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Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Personal Librarian
The Personal Librarian
by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 352 pages.
Publisher: Berkley Books
ISBN-13: 9780593101544
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The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan's personal librarian--who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture on the New York society scene and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps build a world-class collection.

But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white--her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths to which she must go--for the protection of her family and her legacy--to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

Chapter 1

November 28, 1905
Princeton, New Jersey

The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I'll be late. I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways. But just as I gather the heavy material, I hear Mama's voice: Belle, be a lady at all times. I sigh; a lady would never run.

I release the fabric and slow down as I weave through Princeton's leafy Gothic landscape, designed to look like Cambridge and Oxford. I know I must do nothing to draw any kind of extra attention. By the time I pass Blair Arch, my stride is quick but acceptable for a lady.

It's been five years since I left our New York City apartment for this sleepy New Jersey college town, and the quiet is still unnerving. On the weekends, I wish I could return to the energy of New York, but the sixty cents for a train ticket is outside our family's budget. So, I send money home instead.

As I duck under a crenellated tower, I moderate my pace so I won't be breathless when I arrive. You are at Princeton University. You must take extra care working at that all-male institution. Be cautious, never do anything to stand out. Even though she's nearly sixty miles away, Mama insinuates herself into my thoughts.

Pushing the heavy oak door slowly to minimize its loud creak, I pad as quietly as my calfskin boots allow, across the marble foyer before I sidle into the office I share with two other librarians. The room is empty, and I exhale in relief. If sweet-natured Miss McKenna saw me arrive late, it would have been of no import, but with hood-eyed, nosy Miss Adams, I could never be certain she wouldn't mention my offense at some future time to our superior.

I remove my coat and hat, careful to smooth my rebellious curly hair back into place. Tucking my somber navy skirt beneath me, I slide onto my chair. Within minutes, the office door flies open, slamming against the wood-paneled wall, and I jump. It is my only dear friend, fellow librarian, and housemate, Gertrude Hyde. As the niece of the esteemed head of purchasing for the library, Charlotte Martins, she can breach the quiet of the library's hallowed halls without fear of repercussions. An ebullient twenty-three-year-old with ginger hair and bright eyes, no one makes me laugh as she does.

"Sorry to make you jump, dear Belle. I guess I owe you two apologies now, instead of the single one I'd intended. First, we abandoned you this morning, which undoubtedly led to your lateness," she says with a mischievous smile and a glance at the wall clock, "and now, I've given you a fright."

"Don't be silly. The fault is mine. I should have put aside that letter to my mother and walked to campus with you and Charlotte. Miss Martins, I mean," I correct myself.

Most days, Charlotte, Gertrude, and I walk together from their large family home on University Drive, where I have a room and share meals with Charlotte, Gertrude, and the rest of their family who live in the house as well. From the first, Charlotte and Gertrude have welcomed me into their home and social circles with warmth and generosity and have provided me with abundant guidance at work. I cannot imagine what my time in Princeton would have been like without them.

"Belle, why are you fussing about what to call Aunt Charlotte? There's nobody in here but you and me," Gertrude mock scolds me.

I don't say what I'm thinking. That Gertrude doesn't need to assess every single moment of every single day against societal standards to ensure her behavior passes muster. She has no need to analyze her words, her walk, her manner, but I do. Even with Gertrude, I must act with care, particularly given the heightened scrutiny in this university town, which operates as if it lies in the segregated South rather than in the supposedly more progressive North.

