The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict

Hardcover, 2021


Checked out
Due Dec 3, 2023


Berkley (2021), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


"The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan's personal librarian-who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray. In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. Pierpont Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection. But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white-her complexion is dark because she is African American. The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go-for the protection of her family and her legacy-to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives"--… (more)


½ (484 ratings; 3.8)

Media reviews
Both a stunning tribute to an amazingly courageous woman and a searingly timely exploration of race relations in America, The Personal Librarian is an extraordinary novel that will have you frantically googling the key figures to learn more. I won’t be ready to part with Belle and her
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contemporaries for a long time after finishing this one.
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8 more
The Nerd Daily
Kept me intrigued, fascinated, and mesmerized throughout….Everyone should know about the woman who took risks, carved her own path, silenced the naysayers, and forged ahead to becoming one of America’s most prominent librarians in history. Definitely a must-read.
Booklist (starred review)
Every element of this blockbuster historical novel is compelling and revelatory, beginning with the bedazzling protagonist based with awestruck care on Belle da Costa Greene… a novel of enthralling drama, humor, sensuality, and insight. … [a] resounding tale of a brilliant and resilient woman
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defying sexism, classism, and racism during the brutality of Jim Crow. Benedict and Murray do splendidly right by Belle in this captivating and profoundly enlightening portrayal.
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Publishers Weekly
A powerful take on the accomplishments of J.P. Morgan’s librarian…. Benedict and Murray do a great job capturing Belle’s passion and tenacity as she carves a place for herself in a racist male-dominated society. This does fine justice to a remarkable historical figure.
Library Journal (starred review)
This fictional account of Greene’s life feels authentic; the authors bring to life not only Belle but all those around her. An excellent piece of historical fiction that many readers will find hard to put down.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The story of Belle da Costa Greene is timely, universal, and enduring. Through it, Benedict and Murray raise questions that are as important now as they were a hundred years ago—questions to which a true historical answer may be less important than the fact that we are continuing to face them in
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contemporary ways.
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Real Simple
A fascinating story!
National Public Radio (NPR)
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
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race. Like Belle and her employer, Benedict and Murray had almost instant chemistry, and as a result, the book's narrative is seamless...I became hooked.
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Good Morning America
Historical fiction at its best…The Personal Librarian spins a complex tale of deceit and allegiance as told through books.

User reviews

LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
This novel is so many things - an engrossing tale, a history of a woman both of her era and ahead of her times, a mix of history and fiction that compels and entertains, and, perhaps most importantly, a story with themes of race and privilege that has echoes today. I'd read a few of Marie
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Benedict's book previously and this novel, cowritten with Victoria Christopher Murray, is my favorite by far. I devoured not just the book itself, but the author's note at the end to learn about the nonfiction sources the authors' used to construct this story. There is more I want to learn about this woman, her life, and her library. If you enjoy historical fiction, this is a great novel to read.
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LibraryThing member Bodagirl
I normally try to abide by Nancy Pearl's suggestion of 50 pages before DNF, but the tone was so stiff that it made Belle aloof to the reader, which is odd for first person POV written today. I was kind of excited for the subject of the book, but I can't get past the style.
LibraryThing member dono421846
An interesting topic, but disappointingly executed. We hear ("learn" is probably going too far, since it's not clear how much of this is fabricated) more about her romantic fascination with JP Morgan and other, often alcohol-fueled liaisons than we do about the books and the library, which seems a
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misplaced emphasis. The library she helped build is her lasting legacy, as it is Morgan's, so it seems odd that we learn so little about it. In the end, the tone reads more as Young Adult/"Chick lit" story than a serious account of the impressive achievements of an influential woman. For example, despite the significant build up to the acquisition of the Caxton book, the auction takes only a couple of pages, but chapters are then devoted to describing her making out with Morgan upon its delivery, and the aftermath. Given that she destroyed all of her own papers, it just isn't clear that this sexual tension is legitimate, and at best a few threads of possibility and innuendo are her fanned by the authors into a raging inferno. But some readers want to learn at least as much, if not more, about the library, and that sadly takes a definite back seat, serving primarily as a backdrop for her sexual adventures and identity insecurities.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This is the 6th novel that I have read by Marie Benedict. She writes historical fiction about strong women who accomplished much despite the barriers they had to overcome. This book is a collaboration with Victoria Murray. It is about Belle da Costa Greene who was the personal librarian to J.P
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Morgan and ultimately the head of the Morgan library when it went public in 1924 until her retirement in 1948. On it's own it was be a great story about a woman who accomplished so much in a male dominated world. What makes the story special is that Greene was a light skinned Afro-American who spent her life "passing" for white. The book does a great job of giving you her background. Both of her parents were very accomplished but her mother saw "passing" as the only way for her children to succeed while her father was working for equality. This caused a split that is constantly the backdrop throughout the book. This is a well researched book full of interesting historical characters and it gives you a great insight into the time period and how strong racism was in the 50 years after the civil war. Having never known about Greene, the book has caused me to read more about her, J.P. Morgan, and some of the other characters featured in the book. If you like accurate historical fiction I strongly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member PamelaBarrett
Can you imagine never being able to tell anyone your true identity, and then working for the world's wealthiest man and rising to star status in your chosen profession? That is the life Belle da Costa Greene lived and it is beautifully told in this novel about her. The authors did a great job
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researching Belle’s life and digging down into the conflicting emotions she had as she passed for white in a racist society. A bonus for me was the insight they gave into the workings of art collecting, rare manuscripts and high-profile auctions.
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LibraryThing member SandyAMcPherson
Belle da Costa Greene was an amazing woman. Not just for her times, but even in today's business world she would have been remarkable. In many ways, she was so unusual: she had to 'pass' as white woman, she took a leading role in the business of collecting rare books, illuminated manuscripts, and
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classical artwork, and she was very successful in negotiating deals in a male-dominated environment. Ultimately, Greene amassed the outstanding collections of the Pierpont Morgan Library, later becoming its first director when the private museum became a public institution.

