The secret life of the sensational woman behind the Morgan masterpieces, who lit up New York society.
What would you give up to achieve your dream? When J. P. Morgan hired Belle da Costa Greene in 1905 to organize his rare book and manuscript collection, she had only her personality and a few years of experience to recommend her. Ten years later, she had shaped the famous Pierpont Morgan Library collection and was a proto-celebrity in New York and the art world, renowned for her self-made expertise, her acerbic wit, and her flirtatious relationships. Born to a family of free people of color, Greene changed her name and invented a Portuguese grandmother to enter white society. In her new world, she dined both at the tables of the highest society and with bohemian artists and activists. She also engaged in a decades-long affair with art critic Bernard Berenson. Greene is pure fascination—the buyer of illuminated manuscripts who attracted others to her like moths to a flame.
Belle da Costa Greene was a librarian for J.P. Morgan, overseeing his collection of rare illuminated and early print manuscripts from 1906 until her retirement in 1949. Although she lived her adult life more or less as white, she was the child of two mixed-race African American parents and grew up in Washington D.C.'s elite community of color.
Belle da Costa Greene was small and slender, her dainty figure squeezed even thinner into the wasp-waisted corsets of the period's fashion. By all accounts she was as beautiful as she was brilliant, although her beauty was usually qualified as exotic or unusal. With a cloud of dark hair and huge eyes, olive skin, and a proud carriage, she dressed elegantly and conducted herself with poise and dignity beyond her apparently youthful age. Belle knew that her chosen work as a librarian hardly fit the image and attitude that her flamboyant, mischievous soul demanded. "Just because I am a librarian doesn't mean I have to dress like one," she reportedly boasted. And she didn't.
Belle's appearance that prompted much comment. Belle herself attributed her beige complexion to a Portuguese grandmother, like the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who were adding their southern and eastern European faces to the mixture of American ethnicities. But one of the secrets that Belle did not keep very successfully was that her darker, more "exotic" features came not from one Portuguese grandparent but from two African American parents of mixed ancestry.
Most of those who remember her today are scholars, librarians, and museum curators--those whose work keeps them in constant touch with her strongest legacy. She had, as one admirer put it, "transformed a rich man's casually built collection into one which ranks with the greatest in the world." And she was lauded as a scholar, although she had never worked in academia or published scholarly books or articles. During her lifetime it was these fellow lovers and protectors of books and art who filled her professional and social calendar. But she also cut a much broader social swath through New York and in Europe. Opera stars, actresses, artists from the avantgarde to traditional portraitists, poets, activists, politicians from socialists to presidents, newspaper editors, millionaires, priests, and aristocrats--all invited her to their tables and called her a friend. In her twenties and thirties Belle lived in a seemingly endless whirl of work and fun, toiling over her priceless art treasures and ancient manuscripts by day, and enjoying wild nights of opera and theater, cigarettes and champagne by night.
Belle's story is a compelling one for many reasons. The force of her personality alone explains her strong presence in the memories and imaginations of many who knew her and knew of her. I confess I have, like many of her contemporaries and peers, succumbed to the vitality of her presence as it lingers in the stream-of-consciousness scrawl of her letters. The energy and personality that so many of her contemporaries marveled at leap off the page and reveal a woman who was constantly thinking and learning. Belle was capable of laughing sarcasm and gentle empathy. She could be brutally succint in her dismissal even of people whom she respected and loved. Belle lived through two world wars and suffered losses in each of them. She saw social norms open up--for women, for sexual expression, for eccentricity--and close again. She rode finanical booms up the economic ladder to privilege, and watched the stock market crash and fail to recover for a decade. She lived in New York as it transformed itself from an island city into a multi-borough modern metropolis of skyscrapers and motor cars, connected by bridges and tunnels, first competing with and then surpassing European cities in size and power.