The distinctive clip of Miss Adams's shoes sounds in the hallway outside my office door, and Gertrude's skirt rustles as she moves to leave. She has as much fondness for my office mate as I do, and she'll skedaddle before she can get locked into a conversation.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. Copyright © 2021 by Marie Benedict. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How might you explain Belle's rise to such breathtaking heights in society and her profession at a time when women—especially African American women—faced such blatant discrimination and exclusion? Did Belle possess certain personality traits that yielded this incredible outcome? If so, what are they? What sorts of outside influences contributed to her ascent?
  2. In some ways, Belle's parents had somewhat unique experiences or backgrounds for African American people during this time period. What kind of reaction did you have to her parents' histories? How might those histories have impacted Belle, even when she had not been told the details of her parents' pasts?
  3. How did you view Belle's relationship with her mother? Do you think Belle resented her mother, or did their relationship change over the course of the book such that they came to a place of understanding? If so, what was Belle's turning point with her mother?
  4. How would you describe Belle's position among her siblings? How did you feel about her relationship with them and her responsibilities to them?
  5. What sort of reaction did you have to Belle's relationship with her father? Do you think Belle ever felt deserted by her father in the same way her siblings did? Why or why not?
  6. What sort of pressure do you think Belle might have experienced from the rumors about her true ethnicity? Do you think J. P. Morgan heard the rumors? Do you think he knew she was passing as white and decided to ignore it, or do you think he was unaware of her heritage?
  7. What do you think really happened romantically between Belle and J. P. Morgan? Do you agree with the portrayal in the book?
  8. How would you describe the attraction between Belle and Bernard Berenson? What were the attributes that drew them together and, ultimately, forced them apart? How did you feel about their relationship—and Belle's ability to have a partner and family of her own?
  9. What surprised you the most about Belle's life? About her time period?
  10. How familiar were you with passing before reading this novel? Has your understanding of the reasons and sacrifices behind it altered after reading about Belle's life?
  11. What sacrifices did Belle make by choosing to follow her mother's path? What advantages did she gain?
  12. Before reading this book, were you familiar with the Civil Rights Act of 1875 or the efforts toward equality that occurred during Reconstruction? Did you have any understanding of what transpired in the years after Reconstruction? What might have happened in the United States in the decades that followed if the Civil Rights Act of 1875—along with the many efforts at equality that occurred during Reconstruction—had not been overturned?
  13. How do the racial issues and events in the book relate to events happening today?
  14. In the end, do you think Belle was happy with her choices and decisions? Do you think she would have done anything differently?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A fictional glimpse into the life of Belle da Costa Greene, a Black woman passing as white who managed banker J.P. Morgan's private library.

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The Personal Librarian drew a robust positive response from our First Impressions reviewers, receiving a rating of 4 or 5 stars from 70 out of 77 readers. The book is a collaboration between the novelists Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray.

What the book is about:

The fascinating story of Belle da Costa Greene begins for the reader in 1905. She went from working at the library at Princeton University to becoming the personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. Even though her father was the first African American man to graduate from Harvard University, she lived her whole life as a white woman (Elizabeth K). The story provides a fascinating look at the process of building and collecting a library of rare books, manuscripts and art. But, it is also the story of a beautiful, intelligent and witty black woman, living as white (Sherilyn R).

Readers enjoyed peering into the world of art and antiquities in early-1900s New York high society.

The characters with whom Belle mingles have volumes written about them — Vanderbilt, Elsie de Wolfe, Lillian Russell, Oscar Wilde, Steichen, Stieglitz, Bernard Berenson and of course the collector himself, J.P. Morgan (Margaret S). I found the book to be particularly interesting in the descriptions of the sumptuousness of the library, the fashions of the time, the paintings and other artifacts owned by the Morgans and their friends, and the preciousness of the manuscripts and tomes sought for the collection (Dorinne D).

Many were pleased to discover a captivating protagonist based on a fascinating real-life figure.

I came to love the heroine's balance of professional chutzpah and vulnerable heart (Jessamyn R). Belle da Costa Greene was, historically, a very powerful woman and yet has never crossed my radar. The authors describe a woman of great intelligence, style and depth one can never know enough about (Carole A). This portrayal of the diminutive (in stature only) Greene and her ability to navigate a purely (white) man's world with her wit, tenacity and intelligence is unforgettable (Patricia L).

Some felt the book dragged at times despite its interesting characters and subject matter.

