The Story Of J.P. Morgan’s ‘Personal Librarian’ — And Why She Chose To Pass As White

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-09-14 14:38Z by Steven

The Story Of J.P. Morgan’s ‘Personal Librarian’ — And Why She Chose To Pass As White

Code Switch
National Public Radio
2021-08-31

Karen Grigsby Bates, Senior Correspondent


Marie Benedict (left) and Victoria Christopher Murray
Phil Atkins

This summer on Code Switch, we’re talking to some of our favorite authors about books that taught us about the different dimensions of freedom. In our last installment, we talked to author Julia Alvarez about her poetry collection The Woman I Kept to Myself and how difficult it can be to share your many selves with the world. Next up, a conversation with authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray on their book The Personal Librarian.

At the turn of the 20th century, financier J.P. Morgan amassed a rich collection of antique objects related to the power of the written word: manuscripts, books, artwork. He did it all with the idea of enjoying his collection privately. But shortly after his death, Morgan’s personal librarian, a woman named Belle da Costa Greene, convinced J.P. Morgan’s son, Jack Morgan, to make the library a gift to New York City.

The Morgan, as it is now known, welcomes thousands of visitors each year — scholars, researchers, tourists and art lovers — to enjoy the collection. What most don’t know is this: For more than four decades, the library’s collections were acquired and curated by a Black woman. Belle da Costa Greene was quietly passing as white in order to work for one of the most powerful men in the United States

Read the story here.

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J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian had two identities. It took two authors to tell her story.

Posted in Articles, Biography, Interviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-07-20 02:20Z by Steven

J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian had two identities. It took two authors to tell her story.

The Washington Post
2021-06-28

Natachi Onwuamaegbu


“The Personal Librarian” co-authors Heather Terrell, writing as Marie Benedict, and Victoria Christopher Murray. (Phil Atkins)

Historical fiction writer Heather Terrell (who also writes under the name Marie Benedict) was introduced to Belle da Costa Greene between bookshelves at New York’s Morgan Library over 20 years ago. The docent — whom she has tried to find since — told her about a Black woman who passed as White and worked as J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian in the early 1900s. Terrell wasn’t yet writing historical fiction about women — she was a lawyer — but the story lingered in the back of her head.

Once she read Black author Victoria Christopher Murray’s work two years ago, she knew she found the partner she was waiting for to tackle da Costa Greene’s story. To write about a Black woman who passed as non-Black with an author she had never met was a process, especially when the editing coincided with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and a pandemic.

The Washington Post talked to Terrell and Murray about what it was like to work on “The Personal Librarian” when so much of the world was falling apart…

Read the entire interview here.

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The Personal Librarian, A Novel

Posted in Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States, Women on 2021-07-17 00:36Z by Steven

The Personal Librarian, A Novel

Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Randomhouse)
2021-06-29
Hardcover ISBN: 9780593101537
Paperback ISBN: 9780593414248
Eboock ISBN: 9780593101551

Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

A remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, 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 in New York City society 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 create 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 she must go to—for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.

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Keep It Simple at TEDxIndianapolis

Posted in Articles, Arts, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-02 02:10Z by Steven

Keep It Simple at TEDxIndianapolis

The Indianapolis Star
2015-10-21

Leslie Bailey

“When asked how he created his masterpiece, Michelangelo said, ‘It was easy. You just chip away that which does not look like David.’ What if our lives are our masterpiece? What if we chipped away all that was unnecessary, all the clutter and the busyness, and focused on that which really mattered — our passions and our relationships.”

This is the “big idea” Maura Malloy will share when she takes the stage at TEDxIndianapolis on Tuesday. Malloy, 36, is among approximately 20 speakers who will present their ideas at the conference with the theme of “Keep It Simple.” Other speakers include a homeless advocate, an origami artist, a musician and a handful of professors…

…In her talk, Malloy will share her journey to a minimalist lifestyle, as well as tools on how everyone can create their own “masterpiece” life. For Malloy, the spark ignited during a semester studying in India during her sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame. She was allowed one 40-pound bag of belongings for the semester. “It opened my eyes to how little you need to be joyful, especially when it comes to children,” said Malloy, who is expecting her first child in November…

…Malloy, who grew up in South Bend, moved to New York City when she was 25 to pursue a career in acting. She ultimately turned to screenwriting, which she continued doing after moving back to Indiana with her husband, Rory Collins, 2012.

She currently has two projects in development with actress Tessa Thompson attached to both films. The first, “An Illuminated Life” [See: An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege] is a biopic about Belle da Costa Greene, an African-American woman who lived as a white woman while working as J.P. Morgan’s right-hand woman at the turn of the century. The other project, “Our Rebels,” is a smaller, independent film Malloy describes as a “platonic love story.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Discovery of first black Harvard grad’s papers leads to as many questions as answers

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-09-10 22:55Z by Steven

Discovery of first black Harvard grad’s papers leads to as many questions as answers

Cable News Network (CNN)
2012-03-14

Stephanie Siek

(CNN) – The story of Richard Theodore Greener is a book with many blank pages. The first African-American to graduate from Harvard University in 1870, he was one of the foremost black thinkers of his time, rising to prominence between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and praised by both. Greener was the dean of Howard University’s law school, a diplomat and also the University of South Carolina’s first black professor and head librarian.

The recent discovery of some of Greener’s papers in Chicago could fill in some of those pages. But the ironies of his life remain.

