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Arts & Culture

J.P. Morgan's Personal Librarian Was A Black Woman. This Is Her Story.

The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

I have a confession: I am not a fan of the passing trope. From Nella Larsen's 1929 classic, Passing, to the original Imitation of Life (the 1934 movie starred the incomparable Fredi Washington as Peola, the little girl who wanted to be white) to Britt Bennett's 2020 novel The Vanishing Half, the notion of a Black person posing as white to escape her Blackness just felt ... tired.

"Deep down, all Black people want to be white." I heard that in a social psychology class, repeated as if it were a truism. It's not. At several points in childhood and as an adult, I've loved the notion of being rich, but being white? I cannot imagine it. I wouldn't be me.

And that, basically, is at the crux of The Personal Librarian, a new novel by Heather Terrell (writing as Marie Benedict) and Victoria Christopher Murray. Their heroine, Belle Da Costa Greene, was one of the most prominent career women of her time. As the personal librarian to financier J.P.Morgan, she pursued and curated a collection of rare books, manuscripts and art that became world-renowned.

Passing as white causes a family split

What the world didn't know was that Belle Da Costa Greene was Black. Or, in the parlance of the day, colored. Greene was born into a prominent family of pale Black Washingtonians in 1883. Her parents were intellectuals. Her father, Richard T. Greener, was the first Black graduate of Harvard. He was also an ardent race man, and spent his life pressing for racial equality. Greene's mother, Genevieve Fleet, determined that racial equality wasn't going to happen in her lifetime, and after the family's move to New York, she declared them white in the 1905 NY State Census. That subterfuge became the cause of a huge rift — her parents separated, and Belle's family subsequently lived as white.

Belle Marion Greener became Belle Da Costa Greene — the Da Costa name an allusion to a fabricated Portuguese grandmother, a convenient explanation for Belle's olive complexion. (Contemporary portraits show an attractive woman who many Black people would immediately recognize as kindred; apparently Gilded Age white folks were easier to fool.)

Belle meets J.P.

The family's entire fortunes — where they lived, their occupations, everything — were completely dependent on Belle's white identity, as her mother constantly reminded her. When she became friends with financier J. Pierpont Morgan's nephew when they both worked in the rare books library at Princeton, young Morgan suggested to his uncle that he consider Belle as his personal librarian. In an interview, something about the young woman's intelligence and humor appealed to Morgan: She was hired on the spot.

Belle became a power in her own right, courted by art dealers, embraced by the socially powerful, profiled as an elegant careerist at a time when working women were rare.

As the two began to work closely together, Morgan came to trust Belle's vision and expertise. He knew that under her astute eye his collection would be more than an assortment of rarities only one of the world's richest men could acquire. Belle could provide an important missing link: context. And indeed, the Morgan Library became known as a private collection of rare books, manuscripts and art that competed with esteemed public institutions such as the British Museum. As the literal face of the library, Belle became a power in her own right, courted by art dealers, embraced by the socially powerful, profiled as an elegant careerist at a time when working women were rare.

Paying a price for a new life

But as Benedict and Murray show, there was a terrible cost to maintaining that façade. Belle was cut off from her beloved extended family in DC: "Once Mama made the decision that we would live as white," she says. "We could not take the risk." And while she had many lovers (including famed art historian Bernard Berenson), she could marry none:

I've always known that, because of my heritage, a traditional relationship would not be possible for me ... because a marriage means children, and that is something I cannot hazard. Without the fairer skin of my siblings, I could never risk bearing a child whose skin color might reveal my deception.

Benedict, who is white, and Murray, who is African American, do a good job of depicting the tightrope Belle walked, and her internal conflict from both sides — wanting to adhere to her mother's wishes and move through the world as white even as she longed to show her father she was proud of her race. Like Belle and her employer, Benedict and Murray had almost instant chemistry, and as a result, the book's narrative is seamless. And despite my aversion to the passing trope, I became hooked.

Belle Da Costa Greene is not front and center of the Morgan Library's story now. But she will be much more visible when The Morgan celebrates its centennial as a public institution in 2024. Which is fitting, as it was she who persuaded Jack Morgan to donate his father's astonishing library to the city. It's a gift that honors J.P. Morgan, his descendants — and the personal librarian who was critical to the Morgan's success.

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