I will be perfectly honest with you. Any book that has the word library or librarian in it is bound to catch my attention. The Personal Librarian, an historical novel by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, about Belle de Costa Greene, therefore called out to me. I was glad it did.
Belle de Costa Greene was a light-skinned Black woman who became J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian in 1905, and served in that capacity until 1938. After the senior Morgan passed away in 1913, Ms. Greene worked for his son and heir, Jack.
Belle de Costa Greene was born Belle Marion to an educated and well-respected black family in Washington D.C. Belle’s mother elected to pass both she and her children as white in order to make their lives easier and safer. She changed their last name to de Costa Greene, and claimed the family hailed from Portugal. Belle’s father was an attorney who served as dean of the Howard University School of Law and was the first black student and first black graduate of Harvard.
Ms. Greene worked at the library Princeton until she was introduced to J.P. Morgan. Morgan’s library and art collection was his pride and joy, and for good reason. He was determined to make it one of the best libraries in the country, and hired Belle to help make that happen. Belle became like a member of the Morgan family, and made her way into New York City society. All the while, she was silent about her Black ties.
I enjoyed learning the story of this remarkable woman who was an unusual success, given that she was a woman. She struggled with her secret, unsure as to whether or not it was the right thing to do. But she was able to support her family and have one of a most exciting job, something she wouldn’t have been able to do in 1905 as a Black woman.
I enjoyed learning about high society in New York City, about book and art collecting, and about the emergence of the women’s suffragette movement. The writers’ were able to give the reader a real flavor of the time in history, about living in New York City, and about the struggle for both women and black Americans during this difficult time.
I recomend the book.