I felt that the characters were well-drawn, but thought that the book moved very slowly from major issue to major issue without sufficient build-up to propel the story forward (Erica M). The style of writing in this book reflects the restricted customs and repressed emotions... which makes it a slower and perhaps less exciting read (Karen W).

However, readers saw the novel's great potential for stimulating book club discussions, with some suggesting it would pair well with Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half.

This book is an interesting counterpoint to The Vanishing Half, since the time and financial status are so different (Karen W). Coincidentally, both of my book groups had just finished reading and discussing The Vanishing Half. Hours could be spent discussing these two books together, even though they are different in many ways. This is a terrific book club book (Marianne D).

Ultimately, reviewers felt that The Personal Librarian is an important work for its social and political context, with many layers that make it worth the read.

Focusing on both racial and gender rights in the first half of the 20th century, the story line shows both the progress we've made and the work still ahead. I feel certain that both book clubs I'm involved in — one for women only and the other for both men and women — would be pleased with this selection (Patricia E). The Personal Librarian not only shows us how far we have come in our struggle against racial inequality and injustice, but also reminds us how much more is left to be done. ... It's a great story and the discussion possibilities are endless (Christine P).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

New York Journal of Books
The Personal Librarian is a good, well-paced creative nonfiction book about a real person that will snag the reader and hold his or her attention from beginning to end.

NPR
Benedict, who is white, and Murray, who is African American, do a good job of depicting the tightrope Belle walked, and her internal conflict from both sides—wanting to adhere to her mother's wishes and move through the world as white even as she longed to show her father she was proud of her race. Like Belle and her employer, Benedict and Murray had almost instant chemistry, and as a result, the book's narrative is seamless. And despite my aversion to the passing trope, I became hooked.

Booklist (starred review)
[A] resounding tale of a brilliant and resilient woman defying sexism, classism, and racism during the brutality of Jim Crow. Benedict and Murray do splendidly right by Belle in this captivating and profoundly enlightening portrayal.

Library Journal (starred review)
This fictional account of Greene's life feels authentic; the authors bring to life not only Belle but all those around her. An excellent piece of historical fiction that many readers will find hard to put down.

Publishers Weekly
[P]owerful... Benedict and Murray do a great job capturing Belle's passion and tenacity as she carves a place for herself in a racist male-dominated society. This does fine justice to a remarkable historical figure.

Kirkus Reviews
The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life...But Belle's mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life. Strangely stuffy and muted.

Author Blurb Fiona Davis, New York Times bestselling author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue
A marvel of a story. This unflinching look at one woman's meteoric rise through New York's high society is enthralling, lyrical, and rife with danger. Belle's painful secret and her inspiring courage will capture – and break – your heart. Serious kudos to Benedict and Murray for bringing this true story to life.

Author Blurb Pam Jenoff, New York Times bestselling author of The Woman with the Blue Star
An extraordinary tale that is both brilliant historical fiction and an important and timely commentary on racism. By holding up an unflinching mirror and illuminating this little-known chapter in American history, these two gifted authors have penned a work that is a must-read.

Author Blurb Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of A Good Neighborhood
The Personal Librarian illuminates the extraordinary life of an exceptional, intelligent woman who had to make the impossible choice to live as an imposter or sacrifice everything she'd achieved and deserved. That Belle denied her true identity in order to protect herself and her family from racial persecution speaks not only to her times but also to ours, a hundred years later. All that glitters is not gold. This is a compelling and important story.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Elizabeth@Silver's Reviews
Elizabeth@Silver'sReviews - Great History Lesson
What an excellent history lesson.

I didn't know of Belle da Costa Greene.
What an incredible woman in so many ways.

Belle da Costa Greene has to hide her identity of being a black woman as she works as the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan in a high profile job. Her mother had listed the family's race as white for the census bureau against her husband’s wishes.

Belle’s life wasn't an easy one, but her skills at buying and selling art and archiving and cataloging books earned her respect in this field.

THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN is another extremely well-researched, interesting, brought-to-life book of an unknown-to-me woman.

Historical fiction fans and those who are fans of art will devour this book. 5/5

This book was given to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by K Miller Arndt
Fascinating lady
How did I get this far in life without knowing about this incredible woman? Belle had goals and contrasting expectations from her parents. Belle was a gifted learner. Mother wanted her to pass for white so the family could experience the advantages of the White world; Father was a famous Black man working for the Black cause. This created a great chasm. Belle had to help support the family and had the skills and cunning to pass as white to work as the personal librarian for J. P. Morgan in the famous Morgan Library. We learn most about Belle. JP came across as loud, blustery, and demanding. The men she met were never her equal. She was always more clever. Belle's life was not easy; she struggled daily to maintain her secret. Marriage and children were not really an option. Success for her yet a hard, sometimes lonely road.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Gabi
A Fascinating Life Story
A fascinating story of the life of Belle da Costa Greene (née Belle Marion Greener), J P Morgan’s trusted personal librarian, partner-in-art, and confidant. The book follows Belle as she, a colored woman passing as white, learns to navigate among a male-dominated art world and mingle with high society across continents as an influential representative of J P Morgan (and later his son) and his John Pierpont Morgan Library. While her path brought Belle professional success, influence, acclaim and rewards, it didn’t come without high risks, personal sacrifices, the burden of familial responsibilities and loneliness as told in this compelling novel.

“I wonder sometimes if the sacrifice I made to have this success is worth it.” (Belle in a conversation with her father)

As a side note - this book will be an excellent read for book clubs! There are many potential topics for engaging discussion.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Dorinne D
Another Winner from Marie Benedict
Another winning historical novel by Marie Benedict, this one takes place beginning in the early 1900's when Belle da Costa Greene is hired by wealthy financier J.P. Morgan to catalog, organize and assist in the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts for his personal library. With the Morgan fortune at her disposal, Belle becomes a very shrewd and successful negotiator in procuring the most sought-after items for the library. I found the book to be particularly interesting in the descriptions of the sumptuousness of the library, the fashions of the time, the paintings and other artifacts owned by the Morgans and their friends, and the preciousness of the manuscripts and tomes sought for the collection. Propelling the story throughout were Belle's secret and the tragedy of her romantic life. Truly a novel not to be missed. I had the pleasure of reading this as an “Advance Reader Copy” from BookBrowse; it will be on sale to the public on June 1, 2021.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Robin M. (Newark, DE)
Feels like a biography
Is it historical fiction? Is it a biography? I'm not quite sure, but I enjoyed this book very much. The authors were careful in their research and created lively and interesting characters, well-described settings and wardrobes and some very intense plot twists. The complexities of "passing" and the risks of doing this in the early 1900s are very apparent in the book and, sadly, remain relevant today.

