “lollapalooza,” and then shrewdly suggested that at his own expense Updike hire a lawyer in case any of Updike’s friends or neighbors thought they recognized themselves in the book. Updike, incidentally, was the last great acquisition of the Alfred era, and despite their age difference, the two men hit it off immediately, not only because Knopf happily picked up Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair—after Harper dithered over it for months, suggesting first one revision, then another—but out of a shared love of typography.) On the whole Knopf regarded editors as a necessary evil, people who if left on their own and not watched carefully tended to buy books that nobody wanted to read. His own philosophy was to buy books that didn’t need any editing in the first place, and in this he was greatly helped by an informal circle of advisers including his close friend H. L. Mencken (to whom he had been introduced by Conrad), the novelist and man-about-town Carl Van Vechten (who persuaded Knopf to publish Langston Hughes, among others), and Willa Cather, probably the author he felt closest to and was proudest of publishing.
Knopf’s most successful book he discovered more or less on his own, or rather he lucked into it. He met its author, a young Lebanese named Kahlil Gibran, at a lunch in Greenwich Village in 1916, and two years later he published Gibran’s first book, The Madman: His Parables and Poems. It sold dismally, and a second book of parables, The Forerunner, which came out in 1920, did even worse. In 1923 Knopf brought out yet another volume of Gibran parables and prose poems, The Prophet (which in retrospect might have been better titled “The Profit”). It sold a thousand copies or so, but then, unaccountably, sales began to double every year. By 1947, in three different editions, it had sold close to half a million, and that was before the book really took off in the 1960s. To date, it has sold more than ten-and-a-half-million copies.
Knopf, somewhat ungratefully, claimed to be baffled by the book’s success. “We started to advertise The Prophet, and its sales slowed up, so we stopped,” he said in the late 1940s. “It must be a cult, but I have never met any of its members. I haven’t met five people who ever read Gibran.”
Publishers need books like The Prophet, of course. Knopf was keen on a book called Tropical Fish and Their Care, and thinking that nudism might catch on, he brought out one called Adventures in Nakedness. He published On Learning Golf, by the encouragingly named Percy Boomer, an instruction guide that is still in print with its original jacket. And despite its highbrow, European leanings, the company, beginning a tradition that continues to this day, also had early success with crime thrillers, signing up writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain.
Though Alfred usually gets the credit, these writers were actually acquired by Blanche, whose contributions to the house are often undervalued. In the 1930s and 1940s and especially after the war, as Alfred’s interest turned more and more to American authors, it was Blanche, with her near-perfect French, who kept alive the Knopf tradition of publishing important European authors, traveling to Europe herself and signing up authors like Gide, Camus, and Sartre. She also made extensive scouting trips to South America, coming back with authors like Gilberto Freyre and Jorge Amado. As early as 1949, the French government awarded her the Legion of Honor in recognition of her many contributions to French literature. Some of her correspondence, like her letters to Hammett and her many warm exchanges with Elizabeth Bowen, who was to Blanche what Willa Cather was to her husband, suggest that she was both more nurturing (when she wanted to be) and possibly more astute than her husband, who was always a publisher more than an editor.
Yet in 1965, when Knopf celebrated its 50th anniversary and was widely recognized for its distinguished record, it was Alfred who got most of the praise. The Typophiles, an organization that encouraged the appreciation of fine typography and bookmaking, published a two-volume Festschrift in his honor, with tributes from writers like John Hersey, Paul Horgan, John Crowe Ransom, and Updike. Newsweek ran a story describing him as someone who harked back to a time when “publishing was a profession for cultivated gentlemen.” Except in Clifton Fadiman’s introduction to Fifty Years, an anthology of Knopf’s greatest hits in its first half-century, Blanche, then president of the company, got barely a nod.
Some of this relative neglect may have to do with Alfred’s need for attention: he was a blusterer and put himself forward more than she did. He seldom let the conversation stray too far from himself, one of his acquaintances later complained, and his idea of an entertaining evening was to read aloud fawning letters from obscure South American authors. Part of why Blanche was ignored was probably just sexism. Even as late as 1965, as a woman she was ineligible to join the Publishers’ Lunch Club. But it’s also true that a lot of people, including her husband, found Blanche impossible to get along with. By the mid-1940s the Knopfs, sometimes compared to Jupiter and Juno, were essentially living apart, she in an apartment in the West Fifties, and he on an estate they had built in Purchase, New York, a town that, curiously, also became the country home of the publisher Roger Straus. Called “The Hovel” the Knopf house was anything but, and there Alfred indulged his enthusiasm for fine food and wine. (He was the sort of tiresome host who was reluctant to serve his guests a predinner cocktail, lest it compromise their taste buds, and he also preferred that they abstain from smoking for 24 hours prior to the meal.)
