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Authors: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray
Berkley, 347 pages, $27
Imagine being a young woman in the early 1900s with the moxie to convince the American titan of industry and finance, J.P. Morgan, to hire you as his personal librarian over candidates with stronger credentials. Imagine this young woman is a light-skinned Black American passing herself off as white.
This is the premise of the recently-published historical novel, “Personal Librarian,” by bestselling authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. With meticulous research, the authors have created a fictionalized, intimate portrait of the real-life Belle da Costa Greene, a person you’ve probably never heard of. In her time — early to mid-20th century — she was famous and celebrated in the international world of fine art and rare books. How she accomplished this is told through a seamless blending of fact and fiction that kept me hooked throughout the reading.
At the age of 20, Belle’s life began in earnest when she was introduced to the fierce and fabulously wealthy Morgan by his nephew. At her mother’s urging and to her father’s dismay, Belle elected to discard her real name, Belle Marion Greener, for the pseudonym she lived with for the rest of her life. This was not a capricious move. In Belle’s time gender bias and racism were especially rampant, certainly in the rarified circles in which Morgan moved. His was a world apart from Belle’s true heritage, though she hailed from an educated family (her father was the first Black American Harvard graduate) and she herself was college-educated.
While social issues are a thread of this book, the main thrust is the life Belle made for herself through her wit, intelligence, and single-minded determination to succeed at all costs. There were costs. Her father, a civil rights activist whom she dearly loved, abandoned Belle, her mother and siblings after they decided to live as a white family. Belle had to guard every word, move and emotion to avoid betraying her true ethnicity and ending a life and financial prosperity few people — Black or white — had achieved in that time.
When Belle first met Morgan he owned a large collection of rare manuscripts, books and artwork. He hired Belle to organize and expand these works into a world-class Pierpont Morgan Library. His ambition was boundless, as was his wallet. Belle soon proved herself by acquiring priceless ancient works in New York, London and Paris out from under the noses of battle-hardened brokers and dealers — all older men. Over time she became accepted and acclaimed in these circles and she adopted upper-class style and demeanor. Morgan gave her more and more responsibility and came to depend on her. The book suggests there was no intimate relationship between them, though there were temptations on both sides.
Belle stayed with the library after Morgan’s death in 1913 and, working with his son, ultimately transformed the private library into a public treasure of fine art, literature and music which remains on Madison Avenue in New York to this day.
I highly recommend this book to those who enjoy superbly researched and written historical fiction, especially the depiction of life in America in the early 1900s. This book is an excellent read for fans of stories of women who have struggled and triumphed against all odds.
Jacksonville author Claudia N. Oltean (“Media Skills — The Lawyer as Spokesperson”) is working on a two-book historical fiction series set during Prohibition.