A native New Yorker, Blanche Wolf Knopf met her husband, Alfred A. Knopf, in 1911 when he was a senior at Columbia University and an aspiring publisher. Blanche shared Alfred’s ambition to start a publishing house, and they were soon engaged. The two realized their goal in 1915, starting their press with five thousand dollars from Alfred A. Knopf’s father and space in his New York office. The couple married in 1916. That year, they published Carl Van Vechten’s book, Music and Bad Manners. In all, the Knopfs would publish nearly twenty books by Carl Van Vechten.
In the press’s early years, the Knopfs were involved in all aspects of the publishing process, from soliciting and editing manuscripts to designing and marketing books. From the beginning, Blanche was active in all areas of the business, including designing the Borzoi, a Russian wolfhound imprint marking Knopf titles. Blanche Knopf was soon vice president and director of the already thriving business and she earned a reputation as an influential and powerful editor. Throughout the more than fifty years Knopf worked in publishing, she was a force in shaping the American literary marketplace and the nature of American book publishing in the twentieth century. During her tenure with the firm, Knopf published the work of eleven Nobel Prize winners and eighteen Pulitzer Prize-winning titles.
Though Blanche Knopf is often associated with the European writers whose work she edited and published—Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Simone de Beauvoir and her close friend Albert Camus—she also worked closely with many American writers. These writers included Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken, Langston Hughes, and, not least, Carl Van Vechten. In the 1920s, Van Vechten encouraged the Knopfs to publish the work of a number of talented African-American writers, including Langston Hughes and Nella Larsen. By publishing the work of these influential writers, the Knopfs, like Van Vechten, were important participants in and supporters of the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.
Blanch Knopf and Carl Van Vechten shared a complex, multi-faceted relationship. Though they were dear friends and collaborators, they were also editor and writer, publisher and literary promoter. Their working relationship sometimes required difficult negotiations over details of Van Vechten’s books and their publication, translation, and distribution. As an advocate for the African-American poets and novelists he hoped the Knopfs would publish, Van Vechten was regularly involved with the editing and publishing of books by these writers.
Their working relationship enhanced their personal friendship; in 1918, Van Vechten dedicated his The Music of Spain to Knopf. His fondness for Blanche Knopf is further evident in his letters, in which he addresses her as “Grand Duchess” or “Blanchette,” the endearing name he used in his dedication. In a May 1929 letter to Blanche Knopf, Van Vechten concluded with one of his unique signatures: “The carnations were long, the lilies were lovely, & so is Blanche. Carlo.”1