Belle de Costa Greene: Library Director, Advocate, and Rare Books Expert.

The following is a guest post by Joanna Colclough, a Reference Librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division at the Library of Congress.

Photograph of Belle de Costa Greene, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing slightly left.

Belle de Costa Greene, Oct. 1, 1929. Photograph by Bain News Service. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1999, biographer Jean Strouse published her work on J. P. Morgan, railroad magnate, financier, and New York millionaire of the late 1800s. Of course, Belle de Costa Greene is featured in the book – she worked closely with Morgan for the last 8 years of his life as his personal librarian, managing his private art and rare book collection. Greene’s name was not unknown to history. The first half of the 20th century saw Greene rise as a top expert in the rare book world as librarian and first director of the Morgan Library and Museum. But Strouse discovered something new about Greene that presented Greene in whole new light. In an article for The New Yorker (March 29, 1999, p. 66-79), Strouse tells how she located Greene’s birth certificate in Washington, D.C. which was marked with a C for “colored.”

Greene passed as white for her entire professional life. This is a fact both surprising and not – surprising that such a secret could be so well-kept and not surprising considering the prejudice of society.

After the 1999 discovery, the first full-length biography of Greene was published in 2007 and more of her early story was pieced together.

Greene was born as Belle Marion Greener in Washington, D.C. Her parents were Genevieve Ida Fleet and Richard Theodore Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard University and a noted activist, lawyer, and diplomat. Near the turn of the century, Greene’s parents separated and her mother moved her children (of whom Belle was the oldest) to New York. Everyone in the family was light-skinned enough to pass as white, and Genevieve changed their last name to Greene. In her professional life, Belle would add “de Costa” to her name to support claimed Portuguese ancestry.

It’s been a struggle to find out more about Greene’s personal life because she burned all her personal papers before her death. Most primary sources about her are her letters sent to others, her professional papers at the Morgan Library archive, and newspaper coverage of her and the library.

Morgan hired Greene in 1905, just as the spectacular $2,000,000 building he commissioned as his library was completed.  Morgan’s collection of rare books and fine art was frequently highlighted in art and literature picture sections of newspapers, especially as items were loaned to museums, such as the Met in New York, for display.

Detail of newspaper photo of front of the Morgan Library.

“J.P. Morgan’s Costly New Library Building at the Rear of His House on Madison Avenue,” New-York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), June 10, 1906.

detail of newspaper headline that describes Morgan’s rare books as the costliest collection in the United States.

“Morgan’s Rare Books,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), June 7, 1905.

As Morgan’s librarian, Greene managed and organized his collections and actively acquired more items to develop the scope of the library’s holdings. As a young woman in her 20’s in charge of a million-dollar collection and spending thousands of dollars acquiring more items, Belle de Costa Greene was a sensation to both fashionable society and the male-dominated art world. Nearly every newspaper that mentions Greene comments first and foremost on her stylish fashion, her clever conversations, and how she is unlike what you expect a librarian to be (old, bearded, dusty, etc.).

Head and shoulders image of Belle de Costa Greene with face turned in profile.

“‘No Equal in America:’ J. P. Morgan’s Tribute,” Bryan Daily Eagle and Pilot (Bryan, TX), February 28, 1913.

The Boston Daily Globe said “it is rather gratifying to feminists to reflect that no near-sighted and anemic masculine scholar was Mr. Morgan’s helper in the long task of collecting the library treasure, but a woman, and a young and very pretty one at that” (“Belle Greene: She is the Curator of the Morgan Library,” December 17, 1916, p. SM15).

And the New York Times commented “the ancient librarian is always pictured as having a gray beard and as wearing a skull cap. But here is one with a vivacious laugh, with brown eyes and rosy cheeks, who speaks delectable French, and who picks up a musty tome as gracefully as a butterfly alights on a dusty leaf. And she has individual ideas – ideas which her force of persuasion and her intelligence will eventually develop, backed as she is with Mr. Morgan’s wealth” (“Spending J. P. Morgan’s Money for Rare Books,” April 7, 1912, p. SM8).

Yet, she was also unlike what you expect a young “society girl” to be. She mixed everything of the fashionable society woman with extensive knowledge of the art and literature world in order to be the “cleverest woman in the country.” Newspaper articles marveled at her accomplishments and capabilities as a savvy and expert curator, especially in the auction room.

In the spring of 1911, society was most taken with Greene’s successful venture at the auction of the private collection of Robert Hoe, which was deemed the “event of the season in the auction room.” Almost the entire collection was bought by a private collector – but Greene had her eyes on one prize: William Caxton’s 1485 printing of Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Artur,” which she won for $41,800 according to details in The World (NY).

Illustration of Belle de Costa Greene pointing at auctioneer with the exclamation “fifty thousand dollars for that book!”

“Fifty Thousand Dollars for that Book!” The World (New York, NY), May 21, 1911, World Magazine Sunday supplement, p. 1.

According to an article written before the auction in the Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA), Robert Hoe apparently “did not want his books to go to any public collection, there to lie unhandled and unread, in glazed show cases for the illiterate to stare at.” It was believed that private collectors would provide the best access to such treasures for scholarly research.

