A Woman to Know: Belle da Costa Greene

Just because I *am* a librarian doesn't mean I have to dress like one. — Belle da Costa Greene

(image via Library of Congress)


In 1905, J.P. Morgan hired a 20-year-old Princeton grad to turn his personal library into one of the most valuable institutions in the world. Belle jumped at the task — she traveled throughout America and Europe at the turn of the century, charming collectors and nobles with her wit and intelligence. Her "exotic looks" spread rumors: she was a long-lost princess; she was Morgan's mistress; she was a secret millionairess. But Belle rebuffed every romantic advance. She was wedded to the Morgan Library's mission. She amassed more than 6,000 rare texts and illuminated manuscripts, winning the Morgan Library accolades from around the globe.

Throughout the early 1900s, Belle also served as Morgan's most trusted secretary and financial adviser. In rooms full of men, he'd turn to her for counsel on everything from risky investments to seating arrangements. After his death in 1913, he left Belle a humongous sum in his will, with the condition that she continue to direct the Library (then also a Museum). When the Morgan family celebrated Belle's work anniversary later that year, collectors from all over the world attended to praise her work.

After her death in 1950, a biographer discovered Belle and her mother had chosen "da Costa Green" as their new surname to intentionally assume ambiguous ancestry. When Belle's mother had separated from Belle's father -- the first black student at Harvard -- she and her daughter made the decision to hide their race. They erased any official record of their blackness, selecting "white" on all official documentation. New York's most powerful librarian passed as white for her entire life.

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** Thank you to Marcus Brauchli for recommending Belle as a woman to know! You all know him, of course. **
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