Belle de Costa Greene, the extraordinary life of the Morgan Museum’s librarian

June 4, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

By any measure, Belle de Costa Greene lived an extraordinary life for a librarian. During the first two decades of the 20th century, she reigned as an undisputed leader and expert in the area of art and antiquities. She was instrumental in acquiring, organizing, and cataloguing what became the world’s finest private collection of rare books and manuscripts, that of John Pierpont Morgan.

Morgan appointed her as his personal librarian in 1905, and for the last eight years of his life, she helped him collect an unmatched number of rare books and manuscripts. After his death in 1913, she continued her role as director of the Morgan Museum.

As such, she was continually cited in numerous newspaper and magazine articles as one of the most talented, knowledgeable, and article experts in that rarified area. Her physical beauty and infectious personality were also topics of much comment.

What only a handful of people — not including Morgan, apparently — knew at the time was that Greene was Black, or in the term of her day “colored.” She was one of unknown hundred (thousands?) of light-skinned Negroes who obscured their backgrounds and passed themselves as white. She lived in a white person’s world and decided, because the opportunity presented itself, to become a part of that world.

Belle de Costa Green was born Belle Marion Greener in 1879 in Washington, D.C. Her mother was a music teacher from a prominent African-American family in the nation’s capital, and her father, Richard Theodore Greener, was the first Black student and graduate of Harvard College. Greener became a prominent attorney and diplomat, and he served as dean of the Howard University School of Law.

Sometime in her youth, the Greeners separated, and Belle’s mother moved to New York with the purpose of passing themselves as white. She created a Dutch background for herself and took on the name Van Vliet. Belle followed suit and added an “e” to her last name and adopted the middle name of  “de Costa” to indicate a Portuguese ancestry. She also implied that she was raised somewhere in Virginia. From that time to the end of her life, she was very protective about her persona and destroyed most of the documents that had any personal information.

In 1902 when she was 23 years old, Greene worked for the Princeton University library and trained to become a library. She had a special affinity for old and rare books and took that on as a specialty. During that time, she met and became friends with Junius Spenser Morgan II, John Pierpont’s nephew. The elder Morgan was a famous collector of books, art, and manuscripts and had commissioned the building of a museum in New York City to house his collection. Junius recommended to his uncle that he hired Greene to advise him, and in 1905, he did just that.

Morgan’s museum would cost $2 million, and his collection was worth far more. Not only that, but the collection was famous. Morgan was generous in lending items to other museums and libraries to display. Very quickly, Greene took charge of organizing and cataloguing the collection, and she too became famous. Morgan continued to acquire items, and his chief collaborator was Bella de Costa Greene.

That someone so young and so knowledgeable wielded so much power and influence in the world of antiquities was unprecedented, and Greene became a magnet for journalists. Typical of the comments in the press that she drew was this entry from the New York Times:

“The ancient librarian is always pictured as having a gray beard and as wearing a skull cap. But here is one with a vivacious laugh, with brown eyes and rosy cheeks, who speaks delectable French, and who picks up a musty tome as gracefully as a butterfly alights on a dusty leaf. And she has individual ideas – ideas which her force of persuasion and her intelligence will eventually develop, backed as she is with Mr. Morgan’s wealth” (“Spending J. P. Morgan’s Money for Rare Books,” April 7, 1912, p. SM8).

Greene was often photographed and drawn, but more often than not, she appeared very white. Typical is the clipping from the New York World in 1913 shown here.

Greene not only collected avidly and wisely, but she also made every effort to have items available for public viewing. Another topic she felt strongly about was the important role that librarians played in the public sphere.

When Morgan died in 1913, he left Greene $50,000 and specified that she should remain as the museum’s librarian. His son, also an avid collector, incorporated the museum in 1924 and named Greene as its director. She continued to work until her retirement in 1948. She died two years later, and the secret of her family background seemed to die with her.

That secret was uncovered nearly five decades later when Jean Strouse was researching a biography of J.P. Morgan and came across the birth certificate of Belle de Costa Greene, nee Belle Greener. It was marked with a “C” in the entry for race, which meant “colored.” Eight years later author Heidi Ardizzone published a full-length biography of Greene titled An Illuminated Life : Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege.

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