Cbr13bingo Book Club (Good Morning America Book Club selection)
The J.P. Morgan Library in New York is world renowned for its manuscript and art collections thanks to its first librarian Belle da Costa Greene. She served as J.P. Morgan’s first and only personal librarian from 1905-1913, and then as the librarian for the Morgan Library until 1948. Belle became famous in her time with J.P. Morgan because she was the only woman working in a field of trained specialists and wealthy collectors from around the world. What people didn’t know then was that Belle was even more special than they realized — she was also a Black woman who passed as white. In this fictional account of her life, rooted in what factual information is available, two authors imagine how Belle navigated a prestigious, high profile, exciting and very dangerous career among the world’s elite art collectors and New York’s most powerful families.
Belle was born Belle Marion Greener, daughter of Genevieve Fleet Greener and Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and former Dean of Howard University Law School. Richard Greener was an equal rights activist who worked alongside Frederick Douglass, WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington. At some point in his marriage to Genevieve, their differences of opinion over passing as white took a toll. The Greeners’ five children were all light enough to pass as white, and in New York City, they had opportunities for careers and success that would have eluded them in the South. Genevieve, having experienced firsthand the growing racism and violence of whites in America, felt that the best thing for her children was to live as whites. Richard left the family, and Genevieve changed the name to Greene, adding “da Costa” and a Portuguese grandmother so that Belle and brother Russell, whose skin tone was more “olive,” could maintain a claim to whiteness. Russell attended university for engineering while Belle’s sisters went to teachers college and found jobs in the city. Belle, whose love for art began in childhood with a gift from her father, became a librarian at all-white, all-male Princeton University. There she met Junius Morgan, nephew to J.P., who promoted her for the position of personal librarian to the banker/magnate himself.
The danger of Belle’s situation is front and center throughout the novel, and her mother constantly reminds her of the importance of maintaining the facade of whiteness. If Belle’s secret were to be discovered, not only would she lose a very well-paying job, but her siblings would also feel the ripple effect as they would be likewise “outed.” What Belle discovers is that not only does she have to “code switch” for whites but also for the elite sphere in which she must operate. She observes carefully the wealthy white women around her and learns to mimic their mannerisms and speech so that she can operate fluently in this class of power brokers. She can trust no one and can never let down her guard. This leads to some conflicting feelings for Belle. On one hand, she learns to use her intelligence and expertise to wield significant power and influence in art circles and with J.P. Morgan. On the other hand, she thinks of her beloved father, his work and sacrifices, and wonders what he would make of her success.
The novel is full of fascinating information about Belle, the Morgan family, and the art world in the early 20th century. Belle knew and spent time with some of the most powerful and famous people in the world, including women’s rights activists and actors. She “hid in plain sight,” had an affair with a married art historian, and had an abortion. I especially like the way the two authors imagine her relationship with J.P. Morgan, as it is complicated. On one hand, Morgan was a sort of father figure, but he was also known to have had numerous mistresses and perhaps something could have happened with Belle. One gets the sense that he respected her enormously but would have kicked her out in a heartbeat if he had discovered her secret.
This is a very interesting novel that would be appropriate for young adult readers and older. You will learn some incredible history about a powerful and smart woman, and you will be provoked into considering some very complicated matters related to race and American history.