Monday, July 2, 2012

Belle da Costa Green: Librarian of Mystery

No one ever thinks of a librarian as having an exciting life or harboring a scandalous secret.  However, last week I stumbled upon a very fascinating librarian that I'd never heard of. 

Belle da Costa Green's life (1883-1950) is chronicled in Heidi Ardizzone's book An Illuminated Life: Journey from Prejudice to Privilege.  What did da Costa Greene have to give up in order to achieve the dream of a lifetime?  

This sensational woman lit up New York society while working as J.P. Morgan's personal librarian, all the while, hiding a past that would have prevented her success.


In 1905, J. P. Morgan hired Belle da Costa Greene to organize his rare book and manuscript collection.  At this time, she only had a few years of experience to recommend her, along with a dynamic personality.

Ten years later, she had shaped the famous Pierpont Morgan Library collection.  She'd also become a proto-celebrity in New York and the art world, renowned for her self-made expertise, acerbic wit, and flirtatious relationships.

She has been described as a sensual and beautiful woman, known for her exotic look  and designer wardrobe.  She once said, "Just because I am a librarian, doesn't mean I have to dress like one."

Here's her secret:  Greene was born into a family African Americans.  To cover this up, she changed her name and created a Portuguese grandmother to gain entry into white society. By entering a new world, she dined at the tables of high society, as well as those of bohemian artists and activists.

J.P. Morgan left her $50,000 in his will.  Nowadays that would be around $800,000!  When asked if she was Morgan's mistress, she is said to have replied, "We tried!"

Da Costa Green never married, but had a long lasting romantic relationship with the Renaissance Italian art expert Bernard Berenson.

Fascinating story, fascinating librarian! For more insight on her, click here.

Had you ever heard of Belle da Costa Green? And by the way, do you know of any fascinating, mysterious librarians?

Thanks for visiting!

8 comments:

Old Kitty said...

LOL!! Oh dear, I've worked in libraries all my life and trust me there is no such thing as a stereotypical librarian or library staff! LOL! Underneath rages a cauldron of passionate emotions! Oh Ms Da Costa Green is such an icon!!! Take care
x

Maria McKenzie said...

It's always a surprise to see what lurks beneath the surface;)!

The Golden Eagle said...

I've never heard of this librarian before. It sounds like she had quite a life!

Maria McKenzie said...

It does indeed!

Jennette Marie Powell said...

There is such a stereotype around librarians, they've come to be a character archetype! I love books that break that stereotype. I'd never heard of Ms. Green before. It's hard to imagine how she concealed her racial heritage in the early 20th century, before it became fashionable to tan. Another book to add to my TBR list!

Maria McKenzie said...

I'd never heard of her either. But she was quite a colorful character who shattered the librarian stereotype!

William Kendall said...

I'd never heard of her! Fascinating!

Maria McKenzie said...

I thought so too;)!