Publication date: June 2021
Category: Biographical Historical Fiction
Review, short version: Four out of four roses.
Review, long version:
The book is The Personal Librarian, and the authors are Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.
The book’s dedication says:
For the two sides of Belle:
Belle da Costa Greene
Belle Marion Greener
The novel is based on a real person, and she did, indeed, have two sides:
Belle Marion Greener, born into a middle-class black family in Washington, DC; and Belle da Costa Greene, who passed for white her entire adult life, and well beyond her death.
I’d never heard of Belle (1879-1950, pictured above), nor the place where she made her mark – the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York:
Now known as The Morgan Library and Museum, it originated as the personal repository of rare and valuable artworks and manuscripts collected by millionaire financier J.P. Morgan. Morgan’s funds were unlimited – as was his acquisitiveness – but he needed a knowledgeable person to organize, and continue adding to, his collection.
On his nephew’s recommendation, Morgan interviewed (white) Belle da Costa Greene, and hired her as his personal librarian.
Belle had already been living as a white, but this position moved her from relative obscurity into the spotlight. There was nothing low-key about Morgan, and as his representative, Belle had to navigate the high levels of society – wealthy art collectors, sharp-eyed art dealers, and society women whose hobby was putting each other under a microscope.
“Is this the moment,” Belle wonders, “I brace myself for almost daily, the moment when my secret will be revealed?”
But her secret wasn’t revealed during her lifetime, and Belle earned both solid reputation and many professional successes in the art world, unusual at that time for a woman, and impossible for a black woman.
The authors do a credible job of taking us inside Belle’s mind and helping us understand why Belle knew she had to keep her real self hidden. In their Historical Note they say:
“Clearly, Belle did not want her real identity discovered, not a surprise given the racism of her times and her legitimate concern that if her background became widely known, her accomplishments at the Pierpont Morgan Library would be eviscerated.”
Belle’s accomplishments indeed would have been eviscerated – and Belle would have been, too.
The authors don’t say how or when Belle’s background was revealed, but I was curious and spent some time looking online. It appears that in 1999, J.P. Morgan biographer Jean Strouse found Belle Greener’s 1879 birth certificate, which lists Richard Greener, an African American, as her father.
Fortunately, in 1999, that discovery was more footnote than front-page news.
I believe Belle would be happy about that.