Years ago someone told us about the wonderful JP Morgan Library and Museum in New York and we visited it several times, including once for a midday music performance. So, when I read about The Personal Librarian, a fictional book about Belle da Costa Greene, the long-time librarian hired by J.P. Morgan to help catalog and build his collection of rare manuscripts, I didn’t hesitate.
The non-fiction story is amazing: the librarian was born Belle Marion Greener and was the daughter of the first Black man to graduate from Harvard. Her parents separated when she was young and her mother changed their names to Greene, moved with the children to New York City, and passed for white. Belle was hired by J.P. Morgan in 1905 and worked closely with him to build the collection; she worked with his son Jack after J. Pierpont died and when the collection became a public institution, she was its first director and continued in that role until she retired in 1948.
She moved successfully in the social world of the super rich of the Gilded Age and their art dealers, a white male group. It’s hard to imagine the strength it took to accomplish what she did at a time no other women were successful in that field while at the same time she was passing for white. She was the lover of and had a long-time correspondence with that phenomenon of the world of Italian Renaissance painting, Bernard Berenson. According to the JP Morgan Library and Museum website, the letters he wrote to her have been destroyed, but hers to him survive and are being digitized by the Museum. That project was speeded up because it could be done when Covid closed the Museum.
While this effort to bring these historical figures to life through fiction did not appeal to me, I am grateful to have learned about them. When I read that Bernard Berenson was also close to Edith Wharton, I was moved to find out more about him. I’m now looking forward to reading Rachel Cohen’s book Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, that tells about five women important to him. J. P. Morgan himself is a figure of interest: this robber baron who had the power to bring the economy back from the verge of collapse was consumed by an interest in the first books printed in English.
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, The Personal Librarian, Berkley, 2021, 341 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.