The Personal Librarian

a book review

Who was Belle da Costa Greene/Belle Marion Greener?

One of the great mysteries of the 20th century was the identity of the personal librarian to John Pierpont Morgan. Born Belle Marion Greener to an African-American family in 1879, she became Belle da Costa Greene at the age of 16. Her parents were separated, and her mother brought her and her siblings to New York City, where they were unknown and could live lives free of the malignant racism that was and continues to be part of everyday life in this country. Belle da Costa Greene could go where Belle Marion Greener could not. She worked as a librarian for John Pierpont Morgan. She built up his libraries, adding rare books and manuscripts to his collection that she obtained at a number of auctions. She traveled widely, experienced the social life of the rich and famous, fell in love, tasted expensive foods, and became famous for her steel nerves during auctions and for the collection that she built up for J.P. Morgan.

Libraries are public space where knowledge and education are offered to all ages, free of charge.

Belle da Costa Greene became a wealthy woman and she was not selfish with either her wealth or her work. After J.P. Morgan passed away, she made sure that his library became a public place, part of the New York City library system. It is now a jewel of that system. She was able to give so much, yet she was not able to be the person that she was born to be. She was always that someone else, that person who could not safely talk about her background or her father, Richard Theodore Greener, who was the first black person to graduate from Harvard University, in 1870.

Belle da Costa Greene burned many of her personal letters and other private documents to protect her family from the malignant racism that had killed so many (and continues to kill so many) in brutal massacres in the United States, including more than 300 in the black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921), 200 black farmers and families in the “Red Summer” in Elaine, Arkansas (1919), and the list goes on and on, and it never ends.

The written word has power, and it’s so important to tell our stories.

Because there was so little documentation of Belle Da Costa Greene’s life, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray agreed to collaborate to create a work of historical fiction about Belle’s life. They produced a book that is a true page turner. It is an engrossing story of a woman who achieved fame and power and who was able to give a city culture and the opportunity for knowledge but at what personal cost? She always had to be on guard to protect her secret from being discovered. She had to deny her identity and her heritage. It was a very difficult life to live, but she managed to live it with grace and strength and power. She was an amazing person and Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s book, although fictional, showed how Belle Da Costa Greene triumphed over everything that life threw in her direction.

This is a book that is well worth reading. Go and check out a copy for your public library. You won’t regret it.

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