The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, 4/5 stars, 341 pages, 2021
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.
I’ve always loved libraries. Since I was young and my mom used to drop me off for a few hours to now as I volunteer with the Friends of the Library, libraries have always been a comforting space. This book of historical fiction is based on Belle da Costa Greene, the woman who became JP Morgan’s personal librarian who curated his collection and looked after it after his death.
Did I mention she was Black but passed for White in high society and to Morgan himself? What an amazing story to tell!
I love Marie Benedict’s stories about overlooked women in history and I especially love that for this one she had a co-writer, Victoria Christopher Murray. In the letters at the end of the book Benedict explains why she wanted a woman of color to help her get this story just right. And I love the friendship that was formed in the writing of this book.
If you like historical fiction and intriguing women don’t miss this one.