To judge from photographs, Blanche Knopf was in her way just as striking as her husband. She was petite, with a lean, elegant face, and dressed in Dior and Chanel, often ballasted by elaborate jewelry. She wore open-toed pumps even in winter. But she could be aloof and flinty and did not gladly suffer fools, a category that included most of the people who worked at Knopf, who naturally were terrified of her. Judith Jones, who worked with Blanche, said recently, “I don’t think she liked me very much—I don’t think she liked women.” Before coming to Knopf, Jones had lived in Paris, where she developed a taste for French cuisine, and she recalled that Blanche was furious when in 1959—in what would prove to be one of the great editorial hunches in the company’s history—she pushed for Knopf to take over Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had been rejected by Houghton Mifflin on the grounds that it might “prove formidable to the housewife.” “She thought I should be helping her with French translations instead of wasting my time on cookbooks,” Jones recalled, adding that she herself was “bouleversé” after reading the manuscript and felt as certain about it as she had ever felt about anything in her life. “I thought, ‘If they think an American woman doesn’t want to get her hands greasy, I do.’” (Alfred, just to keep the record straight, agreed to publish the book but didn’t think much of the title. “I’ll eat my hat if that title sells,” he told Jones.)
By the late 1950s the Knopfs were openly feuding with each other in the office. Harding Lemay, who joined the company in 1958 and rose to become publicity manager and vice-president (before going on to far greater fame as a writer of television soap operas), later recalled that when he got there, “Knopf resembled a small intimate royal court of 19th-century Germany with its tyrannical Emperor, devious Empress, and its ebullient, if somewhat apprehensive Crown Prince” (that was Alfred, Jr., known as Pat, the Knopfs’ only child), along with various courtiers, toadies, and lackeys, as well as a court jester. The emperor and empress were “transparently unhappy with each other,” Lemay wrote, and “provoked and defied each other, especially in the presence of others.”
In 1959, worn out by all the bickering and weary of acting as a go-between, Pat Knopf renounced his princedom and fled the court to start a publishing house of his own, Atheneum. His parents were crushed, and relations between them worsened, if that was possible. Over the years Alfred had driven a lot of talented people away, but there were still capable editors at Knopf, including Harold Strauss, Herbert Weinstock, and the young and brilliant Henry Robbins, next to Robert Gottlieb probably the most talented editor of his generation, who was eventually hired away by Farrar, Straus. In the summer after Pat’s departure, Alfred hired Angus Cameron, a figure who became both admired and beloved at the company and widely respected outside it. (“We have never laid eyes on, much less talked with anyone of the caliber of Angus Cameron,” he wrote in a memo to Blanche.) But Cameron wasn’t much of an executive and didn’t have the temperament to run the place. Bill Koshland, another beloved figure, became president after Blanche died and was sometimes thought of as the Grand Vizier, the person you went to see when you needed to get something done. He was a more-than-capable administrator, but he wasn’t really an editor.
Toward the end of 1960, Alfred, at a loss, finally did what he had often threatened to do whenever he felt unhappy with how things were going: he sold out to Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the owners and founders of Random House. This was actually a watershed moment in publishing—the creation of the first meaningful conglomerate—and a foretaste of what was to come. Cerf and Klopfer were much more focused on the bottom line than was Knopf, who while not at all averse to making a profit, still clung to an older, more genteel notion of publishing, and over time, it was the Cerf and Klopfer model that came to prevail.
Publishing was by then a much tougher business than when Knopf started. Among other things, Knopf now had a rival at publishing’s high end—Farrar, Straus, led by Roger Straus (a sort of second-generation Alfred, flamboyant and outspoken), which soon began to rival Knopf in the Nobel Prize department. Meanwhile television and the movies were competing for an audience with books, if not supplanting them, and the rise of the mass-market paperback both expanded and altered the literary marketplace. Selling paperback rights proved to be a new and often lucrative source of income for hardcover publishers, but they also ate away at backlist sales.
Blanche died in 1966, and a year later Alfred married Helen Hedrick—a Knopf author, as it happened. By all accounts, he mellowed considerably, but by then he was 75 and his heart was no longer in the business the way it once had been. Knopf, despite its distinguished record, was losing steam. “There was an energy vacuum,” Katherine Hourigan, now the managing editor, recalls. In 1968 Cerf asked Bob Gottlieb to take over the running of the company. Alfred kept coming into the office, even after officially retiring in 1972, and he still cut an imposing figure in his bespoke suits, purple shirts, and green ties. But even he recognized that a sea change had taken place, and in time he sufficiently warmed to his successor that he would occasionally send him notes, on his personal magenta stationery, saying things like “Bob, you’re a genius.” In the mid-1970s, when Gottlieb asked if he could reissue Willa Cather’s novels in paperback—something that her will specifically forbade—Knopf readily agreed to talk to the executors. He had come to trust Gottlieb with the reputation of the writer he cared about above all others.