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  • Writer's pictureN.J. Mastro

Belle da Costa Greene: The Cleverest Woman in the Country

Historical fiction brings to light important stories that would otherwise escape attention. In The Personal Librarian, authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray team up to reveal to modern readers Belle da Costa Greene, private librarian to financial mogul J.P. Morgan.


The Personal Librarian opens in 1905. After amassing his fortune, J.P. Morgan has set out to build the finest personal library in the world. In the novel, J.P. casts an imposing figure, as he did in real life. Imagine Rich Uncle Pennybags from the board game, Monopoly, the man on whom the caricature is based.

Upon the recommendation of his nephew Junius Morgan, J.P. hires Belle da Costa Greene to purchase and curate his growing collection of rare books, manuscripts, book-related artifacts, and artwork.


At the time, Belle was working as a librarian at Princeton, a whites-only, male-only university. Junius discovered Belle’s talent during his frequent visits to Princeton’s rare book collection. Her exceptional knowledge impressed him, as did her witty, animated personality.


Belle dazzles her new employer from the start. Because a great deal of business occurs in social settings as much as at auctions and by private arrangement, J.P. introduces her to New York society, where she makes an indelible impression. Soon she is traveling the world searching for the rarest of books, the most exquisite artwork money can buy, and antiquities few people have ever seen.


A woman earning such a prestigious position as librarian to one of America’s wealthiest individuals was alone a stunning achievement. Women simply didn’t enjoy professional positions of that magnitude. They didn’t even have the vote yet. That Belle was Black made her appointment even more remarkable. Belle had light skin color, enabling her to pass through life presenting herself as a white woman.


During what would appear a charming, glamorous existence, Belle is forced to carry the secret of her true identity. If discovered, she would be fired. Not only would this destroy her career as a librarian, it would also take away her livelihood. Much is at stake. Besides supporting herself, she was the breadwinner for her mother and siblings, to whom she provided food, clothing, shelter, and education.


Belle’s story in The Personal Librarian is poignant, engaging, and instructive. Readers discover Belle while the authors also bring to life on the page two unique worlds, that of rare books and fine art. The main learning for me, however, was the path of Black individuals who identified as white during this era. Given how harshly Blacks were treated at the time, it was not unusual for individuals with light skin color to elect to pass as white. One can only imagine the heartache that must have accompanied their choice. Belle’s story demonstrates this as she navigates her feelings and those of her family, including dealing with relatives who did not approve of her decision or that of her mother’s to live as white women.


So who was the real Belle da Costa Greene?


Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray appear to have done an exceptional job staying true to Belle’s actual story. The novel closely follows her life's chronology.


Belle da Costa Greene was born Belle Marion Greener in 1883 in Washington, DC. Prior to her birth, her father was the first Black graduate of Harvard and spent time as the first Black librarian at the University of South Carolina. Belle’s parents separated when she was still an adolescent. While Belle and the rest of her family remained in Washington, DC, her father went on to pursue what eventually turned out to be a distinguished career in racial justice in other major U.S. cities. Belle only knew him from afar.



Belle’s mother and father, both of mixed race, had light skin, as did their children. Seeing the difficult road ahead for Black people in a segregated, racist world, Belle, along with her mother and siblings, changed their surname to Greene (dropping the “r”) to disassociate themselves from her father, then fabricated a new ancestry by describing themselves as Americans of Portuguese descent. Belle further altered her name by adding da Costa to the Greene name to reinforce her ruse of Portuguese heritage. Only one brother also adopted da Costa.


Belle didn’t have the resources to attend college and went directly from high school to her job at Princeton. There her intellect and interest in rare collections set her apart, drawing the attention of Junius Morgan. She began her job as J.P.’s librarian in 1905 and stayed in that position until his death in 1913.


