Belle da Costa Greene

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Belle da Costa Greene, pastel portrait by Paul César Helleu, ca. 1913.

Belle da Costa Greene (December 13, 1883 – May 10, 1950) was the librarian to J. P. Morgan. After his death in 1913, Greene continued as librarian under his son, Jack Morgan. In 1924 the private collection was incorporated by the State of New York as a library for public uses, and the Board of Trustees appointed Greene first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library.[1]

Life and career[edit]

She was born Belle Marion Greener in Washington, D.C., and grew up there and in New York City. Her biographer Heidi Ardizzone lists Greene's birth date as November 26, 1879. Her mother was Genevieve Ida Fleet, a member of a well-known African American family in the nation's capital, while her father was Richard Theodore Greener, an attorney who served as dean of the Howard University School of Law and was the first black student and first black graduate of Harvard (class of 1870). After his separation from his wife (they never divorced), Greener became a U.S. diplomat posted to Siberia, where he had a second family with a Japanese woman. Once Greene took the job with Morgan, she likely never spoke to her father again. She may have met him once in Chicago around 1913, but there are no letters or written proof. She burned all personal papers in her possession shortly before her death, while Richard was thought to have lost most of his in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.[2] A recent treasure trove of documents belonging to Greener was discovered in the attic of an abandoned house in Chicago, however, and early indications are that they will shed even greater light on Greener's life.[3]

After her parents' separation, the light-skinned Belle, her mother, and her siblings passed as white and changed their surname to Greene to distance themselves from their father. Her mother changed her maiden name to Van Vliet, apparently in an effort to assume Dutch ancestry, while Belle dropped her middle name in favor of da Costa and began claiming a Portuguese background to explain her dusky complexion. Eventually, she moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where she worked at the Princeton University Library.

The financier J. P. Morgan had in 1902 engaged Charles F. McKim to build him a library to the east of his Madison Avenue brownstone as his collection already was too large for his study. To manage his collection he hired Greene as his personal librarian in 1905, having been introduced to her by his nephew, Junius, a Princeton student. Soon trusted for her expertise (she was an expert in illuminated manuscripts) as well as her bargaining prowess with dealers, Greene would spend millions of dollars not only buying but selling rare manuscripts, books and art. She has been described as smart and outspoken as well as beautiful and sensual. While she enjoyed a Bohemian freedom, she was also able to move with ease in elite society, known for her exotic looks and designer wardrobe. "Just because I am a librarian," Greene reportedly announced, "doesn't mean I have to dress like one."

Not only did her bearing, style, and seemingly unlimited means attract notice, but "her role at the Morgan Library placed her at the center of the art trade and her friendship was coveted by every dealer." The power that she wielded for 43 years was unmatched. She told Morgan - who was willing to pay any price for important works - that her goal was to make his library "pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings, and the classics."

J. P. Morgan left her $50,000 in his will, which at that time was a significant sum, reportedly $800,000 in modern money. Asked if she was Morgan's mistress, she is said to have replied, "We tried!" She never married, however, and her most lasting romantic relationship was with the Renaissance Italian art expert Bernard Berenson.

Greene retired in 1948 and died in New York City two years later.


  1. ^ Pierpont Morgan Library, & Wroth, L. C. (1949). The first quarter century of the Pierpont Morgan Library; A retrospective exhibition in honor of Belle da Costa Greene.
  2. ^ Heidi Ardizzone, An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege (W.W. Norton, 2007).
  3. ^ Chicago Suntimes- 'It gives me gooseflesh': Remarkable find in South Side attic

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