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The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray X
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray
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  • Published:
    Jun 2021, 352 pages


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There are currently 81 reader reviews for The Personal Librarian
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Mary S. (Bow, NH)

A woman ahead of her time
The Personal Librarian is an engrossing story about Belle da Costa Greene, a unique woman for her time and for our time as well. This piece of historical fiction is a well written and well plotted biography for a remarkable woman. Ms. Greene was the personal librarian to JP Morgan, helping and guiding him to build a library rivaled only by the best in the world. Greene started with Morgan in 1905 and served as his librarian until his death. Fortunately for all of us, after Morgan's death she continued as the librarian for the collection and helped establish it as a reference library open to all in 1924.

During the time when she and Morgan were establishing the library, Greene was taking trips to Europe and buying manuscripts and other rare pieces of art - headily spending Morgan's money (with his permission). All this doesn't sound unusual now, but the turn of the 20th century it was rare to find a woman in business, let alone a single woman, who was entrusted with and did, spend huge amounts of money on acquisitions.

However, the crux of the story is that Belle da Costa Greene was "passing" as a white woman. At first, I was frustrated by the authors' continuous mention of her passing and the anxiety it caused. After stepping away from the book for a couple of days, it occurred to me that as a white woman, I couldn't possibly know or imagine the constant terror of being discovered as a member of the Black race; especially at the turn of the century with the rise of Jim Crow laws and the KKK. After that epiphany, I found the reminders of Greene's anxiety crucial to understanding how successful she was and how amazing it was that she accomplished what she did. For you see, Greene didn't hide in the library. As a Morgan's personal librarian, she was invited to and attended the very rich people's social affairs, including lavish parties and weekend get-aways. The story has other engrossing details about Greene's life, including her affair with a married man. It was a life well lived and story well told. I hope you enjoy the book as much I did.
Anne G. (Austin, TX)

The Personal Librarian
Belle da Costa Greene is a librarian at Princeton University when she is approached by a patron of the university recommending she should interview for the newly created position of personal librarian to J P Morgan. Morgan is creating the Pierpont Morgan Library and is seeking someone to organize and manage his collection. Belle is anxious to succeed in this endeavor despite knowing that she has a secret Morgan can never discover—she is a black woman passing as white.

I loved the descriptions of Belle joining the social set, investigating and acquiring items for the library collection, and struggling to make sure her secret remained safe. Additionally there is an undercurrent of sexual attraction between Belle and Morgan who is 40 years her senior.

This is a fascinating look at the Gilded Age, a peek into the affluent society of New York City, the search for the highly valued collectibles that will establish the preeminence of the Pierpont Morgan Library, and what it means to live an authentic life.

Based on the life of Belle da Costa Greene, this book hit on all the notes for me. I loved Belle for her moxie and intelligence. The information about rare books, precious art, auctions, and world travels was interesting. The Personal Librarian was a great escape and read perfectly for that purpose.
Ruthie A. (Jersey City, NJ)

Fascinating Novel/Strong Female Character
An intriguing novel based on the life of the personal; librarian to J.P.Morgan. Bella da Costa Greene was a light skinned Black woman who, along with the rest of her family passed as White in order to escape the horrors of prejudice after Reformation. On the recommendation of his son Morgan hires her to add to his then private collections. The novel takes us with her into the highest of American society as Bella must learn to navigate the world of the rich and powerful who accumulate art. We see how she overcomes being the only female in this field, avoids having her heritage discovered and manages to have a personal life. We learn that she became quite famous and respected and invaluable to J.P Morgan and his now public library (she was the one who pushed him to open the collection to the public).
The day-to-day choices Bella had to make were often heartbreaking and yet she was never timid or cautious. I loved how the author used her extensive research to deliver a novel that is both fascinating and hard to put down. I recommend Googling Bella da Costa Greene after reading the novel for photos and more details about this ground breaking woman. The issues raised in this novel are very timely and for that reason this novel would be an excellent choice for Book Clubs!
Arlene I. (Johnston, RI)

A Life Changing Experience
Before I read The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, I had no idea that JP Morgan had a personal librarian, Belle de Costa Green. In fact, I wasn't sure what the title entailed. Therefore not only is there a story behind the title but also a great education for the readers.

The authors gave the reader great insights into the emotional turmoil of that time period. Segregation gave Belle and her family few chances for economic survival. The light color of their skin gave her mother the opportunity to invented new "white"identities to give her family a chance to succeed. In taking these bold steps her mother ripped the family apart from a father whose entire life was fighting for racial equality as a black professor. Belle's father leaving the family had a profound effect on Belle through her entire life. She lived in her thoughts as a person of color but her daily life was one of always watching what she said or did so her former life would stay a secret. Belle's mother was dominant throughout the storyline. Belle experienced the "best of life" because her employer was JP Morgan. Through him, Belle became a trusted confidant and got to encounter all the best of the Gilded Age. Who knew that "libraries" could be so opulent?

