Celebrating 100 Years of Knopf

Amelia Durand / Knopf

The publishing house rang in its centennial at the New York Public Library last Thursday. 

Once they walked between the stone lions and climbed the rain-slicked steps of the New York Public Library on Thursday night, attendees of Knopf’s 100th anniversary party passed through a gantlet of six benevolent borzoi hounds, proudly representing the publishing house that has held the breed as its mascot for so many decades.

One would be hard-pressed to guess what year it was judging solely from the guest list, which  included cultural icons from the last fifty: Sam Shepard, Elie Wiesel, Judy Blume, Toni Morrison, Fran Lebowitz, Robert Caro, Michael Ondaatje, Richard Russo, and the latest heir to the literary wunderkind title, 36-year-old Garth Risk Hallberg

At the lectern, Patti Smith, author of this month’s M Train, sang the praises of fellow Knopf writer Albert Camus before literally singing an a cappella rendition of her song “Wings.” James Ellroy paid tribute to the legendary Knopf-published crime writers who influenced him, notably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  

Then Ellroy howled like a borzoi, a primal cry of fealty to “our furry führer.”

(The borzoi, by the way, was Blanche Knopf’s idea. “It came from Alfred A. Knopf’s wife, who thought they were very graceful and beautiful,” says Jonathan Segal, a longtime Knopf editor. “Other companies had logos of one kind or another and she felt Knopf should have one. But as soon as she got a borzoi, she didn’t like it at all and got rid of it.”)

More than an anniversary, the evening was a remarkable illustration of the brand’s singular longevity, range, and quality. Indeed, the catalog of authors Knopf published in the first half of its existence would make for a reasonably thorough survey of early 20th century Western thought: H.L. Mencken, Langston Hughes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Willa Cather…

Asked to pick her top-ten Knopf books in honor of the centenary, Robin Desser—who edits Jhumpa Lahiri, Claire Messud, and Cheryl Strayed, among other writers—demurred. “It’s really hard to say,” she says. “It’ll sound like bragging.”

To put it in numbers: 24 Knopf authors have been honored with the Nobel Prize, 32 have won the National Book Award, and 58 have received the Pulitzer Prize.

But perhaps the most remarkable statistic is the number of editors-in-chief Knopf has held in its 100 years: three.

Alfred A. Knopf, who founded the publishing house in his early twenties, served as its editor well into his 70s. Robert Gottlieb (who was present on Thursday) then ran the brand until 1987, when he became editor of the New Yorker. He ceded the helm to Sonny Mehta, who has overseen almost three decades of literary and—perhaps more surprisingly these days—financial success at the imprint.

In his speech on Thursday, Mehta attributed Knopf’s good fortunes above all to “our authors.” Within Knopf, however, editors give equal credit to Mehta’s leadership, his eclectic taste, and his relentless enthusiasm even after so many years on the job.

“When I was first in publishing,” says Segal, “you always had the feeling that the publisher is looking for reasons to say no. My experience at Knopf, from the beginning, has been that Sonny’s default setting is to say yes.”

If Alfred A. Knopf rose from the dead and walked into the publisher’s midtown offices, what would he think? “He’d see that the furniture is different," says Segal, "he’d wonder about computers, but I think when he sat down and talked to the editors and Sonny Mehta, he’d be right at home.”

As the guests drained their cocktails and headed home—or to various impromptu after parties—the howl of the borzoi echoed in the drizzly night.