The insanely cool life of Belle da Costa Greene
You hear librarian and may think unflattering pantyhouse and taut hairbun. I personally think of my sister dipping her head in a pool then whipping it back in a sort of bun, then screeching “no talking in the library!!”
It’s hard to pair the stereotype against Bella da Costa Greene, the first librarian of what would become The Morgan Library & Museum. “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.” True to word, she wore bright gowns and thick pendants to work. Women were fascinated by her displayed exoticness, men by that and then some. She was small and slender with light green eyes; the art historian Bernard Berenson described her as “the most vitalizing person I have ever known.”
At 22, (Later it was shown se was actually 26) she became the chief librarian of the Morgan museum, a private library intended to hold JP Morgan’s 14,000 books. She was highly praised by Morgan’s nephew, a student at Princeton, where Green was a librarian until approached by Morgan.
They had a cat-mouse relationship that might be typical of someone whose main business and someone focused mostly on arts and old books. She called him big chief. He often forgot just what he bought, and would ask her to remind him. Morgan came across a receipt for a 60 k bust of Hercules by Michelangelo. He asked her where it was, through a note. She replied “This bronze bust is in your library and faces you when sitting in your chair. It has been there about a year.”
De Costa had privileges that most women could only dream about. She could live by herself, walk around without an escort, spend all days with old books and few thought her peculiar. Her curated confidence seems to have stopped anyone from asking too many questions.
Greene had plenty to keep secret. Her real name was Belle Marion Greener. Her father, an esteemed lawyer, was the first black man to graduate from Harvard. As a child, her mother decided to raise her as if they were Eastern European. She concocted some story of Portuguese-Dutch heritage that was responsible for her “dusky” complexion. She passed for white; had she not, it’s hard to imagine that Mr. Morgan would be okay with her working in his private library. Her connection with one of the most powerful men in American further protected her from too much questioning.
While Green distanced herself from race, she was supportive of other women entering the working world, and believed, perhaps unfairly, that they could reach her ranks with hard work.
“I cannot agree that my connection with the Morgan collections has been a mere matter of luck. It was indeed a rare and beautiful opportunity that came to me, but I do not believe the opportunity would ever have come if I had not been prepared in the first place…”
After Morgan died in 1913, following his will, Greene turned the Morgan from a private to a public library. She arranged for public lectures and exhibitions. At the 1940 World’s Fair in New York, the Times was so impressed by the collection of rare manuscripts they wrote “the best exhibit at the New York fair is not at the fair ” She was part of the library for 43 years, 24 as a director. She died in 1950.
For more, check out Morgan: American Financier by Jean Strouse