Greene fiercely disagreed with this idea, and was a great proponent of public institutions having their chance to provide access to rare books and manuscripts. In one of her longest interviews given to a newspaper, Greene criticizes the rising art-world trend of paying exorbitant amounts of money for items that do not merit the cost.

“My point is,” Greene is quoted, “that there are certain books which have a standard value and which are necessities to the student for reference… When the price of these volumes is raised, you injure the general public. (“J.P. Morgan’s Librarian Says High Book Prices Are Harmful,” New York Times (New York, NY), April 30, 1911, p. SM13).

More expensive books meant that public institutions like public libraries and universities couldn’t afford to purchase them. Access to such items would be limited to whatever the private collector felt like providing. “The student of literature or history,” Greene says in the Times interview, “will not be able to go to first sources without making journeys that will be impossible in ordinary cases to the homes of multi-millionaires and getting their permission.”

Ironically, Greene herself was purchasing for a private collector, but being open to scholars and students and providing as much accessibility as possible was very important to her job as librarian. “I care too much for the art of collecting to put rare books out of the reach of ordinary people,” she says at the close of the interview. This professional goal of hers is echoed in another interview she gave to the Times a year later and would be evident again later on in her advocacy of making Morgan’s collection into a public institution.

Detail of text quoting Belle Greene discussing the large number of scholars that visit the Morgan Library and how she uses their knowledge to better inform the collection.

Greene quoted in “Spending J. P. Morgan’s Money for Rare Books,” New York Times (New York, NY), April 7, 1912, p. SM8.

Greene also showed that her advocacy was not limited to rare book circles, but extended to the entire sphere of librarianship. In an interview for the New-York Tribune, Greene used her social standing to give voice to the underpaid librarians (almost all women) of the New York City public libraries. She advocates for better compensation for library workers, especially for those still pursuing the extra education required for the field. “People don’t realize how much these girls have to know,” Greene says. “The result of these low salaries is, of course, that the women who are capable of filling the responsible positions are not willing to take them.”

Newspaper detail of article on librarian salaries with head and shoulders portrait of Belle de Costa Greene. Headline reads $10,000 Librarian speaks a word for $400 sisters. Miss Belle de Costa Green urges increase in salary of underpaid women in public libraries.

“$10,000 Librarian Speaks a Word for $400 Sisters,” New-York Tribune (New York, NY), November 22, 1913.

In March of 1913, J. P. Morgan died while traveling in Rome. The library collection was inherited by his son, Jack Morgan, who shared his father’s interests in collecting. Morgan Sr.’s will bequeathed to Greene the sum of $50,000 and specified that she be kept on as librarian. In 1924, Morgan Jr. incorporated the library as a public institution and memorial to his father, and Greene was made the first director of the Morgan Library.

Newspaper detail of the interior of the Morgan Library with inset of J. P. Morgan, head and shoulders portrait.

“Morgan Library Valued at $8,500,000 Given to Public,” The Winslow Mail (Winslow, AZ), March 7, 1924.

In the early days of the public institution, so many visitors wanted to come that there was a waiting list lasting for months! Greene spent her directorship providing access and developing the scholarship of the collection while balancing the need to protect and preserve the treasures. Exhibits, lectures, and publications were continually in the planning, as well as more collecting and cataloging. The library even participated in the New York World’s Fair in 1939 by giving an open house throughout the summer.

Newspaper detail of headline reading Morgan masterpieces supplement great fair; library represented by fine works from branches of art by old masters.

“Morgan Masterpieces Supplement Great Fair,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), July 16, 1939.

She retired from the director position in 1948, and the Morgan Library put on a special exhibition commemorating both Greene’s retirement and the 25th anniversary of the library as a public institution. The New York Times’s coverage of the exhibit praises Green for having “transformed a rich man’s casually built collection into one of which ranks with the greatest in the world” (April 17, 1949, p. X8). Greene died in 1950 and left a brilliantly interesting (and sometimes mysterious) life and career to be studied. Search Chronicling America* for additional newspaper coverage of Belle de Costa Greene, the Morgan Library, and more. Let us know what you find in the comments!

Newspaper detail of image of Belle de Costa Greene from the waist up, reading a book in profile.

“In the Public Eye, More or Less, at the Present Moment,” New-York Tribune (New York, NY), May 28, 1911.

Additional Resources:

Ardizzone, Heidi. An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s journey from prejudice to privilege. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director,” The Morgan Library and Museum. Accessed 2 February 2022.

Pierpont Morgan Library. The First Quarter Century of the Pierpont Morgan Library. New York, 1949.

The Women Who Made the Morgan,” The Morgan Library and Museum. April 23, 2021. YouTube video, 54:31.

Fictional Works:

Lapierre, Alexandra. Belle Greene: Roman. Paris: Flammarion, 2021.

Benedict, Marie and Victoria Christopher Murray. The Personal Librarian. New York: Berkley, 2021.

 

* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC.

2 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    February 8, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    I read and recommend the marvelous fictionalized bio of Greene, The Personal Librarian, by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. The primary sources you present here are even more marvelous!

  2. Cecile
    February 8, 2022 at 4:44 pm

    I had read the Personal librarian and this was to the interesting information on a loyal intelligent dedicated librarian who continued the sharing of literacy with the potential l general public.
    Thank you.

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