Blanche Wolf was tutored by governesses and attended New York City's Gardner School.
In 1911 Blanche met Alfred A. Knopf, who was in his senior year at Columbia University. She became Knopf's fiancée and strongly supported his desire to be a book publisher. In 1915, with $5, 000 obtained from his father, Knopf started a publishing house in the elder Knopf's Manhattan office. Blanche worked in the business from the outset. The two were married in 1916.
At first the Knopfs worked on all phases of the operation. They solicited authors, read manuscripts, designed books, wrote advertising copy, and kept an eye on the mechanics of production. When her husband traveled, Blanche Knopf "kept shop. " She sometimes referred to herself as the firm's "charwoman. " She brought to her job a sharp intelligence and an enormous capacity for work. She acquired a sound knowledge of typography, paper, and printing, as well as familiarity with the work of European writers.
In 1921 she became a vice-president and director of the corporation. The firm first made its reputation by publishing European authors in attractively designed books. W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions (1916) was the first big seller; it was followed by works of E. M. Forster, A. A. Milne, Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Robert Bridges, and Walter de la Mare, among others. Russian literature was well represented, with books by Tolstoi, Gogol, Goncharov, Gorki, and Lermontov. Among books by Americans were Joseph Hergesheimer's The Three Black Pennys (1917), E. W. Howe's Ventures in Common Sense (1919), and Willa Cather's Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). From the first, Knopf's lists were strong in belles lettres, history, and music.
Beginning in 1920, Blanche Knopf made annual trips abroad until World War II restricted travel. She interviewed writers, solicited manuscripts, and arranged for translations. Much of the English and French flavor of Knopf's list was due to her influence. Her alertness to current literary trends bore fruit on a number of occasions. When interest in Sigmund Freud was strong in the mid-1930's, publishers sought his unfinished book on Moses. In September 1938, Blanche Knopf returned from Europe with the manuscript of Moses and Monotheism. Among the French writers she published were André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jules Roy, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Camus, whom she met in Paris, became a special friend. Her relationships with Camus, H. L. Mencken, Robert Nathan, Hergesheimer, and Cather were probably her most enduring and satisfying literary associations. When Camus won the Nobel Prize in 1957, the Knopfs went to Stockholm for the ceremony. When he died in an auto accident in 1960, Blanche Knopf wrote a moving memoir, "Albert Camus in the Sun, " for the Atlantic (February 1961).
During World War II she traveled to Latin America, commissioning books from writers such as Eduardo Mallea, Jorge Amado, Gilberto Freyre, and Germán Arciniegas. The Saturday Review of Literature (April 10, 1943) published her account of the tour. She also visited England and wrote "Impressions of British Publishing in Wartime" for Publishers Weekly on December 18, 1943, in which she observed that the publishing business was thriving in England despite the scarcity of labor and paper. In 1945 she was named a consultant for the personnel narratives office of the army air force.
Many of Blanche Knopf's favorite authors were intellectuals, but she heartily approved of the hard-boiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. She called Chandler "one of the best authors we had. " And she supported the publication of popular books by Fannie Hurst, Warwick Deeping, and Kahlil Gibran. Gibran's Prophet (1923) was one of the firm's all-time best-sellers (over 2 million copies). Blanche Knopf obtained William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary (1941), which was another big seller. Mencken's Book of Prefaces (1917) was one of Knopf's early publications. The firm continued to publish Mencken's work for many years, including the journal American Mercury from 1924 to 1933, when he was editor. Blanche Knopf and Mencken were close friends; he thought she was more generous with authors than her husband. At her urging, Mencken enlarged his nostalgic, autobiographical articles for the New Yorker into three fine volumes--Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (1941), and Heathen Days (1943). When Mencken was mortally ill, Blanche Knopf was the only woman friend allowed to see him.
Blanche Knopf was strong-willed and confident in her judgments of literary matters. Professionally, she insisted on being called Blanche W. Knopf rather than Mrs. Alfred Knopf. She and her husband often failed to see eye to eye. Their tastes differed. "A good deal of the time in editorial meetings was taken up by Alfred's objections to Blanche's ideas, " a former employee once said. In 1928, Alfred Knopf built a house in Purchase, New York; evidently, though, Blanche Knopf was not happy there. Later she took an apartment in Manhattan within walking distance of her office. The couple shared a fondness for music and numbered among their friends Myra Hess, Jascha Heifetz, and Artur Rubinstein. In 1960 the firm merged with Random House, with control going to the latter. Knopf preserved considerable autonomy, however, keeping its own writers, editors, and publishing style.
Alfred A. Knopf remained chairman of the board, and Blanche Knopf retained the presidency she had held since 1957. In her last years her health was poor. Her eyesight failed, yet she continued to put in long workdays that both astonished and appalled her associates.
Knopf spoke French fluently and Italian and Spanish somewhat less well. Harding Lemay, the firm's publicity director, described Blanche Knopf in her later years as "shrewd, reticent, witty, a proud, wary, unapproachable lady. "
Quotes from others about the person
"Small and slender, she had great dignity and poise. Elegantly dressed, she was cosmopolitan, sprightly, indefatigable--a dark-haired, green-eyed dynamo of energy and enthusiasm. " - Sara Mayfield
Blanche Wolf Knopf married Alfred A. Knopf on April 4, 1916. They had one child, Alfred, Jr. , who also became a successful publisher.