The first few chapters, which introduced the main characters and set the scene where Belle began her work, were reasonably engaging. However, this interesting beginning deteriorated into skimpy details, trudging through Greene's romances and personalities. These not very interesting aspects dominated the narrative which made the whole story trite. Finally, the last half of the book was an abrupt presentation of events that covered long periods of time, with stilted conversational backstory as explanatory recitals, rather than a smoothly flowing saga.

So how did Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray come to produce such a tedious, boring biography of this fascinating person? While the book is fictionalized with conversations and speculative events (not historically recorded), the story dwells only superficially on supporting characters, art auctions, and the main historical players of the day. Why ignore the many aspects that Belle would have performed in evaluating desirable pieces, why no mention of how the hunt for the rarities was conducted, or curating objectives (acquisitions being pre-eminent and rare were simplistic generalizations)? Procedural detail and scene-setting in the negotiations could have built a vibrant picture. This story did not convey a real sense of grounding in its time and was dismally lacking in a fully-rounded portrayal.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
A decent attempt at fictionalizing Belle da Costa Greene, but only just a decent one. There's so much more interesting stuff to be done, and the subject's life is a lot more fascinating than comes through in this novel.
LibraryThing member deslivres5
Historical fiction closely based on the real life of Belle da Costa Greene, the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan in the early 1900s.

Greene story is about her and part of her family passing for white in N.Y.C., of the inner turmoil of not being able to interact with some family (those who remained
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on the other side of the color line), and of the constant fear of her secret being discovered. But it is also a story of failed promises after Reconstruction, the fight for civil rights and also of art, books, fashion and culture during the early 1900s.

The Epilogue and Authors notes at the end are very interesting.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
A highly researched biographical fiction account of the life of Belle deCosta Greene, J.P. Morgan's personal librarian. It was absolutely fascinating to see how a young black woman, who passed for white, landed the position she was truly perfectly prepared for and went about doing a most difficult
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job, for a demanding man, who expected perfection while at the same time keeping her private life secret. Absolutely wonderful, and filled to the brim with information about life among the very wealthy and intellectual in the early part of the twentieth century. The audio was astoundingly well done.
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LibraryThing member quondame
2/3rds of this are sort of plodding, will they find out I'm passing tension during which very interesting activities are going on in the background and the last 1/3 is a series of staccato encounters in which our heroine is validated. I didn't feel the authors created a believable avatar of their
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subject and I certainly felt the people surrounding her lacked dimension and flavor.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
A wonderful, dramatic and moving story of Belle de Costa Greene's career as J.P. Morgan's personal librarian. Benedict and Christopher Murray capture and present both Greene's professional and personal life with sensitivity and insight. Solid, satisfying, and well-researched and written. Definitely
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one of the best books I've read this year and in a long time.

The Personal Librarian reminds me how much our country has lost when The Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1870 were declared unconstitutional in 1883. Thousands of black lives lost due to Jim Crow laws; thousands of African-Americans not provided with substantial opportunities in education, employment and housing. No one benefits when any one is not given basic human kindness, respect, and acknowledgement. Prejudice, hate, greed, and racism took from all of us the benefits of the potential of great minds, of justice, equality, prosperity and love.

