She lived a lie – and left a lasting legacy

Review: Vivien Horler 

The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray (Berkley/Penguin)

The Personal Librarian is a fictionalised account of the life of a remarkable American woman, Belle da Costa Greene, as her employer and pretty well everyone knew her.

Her boss was the beyond wealthy American financier JP Morgan, and she was his personal librarian, curating the fabulous John Pierpont Morgan Library in Manhattan, negotiating to acquire rare manuscripts and artworks from top collections around the world.

But there were people, notably Belle’s father, who knew her as Belle Marion Greener.

And the difference in her names hid a remarkable secret – Belle was born a fair-skinned coloured girl in Washington DC in the late 1800s and, along with her mother, brother and three sisters, successfully “passed” for white from the age of 16.

The decision by her mother, Genevieve Fleet Greener, to pass ultimately ended her marriage to Belle’s father, Richard Greener, Harvard’s first black graduate and former dean of Howard University School of Law, who built a successful career fighting for equal rights.

The family moved from Washington DC to a pleasant, mainly white, area of New York when Belle’s brother began studying engineering at Columbia.

But one night when Belle is around 18 she overhears a terrible argument between her parents. It emerges her mother has reported to census takers that the family is white.

“Your act goes against everything I stand for and everything I’ve worked for,” he tells Genevieve. But she ignores him – everything she’s done has been for the good of the family, particularly the children.

Richard Greener leaves his family, and Belle becomes Belle da Costa Greene, the da Costa a reference to her fictional Portuguese grandmother.

So when the opportunity to work for JP Morgan arises, Genevieve is triumphant. “A colored girl named Belle Marion Greener would never have been considered for a job with Mr JP Morgan. Only a white girl called Belle da Costa Green would have that opportunity.”

My grasp of US history is not profound, and I had not realised that after the Civil War (1861-1865) the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1875, declared every person born in the US to be citizens “without distinction of race or color or previous condition of slavery”.

But the act was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1880s, a fact referenced by Genevieve when she tells her husband in their last awful argument: “The fight for equality is over, Richard. You lost it. We lost it 15 years ago… Yet you continue to think something is going to change for the better. The time for hope is past; things are only going to get worse. There is only black and white – nothing in between – and they will always be separate, but never equal. Segregation will take care of that.”

Genevieve was of course right, formal segregation lasted for nearly another century until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

While all this is at the centre of the novel and Belle’s real life, it is not what the novel or her life was about. She lived a flamboyant lifestyle, dressing at the height of fashion, and helping her family financially. She attended dinner parties with the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, went to balls and parties, became known for her outspoken wit, and hobnobbed with the highest of society both in New York and London.

She also honed her craft, educating herself about renaissance art and rare manuscripts, and became a sharp negotiator when it came to securing artefacts for the library.

But she knew all along that if her secret came come out, the whole edifice of her life and that of her family would have crumbled. And she believed she could never marry, because what if a baby appeared whose skin colour gave it all away?

Which is not to say she didn’t have a love life – for years she was linked to the Renaissance Italian art expert Bernard Berenson, although he was already married., and the authors explore this relationship.

After JP Morgan’s death in 1913 Belle stayed on at the library, working for the financier’s son Jack and eventually persuading him to open the library to all. She became director of the Pierpont Morgan Library when it became a public institution in 1924.

The Private Librarian has two authors, Marie Benedict, a white best-selling writer of historical fiction, and Victoria Christopher Murray, a black  author of contemporary fiction. They were introduced by an agent, and their mutual interest in Belle cemented a relationship that grew over the years to one both describe as sisterhood.

In an author’s note, Murray says between them they created a safe space where they could discuss the history of both black and white America, “and the hope that one day these two Americas would converge into one”.

This is a lively, riveting story which will have resonance for many South Africans who took Belle’s route and may have created a successful life, but at huge personal cost.

  • This novel was published in 2021, so is technically not a “new” book, but I felt it was well worth reading – and reviewing.


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