The following article summarizes the original event which is listed below the summary.

Book Notes | The Personal Librarian

September 16, 2022, at 2pm

This historical fiction book written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray narrates the compelling story of archivist and librarian Belle da Costa Greene, who developed the Pierpont Morgan Library, now the Morgan Library & Museum, in Manhattan during the early 20th century.

Belle had a secret: her mother changed Belle’s name from Belle Marion Greener to Belle da Costa Green and concealed their Black heritage to protect her from discrimination. This alienated Belle’s father, Richard Theodore Greener, the first Black American to graduate from Harvard (1870), who was an activist for racial justice and dean of Howard University.

Belle's relationship with J.P. Morgan was complicated. He was a curmudgeon with a temper. She was constantly on guard to keep anyone from discovering her cultural roots. Belle did not have a physical relationship with Morgan, but they were deeply connected through their love of books. Despite his level of entitlement, she found a way to work with him, to develop his archives into a world-class collection, and to keep secret her whole professional life that she was African American.

The Personal Librarian went beyond describing Belle’s position as personal librarian and how she developed a talent for locating and purchasing many important manuscripts. In the second half of the book, we learn of her interactions with New York feminists and her love affair with Bernard Berenson, a renowned American art historian and author who had an “open marriage” with his wife. Bella stepped into the world of the arts with flair, learned to flirt, and outcompeted others in auctions and sales of ancient books and manuscripts as she built the library.

Our book group discussion was rich and lively. Members really liked the book, though a couple felt the writing was “stiff.” We agreed Belle's story was the most compelling thread, and that as whites we have no clue what people of color went through back then and even now. One member, who said she usually does not like historical fiction, found it “readable and likeable.” Another recommended other works by Marie Benedict: The Only Woman in the Room, about Hedy Lamarr, the film actress and scientist, and The Other Einstein, about Einstein’s first wife, whose research he took and published as his own. One recommended the movie Passing, about a woman who passes as white in the 1920s, even concealing her heritage from her husband. 

I recommend reading The Personal Librarian authors' notes that describe their sources for Belle's story.

— Judy Helgen, UMRA Book Club I member         




Book Club I to meet September 16

Fri, Sep 16 2022, 2pm

Event to be held via Zoom.

Judy Helgen will lead the discussion of The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray when the UMRA Book Club I meets via Zoom at 2 p.m. on Friday, September 16. 

Email Pat Tollefson for more information, including suggestions for starting a new book club. 

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