We need to seriously demand more of our leaders and politicians. They work for us; and need to get it right by providing justice, equality, opportunities to all of us without exception.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Belle da Costa Greene was J.P. Morgan's personal librarian - but she has a secret, that she's actually a Black woman passing as white, born Belle Marion Greener and the daughter of a man who was a well-known civil rights speaker. In this historical fictional imagining of Belle's story, she
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navigates the world of the rich and famous, gaining Morgan's trust and amassing an impressive collection, all the while wrestling with her hidden life.

The collaboration by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tells the fascinating story of the woman who worked as the personal librarian for J.P. Morgan from 1905 until his death. She was responsible for acquiring items to add to his phenomenal collection of manuscripts and art. And, she was Black - but her mother, siblings, and she lived as a white family. Belle as written worries about being found out, a little repetitively, and the dialog is a little clunky, making this a book I wouldn't reread. But I'm definitely checking out a biography of Belle soon.
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LibraryThing member phoenixcomet
Belle da Costa Greene is a Black woman passing as white in the early 20th century. She is hired by JP Morgan to be his personal librarian and stays in the post for 43 years, long after JP Morgan and JP Jr. have passed on. But as a Black woman passing as white, all of her decisions had to revolve
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around keeping her heritage a secret.

Based on the true story of Belle Marion Greener, daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a delightful work of biographical historical fiction about a fascinating person. Belle da Costa Greene was the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan, who was an ardent collector of art and rare books. She built the J. P. Morgan Library, which is still considered one of the best collections in
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the world, and was the head librarian there for forty years. It's fascinating enough that a woman would hold such a prominent position in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but what her an even more amazing character is that she was Black and passed for white. She spent her whole career not only fighting the sexism she faced, but in constant fear that her race would be discovered and she would lose everything. On top of all of that, she was known for her fashion sense and for her audacious personality - traits which, in this novel anyway, she uses as a defense to keep people from questioning her race.

Naturally this is a novel, so it's going to take some liberties with the facts, but the authors put a lot of effort into staying true to the facts.

Belle really comes alive in this book. Real life doesn't have the same narrative trajectory that pure fiction has, but the authors do a good job of maintaining the tension of the story throughout Belle's life, so this is a compelling read.

I studied medieval manuscripts in graduate school, so I wish this book had focused a little more on the medieval art and how Belle became an expert in all the different kinds of art and books she knew. I think the book undersells how knowledgeable she was. But I understand why the authors didn't focus on that.

I had never heard of Belle da Costa Greene until I read this book, but now she is on my list of favorite historical figures. This novel is a wonderful way to learn about her!
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LibraryThing member nicole_a_davis
An interesting woman who I'd never heard of and would like to know more about now, but the writing was really plodding and inelegant.
LibraryThing member cougargirl1967
All I can say is wow! Although fictionalized, the life, times and struggles of Belle have open my eyes to new things; I'd never heard of the Pierpont Morgan Library before. Thank you for broadening my horizons! Also, thank you Marie and Victoria for adding to my list of nonfiction books to read.
LibraryThing member delphimo
An enlightening novel based on the life of Belle da Costa Greene, a light skinned woman of African-American descent who passed as a white woman in the early 20th Century. By intelligence and luck, Belle Marion Greener became the personal librarian of J. P. Morgan and controlled his library for 43
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years. The novel portrays Belle as ambitious and dedicated to reaching for the stars. After Belle’s father left the family, Belle and her sisters struggled to earn enough money to support the family and send their brother to college. The story shows that dreams can turn to reality with determination and perseverance. An interesting story, The Personal Librarian, about success.
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
Before I read The Personal Librarian, I knew very little about "passing" -- a practice when black people with light skin "passed" as white. I never considered why black people would try to pass, or the fears they felt as they passed, or how passing can disrupt black families.

Thanks to The Personal
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Librarian, I learned so much about passing, and equally important, I learned so much about a dynamic, intelligent black woman named Belle da Costa Greene.

Belle lived during a time of tremendous racial disparity and injustice, becoming the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. She was considered for this position because she was well educated about antiquities and art history--and because she looked white. You see: If Mr. Morgan knew Belle was black, she would have never been considered, despite her vast knowledge and cunning ways.

The Personal Librarian shares Belle's story collecting art and literary pieces for Mr. Morgan's library, but it also shares many other themes: her family dynamic, her fears about being discovered, and her love life. It's a rich tale. When I read the last page, I couldn't help but admire Belle for everything, including her flaws.

If you like historical fiction about powerful, Loud women, or wish to learn more about America's racial past, be sure to add The Personal Librarian to your to-read list.
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LibraryThing member EllenH
Great historical fiction runs true to history and makes a great story. This one qualifies. Fascinating that her parents were part of the Civil Rights movement in the beginning of reconstruction after the Civil War. The way that Belle made such progress passing as white is sad but amazing.
LibraryThing member Carolee888
I bought this book for my own educational benefit, and I have been driven to read by my friends praise for it. I was not let down at all and urge everyone to read it too. Belle de Costa Greene was an extraordinary black woman.

Highly intelligent, she started Princeton in 1905 and was hired as
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personal librarian for J. P. Morgan the most important man in New York. Her family was broken by a very deep conflict. Her father fought constantly for racial equality, while her mother had her children change their names and fabricated a relative who was Portuguese. Her parents separated, and her mother put on the census form that the family was white. In a way, Belle was the sacrificial lamb of the family.. Her mother forced her t0 deny her slave roots and act white to get the best education and her unusual, esteemed career. Belle had to know more than any person she instructed, sparred with, and she had to think on her feet. Belle ranked high in the social circuits, worrying her whole life that she would be found out. Her contribution to the J.P, Morgan library and collection cannot not be overestimated. Belle made them great. This tale is fictionalized but extremely well researched. I can well understand why working on and writing this book was a life-changing experience for the author.
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LibraryThing member bookwyrmm
Amazing how the stories of powerful men overshadow the stories of the women under them, and I am thankful for Benedict and Murray for bringing Belle's story to life.
LibraryThing member cathyskye
Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray tell the amazing story of Belle da Costa Greene, a woman of great intellect and skill who was the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan. Through her hard work and shrewd negotiating skills, she almost single-handedly turned the Pierpont Morgan Library into
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one of the world's premier libraries of rare books and manuscripts. If that weren't enough to make this novel one to read and savor, the even more amazing fact is that Greene was a Black woman passing as white in the New York high society of racist America.

The Personal Librarian is an account of Belle da Costa Greene's life and the lengths she had to go to in order to preserve her secret, the aspects of normal life that she had to deny herself in order for her to make her mark in the world. It was far from easy because treachery lurked behind some surprising corners. Imagine having to live your life never knowing whom you could trust. That was Belle's life.

Perhaps the two things I carried away after reading this book were the fact that Greene's mother and siblings seemed to expect her to pay their way through life. She provided them a roof over their heads, vacations, clothing, and more, while the other thing I learned concerned President Woodrow Wilson. Now, I have to admit that Wilson is one of those presidents whom I never bothered to learn much about, so when I found out how he worked against civil rights and equality, my opinion of him rapidly sank to the bottom of the abyss.

At the end of The Personal Librarian, the authors tell of writing the book as a team and of how they weaved together all the various pieces of the secretive Greene's life in order to write the book. If that's the sort of thing you usually avoid reading, you should make an exception in this case. The Personal Librarian is the story of an extraordinary woman and the lengths she had to go to in order to fulfill her destiny. No one should ever have to go through what Belle da Costa Greene and many others were forced to do.

(Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Net Galley)
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LibraryThing member khoyt
Another gem by Marie Benedict. Another history of black America that has been previously unknown to me. Marie has done a great job with her research. One feels they are in that place and time. Having a black woman, Victoria Christopher Murray, as a co-author shows Marie's dedication to the real
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back story of Belle da Costa Greene. One feels like a resident of Belle's mind as she goes through the emotions and thought processes showing the difficulty and fear that went behind her choice to be a "colored woman" who passes as white. Her mother originally choose this for her when she was young, but she was the one who kept up the deception to gain the confidence of the white world she was born to impact. I received a good education throughout the book as to the people and times, the culture of that era, and especially the evil of racism and its changing face over the years.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
DNF. Borrowed this one from my local library. It started out OK but quickly bored me. Bad writing and the characters are all stereotype (the ambitious mother, the obedient daughter, the quirky mogul, etc.) I put it aside to move on to something more engaging, and my loan expired. Not worth renewing
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or borrowing again.
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LibraryThing member nx74defiant
I had never heard of Belle da Costa Greene. I've heard of J. P. Morgan, but I'm not real familiar to his life. It was very interesting book. Belle faces the challenges of "passing" and always worrying about being found out. We see why Belle's mother made that choice for her family.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

352 p.; 9.26 inches


0593101537 / 9780593101537
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