During her tenure as J.P.'s librarian, Belle did indeed take New York by storm. She became a regular at posh dinners and parties where J.P. introduced her to America’s wealthiest class. Belle had a flair for fashion. Stylish and beautiful, she wasn’t afraid to make herself highly visible, daring, essentially, to hide in plain sight. Newspapers regularly featured her. One article in the Boston Globe in 1916 wrote, “it is rather gratifying to feminists to reflect that no near-sighted and anemic masculine scholar was Mr. Morgan’s helper in the long task of collecting the library treasure, but a woman, and a young and very pretty one at that.”[1]


Belle soon earned the reputation as the cleverest woman in the country due to her extensive knowledge regarding rare books and art. She knew what she wanted and how to get it by becoming a savvy purchaser, outsmarting her male counterparts, the dealers and collectors with whom she competed, often beating them at their own game.



In an interview on NPR, authors Benedict and Murray suggested that stereotypes likely contributed to Belle being able to pass as white. Whites commonly perceived Blacks as uneducated and incapable. Belle was anything but. She was educated, confident, and outspoken. She knew how to carry herself in the presence of white upper-class individuals like the Morgans, who ran in rich and complicated circles.[2]


J.P. Morgan died in 1913, passing his library down to his son, J.P. (Jack) Junior. Belle continued to serve as its librarian. In 1924, the collection had become too important to remain private. Jack Morgan gifted the private library to the public as a memorial to his father and named it the Pierpont Morgan Library. He also named Belle director.


Belle worked at the Pierpont Morgan Library for the next 24 years, expanding her reputation for scholarly research. She continued to travel extensively in Europe, attending auctions and collecting artifacts.


Belle never married. She is said, however, to have had a long-standing romantic relationship with Italian Renaissance art expert Bernard Berenson, which is explored fictitiously in The Personal Librarian. Belle and Berenson met in 1909 and enjoyed what the Morgan Library & Museum today refers to as a forty-year epistolary affair. Berenson was married, which may have prevented them from involvement beyond frequent letters and clandestine meetings. Click here for a wonderfully informative video describing their relationship.


Belle retired in 1948. She died in 1950 in New York. It wasn’t until 1999 that J.P. Morgan biographer Jean Strouse discovered Belle’s birth certificate identifying her as “C” for colored. Little more is known, as Belle appears to have destroyed all her personal papers prior to her death.



Today the Pierpont Morgan Library is the Morgan Library & Museum, a major cultural institution. You can see images and hear about the library’s history in this visually rich short video. You can also visit the library’s website at themorgan.org.


Some may view Belle da Costa Greene as an imposter, a woman who pretended to be someone she was not. I believe the opposite. She decided who she was and who she wanted to be, in part doing what circumstances of her era required her to do. By defying an arbitrary set of rules that were wildly unjust, she didn't just survive, she thrived. Today she stands as proof of how wrong those rules were and how each individual has a set of choices available to them. While those choices may vary, it is a person's inner drive and spirit that ultimately prevails.


I don't know about you, but there's one place I'm sure to visit on my next trip to New York. Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re here. If you'd like to receive my next post in your mailbox, be sure to subscribe below.


Nancy


Photo credits:

Belle da Costa Greene: Morgan Library & Museum

Morgan Library & Museum: Mike Peel at mikepeel.net


For more information on Belle da Costa Greene:


For more on the Morgan Library & Museum;


Sources: [1] Belle de Costa Greene: library director, advocate, and rare books expert. Joanna Colclough. February 9, 2022. Library of Congress. Retrieved online at https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2022/02/belle-de-costa-greene/ [2] The story of J.P. Morgan’s ‘personal librarian’ — and why she chose to pass as white. Karen Grigsby Bates. NPR. August 31, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/08/31/1031802246/the-story-of-j-p-morgans-personal-librarian-and-why-she-chose-to-pass-as-white

2 Comments


Daryl Byklum
Daryl Byklum
Feb 12, 2023

Another thoughtful commentary. One of the saddest components of this black woman’s struggle to live in the white world is also part of her victory - dispelling the myth that blacks are “uneducated and incapable.”

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nancy
Feb 13, 2023
Replying to

So very true. She dispelled myths about women, about Black individuals, and about class. Such an amazing person. It was terrific fun learning about her. Thanks for reading!

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