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

Lau­ra Claridge
  • Review
By – March 31, 2016

In The Lady with the Bor­zoi, Lau­ra Clar­idge cre­ates an inti­mate, nuanced, and com­plex por­trait of Blanche Knopf, a woman who did not always embrace society’s norms. 

Leg­ends abound about Blanche and Alfred Knopf, cofounders of the high­ly respect­ed lit­er­ary pub­lish­ing house that bore his name. Begun in 1915 — just before the cou­ple, then 20 and 22 respec­tive­ly, were about to be mar­ried — the com­pa­ny went on to pub­lish the works of numer­ous Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-win­ning authors from around the world. Clar­idge tells us, Some girls dreamed of mak­ing babies, but Blanche and Alfred want­ed to make books.” The biog­ra­phy traces the his­to­ry of a dif­fi­cult mar­riage and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly brings the read­er into the inner cir­cle of their lit­er­ary society. 

Claridge’s book presents us with a free-think­ing and inde­pen­dent woman not only mar­gin­al­ized by soci­ety for being female, but also mar­ried to a man who pur­port­ed to see her as an equal until tasked with man­i­fest­ing the idea — at which point he proved not to have meant it in the first place. Intel­lec­tu­al­ly for­ward-think­ing and sex­u­al­ly free, despite mar­riage and moth­er­hood, Blanche lived a life of col­or and courage. When, after giv­ing birth to her son Pat, she found out that scar­ring from a bout of endometrio­sis would pre­vent her from hav­ing more chil­dren, she announced that she had cho­sen to have only one child. Thwart­ed in her desire to edit the works of lit­er­ary mas­ters pub­lished by the firm, she trav­eled to South Amer­i­ca and Europe in search of new writers.

Cul­tur­al­ly, both Blanche and her hus­band had world­view firm­ly based in Jew­ish prin­ci­ples. Blanche is described as being Jew­ish but sec­u­lar, and relieved that Alfred was no more reli­gious than she.” 

Claridge’s writ­ing is based on research she drew from a healthy vari­ety of sources, includ­ing inter­views, pub­lished works, and a numer­ous pri­ma­ry sources such as let­ters and pho­tographs; this lends the book both author­i­ty and authen­tic­i­ty. The writ­ing style is acces­si­ble, evoca­tive, and frank, and under­pinned by sig­nif­i­cant schol­ar­ship. The author shows sen­si­tiv­i­ty toward her sub­ject but is not in its thrall; thus the sto­ry and the char­ac­ters feel sat­is­fy­ing­ly three-dimensional. 

The Lady with the Bor­zoi ends short­ly after Blanche, a chain smok­er and heavy drinker, dies of lung can­cer in 1966 at the age of 72 — but not before she has designed the bor­zoi colophon, the Russ­ian wolfhound imprint that marked Knopf titles.

Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index, notes, photos.

Relat­ed Content:

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions