"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)
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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.
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)
In 1905, Belle de Costa Greene is hired to her dream job, to be the personal librarian to financier to J.P. Morgan and curate his ever expanding rare manuscripts private collection. As trust builds between employee and employer, Belle’s responsibilities expand to
But Belle is keeping a secret. She was born Belle Marion Greener and is an African American and so walks a tightrope as she balances her private life and protects her family and her career.
This biographical novel is beautifully, wisely, and masterfully told. The collaboration between the two authors is seamless as the reader gets immersed in the glamorous life that affords Belle’s position and the trials and tribulations that agonize Belle as she passed for white, while being proud of her African American identity.
A graceful tale and the well-honed characters will earn a place in readers’ heart.
I would be remorse if I did not mention that Belle’s and her family’s story is another example of the harmfulness of discrimination and prejudice.
Based on the true story of Belle Marion Greener, daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard.
Thanks to The Personal
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
The Epilogue and Authors notes at the end are very interesting.
Belle Marion Greener, born from black parents, received an education and was smart. Because one of her patrons enjoyed talking to her, Belle was able to get an interview with his uncle, Mr. Morgan, to oversee his library. She
J. P. Morgan finds Belle to be an outstanding employee and even finds himself attracted to her. Belle swears to purchase the one book that he most wants even if it takes years. She and he have the goal and having one of the finest collections in the world. She is able to live in the world of society as well as the business world and be respected as a woman in a time in the early 1900s, a most unusual circumstance for this time period. The novel reveals her one love as well as her devotion to Mr. Morgan. She must constantly protect her secret. It if were to be revealed, it would affect her family who depend on her for her very nice salary, giving them a nice home. She basically supports most of her siblings and their spouses even though they also have jobs.
The novel intrigued me. I'm not sure I liked Belle, but I know I admire her for her courage and knowledge. Maybe because I never felt pulled into the novel, I felt distanced from her as well. I learned about an interesting woman even though I didn't necessarily love the book. I'm glad I read it.