One daughter of this book-loving man and advocate for racial equality would go on to become the most respected librarian of her era and an expert on medieval illuminated manuscripts—but not as a woman of color. Belle Marian Greener, who was born to Greener and his first wife, Genevieve Ida Fleet, passed for white. Even lighter-skinned than her two light-skinned African-American parents, she changed her name to Belle da Costa Greene to reflect a fabricated Portuguese ancestry that would explain her complexion.

Portuguese ancestry that would explain her complexion.

After separating from Fleet, Greener accepted consular appointments in Bombay (now Mumbai), India and Vladivostok, Siberia, but neither Fleet nor their children joined him. Da Costa Greene burned most of her personal papers before her death in 1950, and except for a possible visit with her father after his retirement in Chicago, the degree to which she and Greener kept in contact is a mystery.

While working as an American consular official in Vladivostok in 1898, Greener began a relationship with a Japanese woman, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had a daughter and two sons. He then had to leave them behind in Vladivostok in 1906, when he was the victim of a rumor campaign that resulted in his retirement.

It’s possible that racism played a role in his reasons for leaving the post, said Michael Mounter, a historian and research librarian at the University of South Carolina who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Greener. Among the rumors flying at the time, Mounter said, were that he “was drinking too much and had a Japanese mistress.”

“You had a group of white Americans living in Vladivostok and he originally went to social events with them,” said Mounter.  “He did not identify himself specifically as being black. He didn’t want to, he didn’t see the point in it.”

“One might say, ‘Well, he was passing for white.’ Others might say he just wanted to be judged on his own merits,” said Mounter…

Read the entire article here.

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‘It gives me gooseflesh’: Remarkable find in South Side attic

Posted in Articles, Biography, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-04-07 02:34Z by Steven

‘It gives me gooseflesh’: Remarkable find in South Side attic

Chicago Sun-Times
2012-03-10

Kim Janssen, Staff Reporter


Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922), Harvard Class of 1870

It wasn’t much more than a ghost house by the time Rufus McDonald got the call.

The front door of the abandoned home near 75th and Sangamon was unlocked and swinging in the wind.

Drug addicts, squatters and stray animals carried away whatever they wanted. Everything that wasn’t termite-infested seemed to have been stolen. Even the copper pipes were gone.

But the scavengers missed something incredible.

Hidden in the attic that McDonald was contracted to clear before the home’s 2009 demolition was a trunk. Inside were the papers of Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard…

…Married to Genevieve Ida Fleet, with whom he had six children, he became dean of Howard University’s law school; worked at the U.S. Treasury and in Republican politics and law in Washington, and befriended President Ulysses S. Grant, whose memorial he helped build.

A friend and sometimes rival of other leading African Americans of his era, including Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, he wrote in 1879: “The negro has received so many hard knocks, and experienced so little consideration, charity, or justice from those who criticize him, that he has no quarter to give.”

In an 1894 essay he pointedly renamed the “Negro Problem” as “The White Problem.”

Sick of Washington politics, in 1898 he accepted a post from President William McKinley in Vladivostok, Russia. Leaving his family, he took a Japanese common-law wife, Mishi Kawashima, with whom he had three children. He was praised for his efforts as a U.S. agent during the Russo-Japanese war, but he was fired in 1905 after a smear campaign.

From 1909 until his death in 1922 he lived with cousins at 5237 S. Ellis in Chicago. Cut off from both his families, he was likely visited just once in Hyde Park by his daughter Belle da Costa Greene, according to biographer Heidi Ardizzone.

Along with the rest of Greener’s first family, da Costa Greene — the chic director of banker J.P. Morgan’s personal library — changed her last name to pass as white in elite New York society. “Greener had so much intelligence and passion and to see his equally talented children not have their achievements counted as African American must have been heartbreaking,” Ardizzone said.

Da Costa Greene burned her own personal papers before her death in 1950. The discovery of some of her father’s documents in an Englewood attic is “every historian’s dream,” Ardizzone said…

Read the entire article here.

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An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States, Women on 2010-08-23 19:15Z by Steven

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege (review)

Libraries & the Cultural Record
Volume 45, Number 3, 2010
E-ISSN: 1932-9555
Print ISSN: 1932-4855
pages 375-377

Nena Couch, Curator and Professor of Theater
Ohio State University

The life of the librarian seldom is acknowledged beyond the confines of the community in which she or he is active; therefore, Heidi Ardizzone’s biography of Belle da Costa Greene, librarian to J. Pierpont Morgan and first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, should be a welcome publication. Greene was a widely respected and successful librarian who made significant contributions to the development and refinement of Morgan’s collection until his death and continued her work with his son John “Jack” Pierpont Morgan, Jr. She was actively involved in the establishment of the Morgan Library as a public institution. Her work had national and international impact and as such is worthy of a full-length biography. Enhancing her story is her testing of boundaries: she was a woman in what was a man’s field, and she was of mixed race passing as white. However, Ardizzone’s primary interests are not in Greene’s significant professional accomplishments—although they are touched upon in An Illuminated Life—but in “Belle’s social life and experiences” (10) and in speculation about a woman…

Read the entire review here.

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An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege

Posted in Arts, Biography, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States, Women on 2009-12-05 04:15Z by Steven

An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege

W. W. Norton & Company
June 2007
592 pages
6.6 × 9.6 in
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-393-05104-9

Heidi Ardizzone, Assistant Professor of American Studies
University of Notre Dame

Named a New York Times Editor’s Choice.

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.

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