j.p. morgan's librarian -- 2/3/20

Today's selection -- from Morgan: American Financier by Jean Strouse. J.P. Morgan employed a fabulous, intelligent and shrewd woman as a librarian. And virtually everything she said about herself was false:

"Belle da Costa Greene had impressed [Junius Morgan, J.P. Morgan's nephew] with her quick intelligence and eager aptitude for knowledge about books. Late in 1905 he introduced her to his uncle. ... [who] hired Miss Greene for $75 a month. She had been earning $40 at Princeton.

"Small and slender, with dark hair and olive skin dramatically set off by light green eyes, Belle Greene had an extraordinary allure that appealed to both men and women. Men in particular. Bernard Berenson, who met her in 1908, later described her as 'the most vitalizing person I have ever known.'

"Her middle name and exotic looks came, she said, from her maternal Por­tuguese grandmother, Genevieve da Costa Van Vliet. Her parents had sepa­rated when she was a child, and her mother, 'a native of Richmond, Va., and a proud and cultivated lady of old-fashioned dignity, [had] moved with her children to Princeton, New Jersey, where she gave music lessons to support them while they attended local schools.' Belle later told the Evening Sun: 'I knew definitely by the time I was twelve years old that I wanted to work with rare books. I loved them even then, the sight of them, the wonderful feel of them, the romance and thrill of them. Before I was sixteen, I had begun my studies, omitting the regular college courses that many girls take before they have found out what they want to do.'

"She quickly joined the ranks of gifted deputies to whom Morgan gave large authority and freedom to spend his money. The unique advantages of being fe­male and willing to devote herself almost entirely to his collecting helped her become his agent, accomplice, and personal confidante as well. Returning from Europe one year, she smuggled several of his acquisitions through cus­toms in her suitcase. She let the inspectors find a few things of her own, 'with great seeming hesitation,' she told a friend -- acting 'very indignant' and protesting 'to their great joy.' The examiners never noticed the more impor­tant items, and 'when I landed at the library with all of JP's treasures -- a painting -- three bronzes -- a special kind of watch he had asked me to get in London & several other things, well he & I did a war dance & laughed in great glee.' ...

Bella da Costa Greene, a Morgan librarian who is numbered among the women of the country earning $25,000 a year and over.

"Though young and inexperienced, Miss Greene assumed with Morgan's backing and her own growing expertise a prominent position in the world of rare books and manuscripts. She met leading art scholars, assimilated their ad­vice, and walked off with the best items at European auctions. Far more volu­ble and articulate than the man she called (behind his back) her 'Big Chief,' she gave offhand glimpses of their shared sensibility -- describing an exhibition of 'our' medieval illuminated manuscripts as radiating color and light, an ef­fect that emphasized 'the luxury and gorgeous barbaric beauty of the Church in the early days.'

"Presiding over rare books of hours and Gutenberg Bibles at 'Mr. Morgan's Library,' she added her own insouciant sense of style to the decorous tone of the place. 'Just because I am a librarian,' she reportedly once announced, 'doesn't mean I have to dress like one': she wore couturier gowns and jewels to work. In London she stayed at Claridge's, and in Paris at the Ritz. She disci­plined dealers who tried to charge too much or offered less than top-quality items, and she directed Morgan's voracious impulses into systematic, scholarly channels. Her one aim, she told him a few years after she settled in, was to make his library 'pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings and the classics.' She thought their only rivals were the British Museum and the Bibliotheque Nationale. ...

"And virtually all the information she gave out about her life was false.

"Some of the inventions had to do with personal vanity -- she was twenty-six when she came to work for Morgan, not, as she said, twenty-two. But forty years after the end of the Civil War, she had a far more compelling motive than feminine guile for obscuring the biographical facts. Her given name was not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener, and she was the daughter of the first black man to graduate from Harvard.

"The matrilineal Portuguese/Dutch descent was pure fiction. Belle's mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, came from Washington, D.C., not Richmond, Virginia, and was the daughter not of Genevieve da Costa Van Vliet but of the former Hermione C. Peters and a music teacher named James H. Fleet. The 1845 Fleet­-Peters wedding appears in a registry of Blacks in the Marriage Records of the Dis­trict of Columbia, and the 1850 Washington census lists the family as mulattoes. Belle's birth certificate identifies her as the daughter of Genevieve Fleet and Richard Theodore Greener. Place of birth: 1462 T Street, Washing­ton, D.C. Date: November 26, 1879. Color: 'Colored.'

"W.E.B. Du Bois considered Richard Greener one of America's most gifted black intellectuals, a representative of the upper echelon of character and in­telligence that Du Bois called the 'talented tenth.' Belle Greene belonged to that meritocracy as well, although few people knew she was black."

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Jean Strouse


Morgan: American Financier


Random House Trade Paperbacks


Copyright 2014 Random House


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