Sixty years after her death, Belle da Costa Greenes life still provokes more questions than answers. Who was this olive-skinned beauty who took charge of J.P. Morgans library, wheeled and dealed with his fortune and proved a formidable force in the competitive art- and book-world? Far from the stereotypical mousy librarian, Belle was high fashion and high society. She loved cocktails and cigarettes as much as Caxtons and Tintorettos. But while she gossiped about the wealthy and privileged people she moved among, she kept the details of her own background a closed book. Belles secrecy, at a time when racial origins proscribed social position, offers a telling commentary on evolving notions of race and color.
There was something decidedly different about this young librarian in training. Her olive complexion and hazel eyes certainly gave her an exotic appearance, but it was the way she carried herself, her obvious intelligence, her quick wit, her willingness to learn that drew Asssociate Librarian Junius Morgans attention. So impressed was he that he decided to introduce her to his uncle, the financier J.P. Morgan. She just might be the person needed to take charge of his uncles new library.
For a time, Junius Morgan had worked as a partner in a Wall Street firm, but he cared more for art and books than for business and spent more of his time in Europe searching out literary masterpieces for his uncles collection than in the 30-room Jacobean-style mansion he had built in Princeton in 1897. His uncle, J.P. Morgan, came of old Yankee Connecticut stock and moved in aristocratic circles, thinking little of traveling from Paris to New York and then hopping on his own train to Washington to meet with the President.
Among the industrialist giants of this age of steel the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt John Pierpont Morgan was a colossus, the force behind an empire of banking, rail, electric and steel companies. He was celebrated as a hero of American progress and vilified as a robber baron. He was also a collector who would spend half his fortune on art. His goal was to bring the best of the worlds treasures to America and he would donate manuscripts and paintings to public institutions such as the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum. To introduce the culture and civilization of the old world to the new, he began collecting books and manuscripts, which were not subject to the import duty levied on paintings. These would form the centerpiece of the new library he was having built on Madison Avenue. On his nephews recommendation, he hired the young librarian who had learned cataloguing and indexing under the direction of librarian and bibliographer Ernest C. Richardson at Princeton University. She would receive a monthly salary of $75, almost twice as much as she earned at the University.
That Belle da Costa Greene entered into the heady world of high art and high society is remarkable enough. That she did so while keeping a secret that would have excluded her from that world borders on the fantastic. Inventing a Portuguese grandmother to explain her skin coloring, Belle denied her origins and passed for white.
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