J. P. Morgan’s Accomplice

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Just because I am a librarian,” she said, “doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”

In fact, as Strouse discovered, virtually none of this is true. Greene’s real name was Belle Marion Greener. Her mother’s name was Fleet, not Van Vliet, and her grandmother was not Portuguese but an American named Hermione C. Peters. And they came not from Richmond but from Washington, D.C., where the 1850 census listed the family as mulatto.

Greene’s father, Richard Theodore Greener, was black. He had been born in Philadelphia in 1844, and after his father deserted the family to search for gold in California, his mother moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was nine. He took a series of jobs as office boy to help support the family but spent as much time reading as he could. He so impressed one of his employers with his love of learning that the man sent him to a private preparatory school in Oberlin, Ohio, one of the very few such schools in the country that would accept black students at that time. Admitted to Harvard in 1865, he graduated in 1870, the first black man to receive a degree from the country’s oldest university.

Greener then earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina (the only Southern school to attempt integration during Reconstruction), where he also taught Greek, Latin, mathematics, and constitutional history. In his spare time he reorganized and classified the school’s twenty-sixthousand-book library.

But as Reconstruction ended in the late 187Os, Greener, no matter how gifted and educated, found it increasingly difficult to function as a black man in the hostile white world around him. The strain told on his family life, and he and his wife separated in the late 189Os. Being very light-skinned, his wife and his children chose another way of dealing with a bigoted white world: They “passed.” In the New York City Directory, Greener became Greene.

But if Belle da Costa Greene left her black ancestors behind her, she gratefully inherited her father’s love of books. “I knew definitely by the time I was twelve years old that I wanted to work with rare books,” she told the New York Evening Sun years later. “I loved them even then, the sight of them, the wonderful feel of them, the romance and thrill of them. Before I was sixteen, I had begun my studies, omitting the regular college courses that many girls take before they have found out what they want to do.”

Greene very quickly became far more than merely Morgan’s librarian. In Strouse’s words, she was “his agent, accomplice, and personal confidante as well.” Her goal, she said, was to make J. P. Morgan’s library “ pre-eminent , especially for incunabula [books printed before 1501], manuscripts, bindings and the classics.” She was soon indispensable to achieving this goal. Traveling often to Europe, she stayed at the finest hotels, met art scholars and bibliophiles as an equal, and snapped up treasure after treasure.

When Morgan died in 1913, he left Belle Greene fifty thousand dollars in his will, enough capital for her to live on modestly. At that time she was earning a salary of ten thousand dollars a year at the library, a huge sum, especially for a woman, in those days. So she stayed at the library for nearly the rest of her life. She retired only in 1948, two years before her death. By then she was known, deservedly, as “the soul of the Morgan Library.”

Under J. P. Morgan, Jr., she continued to collect for the library, and by the time she retired, if the library was not perhaps “ pre-eminent ,” it was certainly the equal of any great library of rare books in the world. The Morgan, for instance, has no fewer than three Gutenberg Bibles, two more than the vast New York Public Library, located a few blocks away, possesses.

Jean Strouse tells a wonderful story of the relationship between Morgan and Greene. Morgan hated paying customs duties, especially on art objects, and, like countless of other travelers before and since, evaded them whenever possible. He quickly enlisted Greene as an ally in tax evasion. One year she managed, by artfully letting the customs agents find several dutiable items of hers in her luggage, to draw their attention away from a painting, three bronzes, and a very expensive watch he had asked her to buy in London. “‘When I landed at the library with all of JP’s treasures … ,’ she reported to a friend, ‘well he & I did a war dance & laughed in great glee.’”

The image of the elderly J. P. Morgan, the most powerful private individual in the world, dancing a jig of glee with his young and vivacious librarian over some successful naughtiness is worth the price of this incomparable book all by itself.