April 2022 Book Review -- "The Personal Librarian"
If you had to hide your true identity to support your family and advance your career, would you do it? That’s exactly what JP Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, faces in the historical novel The Personal Librarian. Kirsten Nilsson, Summit County Librarian, has this month’s book review.
In her early twenties, Belle da Costa Greene lands the job of a lifetime. She is hired by financier JP Morgan to curate his burgeoning collection of rare manuscripts, books and artwork for the newly constructed Pierpont Morgan Library, in New York City. Working alongside JP Morgan, himself, Belle becomes a power in her own right. She is courted by art dealers, embraced by the socially powerful, and profiled as an elegant, sophisticated career woman in the early 1900s, when working women were a rarity.
However, Belle has a secret that no one can ever know. It will ruin her. She was not born Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener to a family of Black Washingtonians in 1883. She came from a family of intellectuals. Her father, Richard Greener, was the first black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for racial equality. Belle doesn’t have “olive” skin because of her Portuguese heritage—the story she tells everyone who asks—her complexion is dark because she is African American. And, her skin is light enough that she can “pass” as white, which is exactly what she does. Her mother and siblings entire lives—where they live, their occupations, everything—are completely dependent on Belle’s white identity, as her mother often reminds her.
There is also a terrible cost to maintaining her facade. She alienates herself from her beloved extended family in Washington DC and her activist father. And, though she has many relationships with men, including renown art historian Bernard Berenson, she will not marry. She will not risk having a child that could possibly reveal her identity.
The authors, Marie Benedict, who is white, and Victoria Murray, who is African American, do well portraying the precarious path Belle walks, and the internal conflict she must’ve felt on both sides — wanting to adhere to her mother's wishes and move through the world as a white woman while at the same time longing to show her father she is proud of her race.
The Personal Librarian is a compelling historical narrative of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, personal style, and wit. It reveals the lengths she is forced to go —for the protection of her family and her legacy—to preserve her carefully crafted white identity. It’s a sobering account of the injustices of racism in the early 1900s, that in many ways, still abide in today’s world. This book helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes, much different than my own, exactly what good literature should do. You can find this book at The Park City and Summit County Libraries.