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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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    Jun 2021, 352 pages

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There are currently 81 reader reviews for The Personal Librarian
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Power Reviewer
Vivian H. (Winchester, VA)

Fascinating Story of an Amazing Woman
Once I started reading The Personal Librarian, I couldn't put it down and finished it the same day. What a truly remarkable story about Belle Da Costa Greene who became the personal librarian and curator of J. P. Morgan's unequaled collection of illustrated medieval manuscripts, incunabula ( books printed before 1500) and rare paintings.

Belle's father, a trailblazer himself, introduced Belle to at an early age. At one time she was one of the most successful business women in America, an outsider in numerous ways invited to and attending engagements with the New York elite of the gilded age. Yet, I'd never heard of her until reading this novel. This is a woman I would have loved to know.
Patricia L. (Seward, AK)

Personal Librarian
As a retired public librarian, I was drawn to this title for obvious reasons. Yet I was unprepared for the non-stereotypic, incredible story of Belle de Costa Greene, personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. This fictional account of Belle Marion Greener, who became de Costa Greene in order to hide her racial heritage is a history lesson both fascinating and humbling.

While "passing" is a fundamental theme in the story, the world of the rich and famous during the early 20th century is also central. A young Greene, working as a librarian at Princeton, was introduced to J.P. Morgan by his nephew, a friend of Miss Greene. The introduction was fueled by the younger Morgan's knowledge of Greene's intelligence, passion for knowledge and work ethic. These qualities were so evident to the venerable J.P. Morgan, that he almost immediately entrusted her with acquiring some of the world's most valued art and literary antiquities for his personal library. A relationship that began a lifetime career for Greene and resulted in the respected Morgan Library and Museum of today.

Bennett and Murray have done a credible job of turning Greene's story into a real-life drama. Never a shushing bespectacled matron dusting shelves, Greene was known for her clever negotiation savvy and vibrant style. The many rumors about her non-library life are teased out to reveal how the mores of the time were navigated by this consequential woman of history. 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.

Recommended for those who crave learning about the courageous women of the past who were fearless in pursuit of their dreams.
Arlene

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.
Dorinne D. (Wickenburg, AZ)

An Extraordinary Woman
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 (passing as a white woman) and the tragedy of her romantic life. Truly a novel not to be missed.
Theresa P. (Arkport, NY)

The Personal Librarian is and was a winner!
Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray have provided a compelling tale of JP Morgan's personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. Benedict's novels have all won my admiration, but I commend her for working on this with Murray.
The story flows from Belle, whose most difficult task is to always appear as something she is not. It was a compelling read, beautifully crafted by the authors, who made sure her image and her reality both came through for the reader.
Belle was an incredible woman, doing a magnificent job of building an extensive private collection at Morgan's behest. Morgan demanded her devotion to his library, but often to him as well. Her success was all the more magnificent in that she was female, single, raised in a poor family while working with the richest in society, and hiding a secret--her race. Her failure to comport herself in a manner acceptable to Morgan would have cost her position. Discovery of her secret in any of her social interactions would also have consequences. Belle's vibrant personality sometimes made those steps a challenge.
Belle managed to become one of the most admired women of her time, all the while having to play the part that kept her employed and successful. I would nervously turn pages when I was afraid she had made a mistake she might not survive, and happily turn pages when I was cheering her progress.
A magnificent read!
Ruth C. (Charlotte, NC)

Experiencing life through Belle's narrative challenges what we think and want to believe…
You know that feeling you have after finishing a remarkable book. I last experienced that emotional high upon completing The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Now, gratefully again, when I closed the ARC of The Personal Librarian, I felt the same rush of excitement, treasuring the book I just read while wishing for more.

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray collaborate on this fictional tale of Belle da Costa Greene, the young woman who became J. P. Morgan's personal librarian, in charge of his Pierpont Morgan Library.

This book is a compelling reading experience for a couple of reasons. First, the quality of the writing is seductive. You feel part of Belle's journey on every page, sharing her fear, joy, the pride of accomplishment, and walking the tightrope of a light-skinned black woman assuming the life of a white woman. Second, the historical detail, which includes references to the library's growing collection and the suffragette movement, is fascinating, deftly woven into the narrative. Third, the portrayal of Belle describes her as a courageous young woman determined to use her knowledge, skills, and talent to become who she wants to be. The authors are very skillful storytellers, as this novel demonstrates.

Finally, this book's last section is a historical note that speaks to what literary license may have been exercised while writing this account, along with personal statements from Marie and Victoria. The inclusion of this material and what is shared only underlines how unique this project has been.

As I said, The Personal Librarian is a remarkable book. The comfortable writing pulls you through the story. And the experiences that are shared – powerful, enlightening, and educational. Nothing compares to seeing life from another's perspective, but the life we feel from Belle's perspective provokes considerable thought.
Sherilyn R. (St George, UT)

The Personal Librarian
This is the little known story of Bella da Costa Green and her life as personal librarian to J.P. Morgan. 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, pursuing a career in the affluent New York society of the gilded age.

Bella had to go to extraordinary lengths to protect her family, her secrets and Morgan's legacy while living as authentic a life as possible.

I loved this book and the manner in which the authors provides a glimpse into the life and times of both celebrities and common people of the day.

Reading this book against the backdrop of violence and racism expressed during the summer of 2020 made Bella's life and efforts even more compelling.

I would certainly recommend this book to a wide-range of readers, especially those who love historical fiction, art and above all books.
Power Reviewer
Joan V. (Miller Place, NY)

Living a Lie
Belle de Costa Green started life as Maude Greene; her mother changed the family's name after leaving her husband and moving to New York City. She foresaw the Jim Crow era as the post-Civil War era was beginning to change in the South. She felt the only way her light skinned children could succeed was for them to pass for white. "To be colored in America is a burden that I don't want them to have to shoulder." This was especially painful since her husband was an early civil rights author and activist.

And succeed they did. Three of the daughters became teachers, her son was an engineer and Belle became one of the most successful and famous working women of her time. She was the chief wage earner in the family.

The Gilded Age in America is a fascinating period and JP Morgan was one of the most important and influential men of his day. He single handily rescued the US Treasury Department; his wealth was staggering.

Belle started out working at the Princeton library and through Morgan's nephew secured the job of being Morgan's private librarian. The way she procured rare manuscripts for the library and pushed after Morgan's death to make sure it's contents were made available is a fascinating story.

However, the best part of the book for me was how she kept her race a secret. There were times when it was like reading a thriller; if her secret had been found out Belle's whole family would have been in jeopardy. She had to keep a constant vigil and be careful with all her personal relationships. New York's elite upper class of Vanderbilts, Astors and the like never would have accepted her.

It was also very poignant to see her feelings. She did not want to be white and was never happy denying her race. The writers manage to portray her emotional conflicts in a very passionate way.

There is so much to discuss in this book: art, history, fashion and especially race which is a timely subject. Although the book has two authors it is seamless and the two write with one clear voice.

I strongly suggest reading this book, it is fascinating historical fiction.

Beyond the Book:
  Belle da Costa Greene

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