A&A Book Club: The Personal Librarian

April 21, 2022

The Department of Art & Archaeology’s book club recently met to discuss the novel The Personal Librarian (2021) by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. The book is the sixth the club has discussed on topics of diversity and inclusion. Other titles the group have discussed include How to be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi, Make Your Home Among Strangers (2015) by Jennine Capó Crucet, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020) by Cathy Park Hong, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-first Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder, and Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (2019) by Jennifer M. Morton.

Book club members Gina Migliaccio, Fiona Barrett, Maureen Killeen, Mo Chen, Pamela Patton, Marilyn Hansen, Dora Ching, and Jessica Savage met to discuss The Personal Librarian, a fictionalized account of the early life and career of Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950), the remarkable scholar and librarian best known for building the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now The Morgan Library & Museum) as its first director. Greene’s stunning achievements over the course of her career came at the cost of living her adult life as white despite being of African American heritage. She was born Belle Marion Greener, the eldest daughter of Richard T. Greener (1844–1922), a famous Black civil rights activist and the first Black man to graduate from Harvard. The family was effectively separated around 1898, when Richard accepted a diplomatic post in Russia. At the direction of Belle’s mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, the family altered their surname to “Greene” and moved to New York, where they lived as white. Belle and several siblings assumed the name “da Costa” along with a fabricated Portuguese background. In the 1900 census, the family is recorded as living on West 99th Street in New York, and all six are identified as “W,” for white, in the column for “Color or race.” Greene’s occupation was misspelled but clearly meant to be “librarian.”

By 1902, Greene was working at the Princeton University Library, then in Chancellor Green. The 1905 census shows that she shared a house on 41 University Place with Charlotte Martins and Gertrude Hyde, who are also listed as library staff at Princeton. There, Greene worked with Junius Spencer Morgan, who in 1905 introduced her to his uncle J. P. Morgan (1837–1913), the New York financier and collector. Morgan hired Greene as his personal librarian, launching a 43-year career that included her appointment as director of the now-public institution in 1924. Greene was known as not only a serious scholar with a formidably keen eye for fine books and manuscripts, but also a fabulous personality, witty, well-read, generous with her scholarship and time, and by many accounts, bedecked in the most extraordinary fashion à la mode.

The Personal Librarian takes the reader through a fictionalized account of Greene’s early career and her burgeoning influence as Morgan’s librarian, imagining her experience of living as white and moving upward in a deeply racist society. Belle enjoyed great privilege under this new identity, but at what price? The book club considered the enormous pressures Belle Greene must have faced privately, not only personally but as the main provider for her family and protector of their name. The Personal Librarian also discusses her tenuous relationship with Bernard Berenson, a key figure in Belle’s life and letters, whose camouflaged Jewish background is presented as in some ways parallel. The group also discussed how Greene, with little post-secondary education, gained the knowledge and experience to build the extraordinary collection at the Morgan Library, and wondered whether J. P. Morgan would have known, or even cared to have known, about Belle’s ancestry.

Typed letter, caption explains contecxt

A typed letter on Morgan Library letterhead, addressed to C.R. Morey from Belle da Costa Greene. The body of the letter reads: I have read your statement concerning the Index, of which I approve. Inasmuch as it is to be used as an appeal, it seems to me that it might be somewhat condensed, if that can be done without omitting any necessary data.”

The discussion was enhanced by resources found here in the Department of Art & Archaeology: Jessica Savage, Index Specialist, shared two of Greene’s original typed letters, which Savage discovered in a folder labeled “Morgan Correspondence” among the archival material at the Index of Medieval Art. The first letter, dated June 4th, 1930, is addressed to Professor Albert M. Friend (1894–1956), A&A Department Chair, and signed with the initials “B.G.” and the postscript “Signed as ‘dictated’ to me! B.G.” It concerns the return of the Morgan’s facsimile copy of the Bible of Farfa, which was borrowed by the Index for photography. The second letter, written to Professor Charles Rufus Morey (1877–1955) and dated December 9th, 1936, comments on a statement about Index activities, about which he appears to have asked her advice.

At the close of the book club meeting the group enjoyed toasting Greene’s legacy with the special blend of Assam and Keemun teas, called the 1906 Library Blend, available through the Morgan Library Gift Shop. The tea is said to be inspired by the blend that J. P. Morgan and Belle drank together, likely during their many afternoons discussing fine books and manuscripts, and presumably using only the finest china!

At the next A&A book club meeting, the group will discuss The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) by Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. To find out more about the A&A Book Club, and to obtain a copy of The Warmth of Other Suns in whatever format you prefer (e-book, hard copy, or audio book), please contact Maureen Killeen at [email protected].

To learn more about Belle da Costa Greene, see the following resources, which were compiled with the assistance of Fiona Barrett, Index Administrator:

Armstrong, April C., “The Problem with ‘Firsts,’ Part II: Archival Silence and Black Staff at Princeton University.” Mudd Manuscript Library Blog. August 26, 2020.

A Look at Belle da Costa Greene, Rare Book Collections @ Princeton. August 3, 2010.

“Belle da Costa Greene’s bookplate.” A Blog of the Graphic Arts Collection: Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University.

“Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director.” The Morgan Library & Museum. See especially links for the Morgan’s upcoming exhibition on Belle da Costa Greene and the Belle Greene-Bernard Berenson Letters Project.

Foner, Daria Rose, “ARTalk with Dr. Daria Rose Foner – The Woman Who Made the Morgan Library,” YouTube video, 1:10:49, October 17, 2021.

Paranick, Amber. “Belle da Costa Greene: Library Director, Advocate, and Rare Books Expert.” The Blog of the Library of Congress. February 8, 2022.

Studies in Art and Literature for Belle Da Costa Greene, edited by Dorothy Miner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954).