I will be recommending this to my Fact & Fiction book club because I enjoyed reading it, it is a well-written book, and because it blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carole C. (Newtown Square, PA)
Another Great Story!
Marie Benedict writes fantastic historical fiction novels and she's written another one with THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN. I haven't read anything by Victoria Christopher Murray, but definitely will after this book. This was a wonderful collaboration about a woman named Belle da Costa Greene who was the librarian and curator for J. P. Morgan's library of rare books and manuscripts. She tells the story of how she gains respect in the auction world, which is male dominated with her knowledge of rare books as well as her business sense. The struggle she has is she's a light skinned African American woman trying to pass for a caucasian woman. She does this because that is the only way she could get a job like this one. She's worried her secret will be discovered and she won't be able to help provide for her family. Her struggle with denying her true identity is very thought provoking throughout the book. I found her story to be very interesting and it kept me wanting to read about her. We need to learn more about amazing women like Belle who was an important part of history, but no one ever knew her story.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Virginia Lee B. (Cedar Rapids, IA)
Fascinating Strong Woman
Thanks to BookBrowse and Net Galley for the ARC of this book. It is the story of a young woman who works as the main librarian, curator and collector for J P Morgan as he builds his rare book collection. She becomes well known and well respected within the world of collectors. She is biracial and makes the decision to pass as white. I think because of that and from being a female in a male world, it makes it easier for her to take risks to show her competence and personality to others. I am always leery of historical fiction, and how many liberties the author may take. I am thrilled to say that my research showed that this remarkable story is very close to the truth. Very readable and extremely well written.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Karen L. (Wilton, IA)
Excellent Historical Fiction. Loved it!
History comes alive in this book. I have read Marie Benedict before. She is very good at bringing historical women to life. I am not familiar with her co author but the book is excellent. The book is excellent for book clubs and people interested in African American and civil rights issues. I felt so bad for Belle - I feel like she gave up a personal life and happiness for her professional advancement. She did not have good work life balance. I believe it was unfair that she could not have both. She could not have both because she was a African American woman. I thought Bernard was a cowardly man who was unworthy of her. My heart broke for her when she had the abortion with no support from him. He was unworthy of her love and trust. Her mother tried to give her a good life but in the process expected too much of her and separated her from her father. Her professional life soared to the heights but her personal life was often in a valley.

more reviews...

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Belle da Costa Greene

Belle da Costa Greene Belle da Costa Greene was an American librarian who ran the private library belonging to banker John Pierpont Morgan (better known as J.P. Morgan) and later to his son. During her time working for the Morgans, Greene acquired many rare books, manuscripts and other items for her employers, ultimately contributing to what is now an impressive public collection.

Born Belle Marion Greener in 1879, she grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University. Richard was a lawyer, an activist who wrote and spoke about issues facing Black Americans, and an enthusiastic reader and book collector. Belle's mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, was a music teacher from a prominent Black family. Richard and Genevieve separated while Belle was still a child, due in part to stresses related to Richard's work. After their separation, Genevieve changed her children's and her own last name to Greene. At some point, Belle and her siblings added "da Costa" to the name and began to claim Portuguese ancestry. They and Genevieve were light-skinned enough to be able to pass for white — or at least as racially ambiguous — in Richard's absence.

Hiding her background opened up opportunities for Greene that likely would not have otherwise been available to her. She is thought to have studied library science, with records indicating a class taken at Amherst College, and eventually landed a job at the library at Princeton University. In 1905, she connected with J.P. Morgan through his nephew, Junius, who also worked at the Princeton library. Morgan hired Greene to run his personal Manhattan library on Junius's recommendation. She became responsible for managing the collection of rare books, manuscripts, artwork and other antiquities; organizing events; and interacting with dealers and experts for the purpose of acquiring new items. She remained the banker's personal librarian until his death in 1913, at which point she became librarian to his son, Jack. In 1924, Jack made the library public, and Greene continued as director there until retiring in 1948.

Greene was known for her flamboyant personality and style, sporting elegant gowns, pearls and plumed hats. According to HistoryNet, she was fond of saying, "I am a librarian, but I don't have to dress like one." During her time at the Morgan Library, she traveled and cultivated social connections with people in the worlds of art and literature. One of Greene's closest connections was with Bernard Berenson, a married art critic with whom she had an affair. Belle was also rumored to have been romantically involved with Morgan. When asked if this was the case, she replied, "We tried."

Greene appears to have kept her ancestry hidden throughout her adult life, never associating herself publicly with her father — though, interestingly enough, Richard Greener and J.P. Morgan had known one another in the 1880s when they both served on the commission for the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. According to evidence found in a letter, it is possible that Greene met secretly with her father in Chicago in 1914. Before her death from cancer in 1950 at the age of 71, she burned all her personal papers.

Belle da Costa Greene is remembered both for her position at the Morgan Library and her contributions to library science, including increasing accessibility around collections and offering support to other women in the field.

Portrait of Belle da Costa Greene (1913) by Paul-César Helleu, courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum

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