Monday, January 23, 2012

Surprising Personalities: Belle Da Costa Greene

When writing a piece of historic fiction, one or more historic figures often end up in the mix. Writers research these people so that even in fiction they behave in a way consistent with what’s really known about them. And that presents a problem because sometimes historic figures turn out to be surprises; people far more accomplished, complex and interesting than we originally thought. And writers sometimes end up wishing that character could take a larger role in the story. A good example is Belle da Costa Greene who was J.P.Morgan’s librarian.
Belle Da Costa Greene. Beautiful. Exotic. A woman with a secret.

Belle da Costa Greene was hired by John Pierpont Morgan in 1905 to serve as his personal librarian on the recommendation of his nephew Junius Morgan. Greene, an expert in rare manuscripts was working at Princeton’s library at the time and was a colleague of the young Morgan. Greene was given full reign over the collection of Morgan’s newly built library on 36th Street and soon became known as a tough negotiator with a nearly infallible eye when it came to the manuscripts and art objects she acquired on Morgan’s behalf. The result was that until her retirement in 1948, she was probably the world’s most influential figure in her field.

But there’s a lot more to Belle da Costa Greene’s story, much of which she herself hid from the world during her lifetime.

Belle da Costa Greene presented herself as being of Portugese extraction; a contention supported by her exotic beauty. But Greene was hiding a secret. She was actually African-American and doing something known in the early 20th century as ‘passing’. Thankfully, people don't have to do such things anymore, and if she were alive today, her real background would be an asset rather than something to be hidden away as it was in 1905.

Belle da Costa Greene was born Belle Marion Greener in Washington, DC. She was the daughter of Genevieve Ida Fleet, a member of a prominent African-American family in the city and Richard Theodore Greener. Richard Theodore Greener was the first African-American to be admitted to Harvard and subsequently the first to graduate in the class of 1870. Greener went on to a diplomatic career and later served as dean of Howard University’s law school.
Richard Theodore Greener, Belle's father and first African-American graduate of Harvard.

From her perch at Morgan’s library, Belle quickly became prominent in her own right, living a lifestyle and conducting herself in ways that would upstage the Kardashian sisters. When Greene sailed for London on trips for Morgan, she took her thoroughbred horse with her and could be seen riding in Hyde Park when not raking some art dealer over the coals on price or provenance. In Paris, she was a habituĂ© of the Ritz. She was a fashion icon too, and was said to dress in everything from the latest fashions to custom made Renaissance gowns even in her office. She reportedly once remarked: “Just because I am a Librarian, doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”
A celebrated beauty and fashion icon, Greene could teach the Kardashians some things.

Belle da Costa Greene moved in the rarefied strata of early twentieth century society, and was sought after by wealthy and influential men as well as art dealers. She’s rumored to have had affairs with a number of prominent men, but the only one that’s ever been confirmed was with art expert Bernard Berenson. With Berenson, the relationship likely grew from their shared expertise in Renaissance art and manuscripts. Sadly, we’ll never know the truth because Greene burned her papers and letters shortly before her death in 1950.

Belle Da Costa Greene plays a necessary and even pivotal role in the climactic scenes of Night Market, which take place during the worst days of the Panic of 1907, just as she likely did in real life. I won't say more to avoid spoilers for those who haven't yet read the book. But look for Greene to become an ally of the book's undead traders in order to help an employer she clearly had a great affection for.

Belle da Costa Greene would be a remarkable woman in any age and she just might make an appearance in a future episode of the Night Market saga.