A Wolf in Chic Clothing
Here’s the pitch: Mad Men, but set in the 1920s’ cutthroat world of publishing. Our Don Draper is Blanche Wolf Knopf (yes, that is her real middle name). Inspired by Laura Claridge’s biography, The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire, this is a show you didn’t know you needed.
Blanche’s husband, Alfred, founded Alfred A. Knopf Inc. at the young age of 22. In 1915, Knopf’s company consisted of just three employees, two of them with the last name Knopf. By all accounts, Alfred was brilliant and ambitious but also lonely and self-thwarting. A bit of a dandy, he was also an attention hog, which may be why Blanche never truly got the attention she deserved for growing the company.
Claridge claims that Blanche Knopf was “the more important and influential of the two Knopfs.” According to Alfred, Blanche was the “soul of the firm.” Claridge posits that Blanche “probably had better taste than her husband.” She is credited with recruiting Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Langston Hughes, and Thomas Mann. Her interest in fiction and poetry, her fluency in French, and her ability to cultivate authors indicates a deep and fierce intellect.
Blanche is a fascinating character, one whose self-composed narrative runs contrary to the facts. She claimed her father was a jeweller, when in fact he manufactured hats for babies. (!) She also claimed to be an only child, despite having an older brother. Her closet was filled with Dior, Chanel, and Schiaparelli, and “she grew her red-painted fingernails so long that they resembled talons.” I don’t know why this detail gives me such joy but it absolutely tickles my fancy.
Blanche and Alfred’s marriage seemed to be one of convenience. They fought terribly, often in the office (they both loved an audience). In a thoroughly badass fashion, Blanche would give her paramours monogrammed Dunhill cigarette lighters to remember her by. By the time she died, 27 Knopf authors had won the Pulitzer Prize and 16 the Nobel Prize. Blanche was a powerhouse.
How has this woman not been immortalized on film or television? She is a writer’s dream: a fully fleshed out but flawed character set against the historic backdrop of sexism, anti-Semitism, and two world wars. A television show based on her life would have cameos by Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and Eleanor Roosevelt. There’s passion, conflict, romance, and fashion from the 1910s to the 1930s.
The show would delve into the origins of publishing in the United States. Instead of expounding on the Draper-esque themes of identity and existentialism, it would explore literature and art as commodity. In many ways, Alfred and Blanche were gatekeepers to “literature” for the masses. By deciding what authors to publish, what works to translate into English, and who to market, they had a hand in crafting the literary giants at the turn of the century.
About the show: It would air on cable TV. Development executives love shows about middle-aged white couples dealing with marriage ennui (this show would have that AND a jazzy soundtrack by Ella Fitzgerald). As for as Blanche herself, who could play this enigmatic, forceful woman? Who would capture her sense of style, her ability to sweet talk authors, her prominent beak? My dream casting would be Carmen Ejogo, who recently appeared as Coretta Scott King in 2014’s Selma. Ejogo’s ability to deftly showcase fury, sorrow, and tenderness would make her an ideal Blanche, a force to be reckoned with while still portraying vulnerability.
Much like any time I indulge myself in tv daydreaming, I desperately wish this show was real. In my second (or fifth) career as a producer, this will be on the top of my to-make list.