The author's provided a detailed and descriptive background for the story, even though they admitted to the "fiction" part of Belle's life. The story was smooth and unless stated on the cover you would not suspect that there were two authors for this book. I found the book very informative and had no prior knowledge of Belle's story. This book can be filed under historical fiction but also of art and music. I would highly recommend this book without hesitation.
Mich R (CO)

Creating a Legacy
The Personal Librarian story is a compelling historical fiction of a black woman working as a white woman for JP Morgan. The inner tension of hiding her background and going to the extra miles to be her best and not bring attention to herself is palpable throughout the book. The heritage from her father also brings an element of questioning the benefits of living life as a white woman versus a life of sacrifice and suffering under the promise of equality. But the story is more than transcending the skin color. Belle da Costa Green was a strong woman who made her mark in a world predominant by white males. First, working for JP Morgan was in itself an accomplishment with his demands and special attentions. But where Belle da Costa Green shines is in the world of incunabula, arts, auctions and dealerships. I learned about Hans Memling illuminated manuscript, painted by Flemish illustrator Simon Bening. Also, I was fascinated by the research and discovery of Le Morte d'Arthur, the legend of King Arthur and the Knights at the Round Table, printed in 1485 by William Caxton, to name a few of the treasures mentioned in the story. In addition, Belle da Costa Green made it possible for people to have access to the JP Morgan Library for viewing and research.I studied art history and this aspect of the story was very attractive.
I will recommend this novel for my book club. There are so may themes to discuss.
Thank you BookBrowse and Netgalley for a free ebook in return for an honest review.
Julie P. (Fort Myers, FL)

The Personal Librarian
Marie Benedict seems to have discovered a sure thing: write a novel about a real-life, strong, independent woman whose achievements need to be recognized by the world. Her newest book, The Personal Librarian, is the story of a young African American woman, passing as white, who is hired by J. P. Morgan to acquire and organize antiquities for his personal library. Benedict recognized that she could not truly tell this story without the voice of an African American writer, so she teamed with Victoria Christopher Murray, author of Stand Your Ground. Together they recount the fascinating story of flamboyant Belle, her family, her lover, her relationship with J. P. Morgan, and her career as a collector of antiquities, all the while hoping that her true identity would not be discovered, thereby putting an end to her considerable accomplishments. My only criticism? The title is a little lackluster, and I don't think it's going to hook too many readers. Other than that, an excellent choice for book groups with lots to discuss, especially in light of the recent racial controversies.
Linda S. (Milford, CT)

The Personal Librarian
Belle da Costa Greene was born in Washington, D.C. 1879, as Belle Marion Greener to a prominent African-American family. They moved to New York City to escape increasing racism. They changed their names and passed for white. Her father soon left the family in total disagreement with that decision. Belle's first job was in the Princeton University Library. After making the acquaintance of Junius Morgan, nephew of J.P. Morgan, he recommended her for the job of personal librarian in the newly built Morgan library on Fifth Avenue. She was hired after an impressive interview with J.P. himself.

Belle learned much during her career about rare books, manuscripts and fine art. She developed a great working relationship with Mr. Morgan; they respected each other. Over the years, he relied on her good judgment. She traveled to Europe, which was unusual for a young woman at that time. She would retrieve works of art or ancient books that Mr. Morgan had bought and was also given authority to purchase items at auction. She was an expert in illuminated manuscripts and developed incredible bargaining prowess with dealers, at times being the only woman at an event.

Belle never married, but she had a long and stormy relationship with Bernard Berenson, a Renaissance Italian art expert. .In 1939, she Medieval Academy of America in 1939, she was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, only the second woman, and first known person of color, to be so honored.

I highly recommend this informative and interesting book. Well researched and written.
Karen S. (Allston, MA)

Already recommending to many friends!
The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict was a page turner for me, and I loved every page. Somehow this author included history, art, race and identity, social norms, family ties and secrets in this great story. The backdrop of the developing Pierpont Morgan Library and brewing World War adds to the fascination. I seldom see an author cover so many themes so well in one book. Belle da Costa Greene was an extraordinary figure for many reasons, yet I had never heard of her. I am glad this very readable piece of historical fiction introduced me to her. A final word of praise: I really appreciated the author's note at the end describing how closely she incorporated known history, where she altered a few minor points and how she filled in the missing parts of the story Belle never revealed.

Beyond the Book:
  Belle da Costa Greene

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