One for the Books
Personal Librarian tells an amazing and inspiring story based on the life of Belle da Costa Greene, the first librarian employed by Pierpont Morgan. Using scrupulous research and personal experiences best-selling author
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray show how Greene shaped the world-renowned Morgan Library collection, driven by the desire to make it an outstanding institution for scholarly research.
One incredible aspect of this is that Belle was a Negro, growing up as Jim Crow laws were dominating the South. To give her children a chance at a reasonable life, Belle's mother was determined to have her children pass as white. As a result she and Belle's father separated. The first black man to graduate from Harvard and a public advocate for civil rights at the turn of the century, Richard Greener could not turn his back on his people.
Belle's mother changed their last name to Greene and gave Belle the name da Costa Greene. She invented the backstory that Belle's grandmother was Portugese to explain her darker coloring. It worked. Belle partied and mingled with the cream of Gilded Age society. To add to the complexity of it all, Belle had a long-standing relationship with Bernard Berenson. Morgan disliked Berenson, in part because he was Isabelle Stewart Gardner’s art advisor, and he would mutter that Berenson was Jewish.
Today, as you can imagine, the fact that this influential woman—one of the most highly paid and respected professional women of her era—was African-American is publicized with pride by the Morgan Library, which has been working hard to expand its staff and its collection and exhibits to recognize art from other cultures. It plans a Belle da Costa Greene exhibit for 2024. I am very fond of the Morgan. My first job, assistant-to-the-editor at Coward, McCann,
placed me diagonally opposite the library on Madison Avenue. I spent many a lunch hour (or two or three) marveling at the illuminated manuscripts and other masterpieces of book art. I’ve now been a member for a long time and before Covid would stop in on my way down to 14th St. to teach at Pratt to see one of the always-interesting exhibits. It was a lifeline during the pandemic because the curators started giving Zoom lectures about the collection and exhibits otherwise unseeable during the lockdown.
The book's authors credit Belle's fascination with illuminated manuscripts to her father's gift of Berenson's book on Renaissance art when Belle was about nine. This reminded me of another connection to the Morgan. For several years I was one of the judges for their city-wide Morgan Book Project which gives children in the public schools the chance to create their own illuminated manuscripts, using high-quality materials provided by the library. Seeing what the children, many first-generation immigrants, expressed and achieved was eye-opening to me. I'm sure the experience opens new vistas for them as well. Belle destroyed all of her letters before she died, and the authors' notes give are very clear about how they worked with gaps in the known history. However, it now turns out that Bernard Berenson kept all her letters, sent over decades, so scholars anticipate a field day.