Sunday, August 26, 2007

In turn-of-the-century New York, no one was more powerful than the wealthy financier J. Pierpont Morgan. A major fixture in the cultural world, late in life he began developing a library to house his growing collection of books. Few had ever been inside the marble building with its lapis lazuli columns, located around the corner from Madison Avenue on East 36th Street. By 1905, Morgan was looking for a librarian to manage his priceless collection.

Enter Belle da Costa Greene, a young woman in her early 20s, working at Princeton University Library, where she had developed a passion for rare books and pre-15th century illuminated manuscripts. She caught the attention of Assistant Librarian Junius Morgan, and his uncle, J.P. Morgan, hired her immediately.

Before long, Belle became his confidante. Morgan’s trust in Belle amazed onlookers. Some suspected the two were lovers, which both denied. (“We tried,” Belle reputedly quipped.) When Morgan died in 1913, he bequeathed Belle $50,000 (worth about $800,000 today).

His son, John (“Jack”) Pierpont Morgan Jr., retained Belle as librarian, and it was thanks to her that the soul of the “Morgan Treasures” was saved and the institution was transformed from a private into a public one. For 25 years, as director of the library, Belle was lauded by many as “the wise and ever gracious presiding genius of the place.”

As Heidi Ardizzone shows in “An Illuminated Life,” Belle de Costa Greene was no stereotypical librarian. Beautiful as she was brilliant, photographers and artists repeatedly sought to capture her dusky image and heavy lidded green eyes. Small, slender, chic, she once boasted: “Just because I am a librarian … doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”

A tremendous flirt, Belle had so much vitality and charm that she became a New York celebrity. Opera stars, poets, artists, reporters, European royalty — all, apparently, were besotted by this alluring exotic.

Her life was a study in contrasts. By day, Belle catalogued art works and transcended her lack of formal education by attending lectures, grilling scholars, and studying Italian, German and French. Eventually she developed such expertise in a wide range of treasures that Morgan entrusted her to make key purchases for his library.

Then her temper would emerge; her haggles with book dealers were notorious (she often complained that they overpriced items because of Morgan’s wealth). She was proud of the fact that scholars took her seriously, and she was much sought after as a speaker.

By evening, once Belle exited the bronze doors of the Morgan Library, she cut a wide swath, alternating between the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village and the tables of high society. She reveled in theater and opera, hosting parties for actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry that lasted until 5 a.m., with enough champagne, cigarettes and men to stoke the gossip mills.

Pity the admirer who attempted to follow up an evening flirtation by following Belle into the library the next morning. He would be kicked out into the street, either shaking his head with admiration or cursing the caprice of women. Fiercely independent, Belle never married, although she did become “hipped,” as she put it, taking on several lovers, most famously the married art scholar Bernard Berenson.

Part of society’s fascination with Belle was an ethnic background that was the source of much speculation. Belle attributed her olive skin to a Portuguese grandmother. Her real story is more compelling.

She was born Belle Marian Greener, daughter of a black couple of Washington, D.C.’s “Black Four Hundred.”

Richard Theodore Greener, her father, was the first black to graduate from Harvard; he later became dean of Howard University. Genevieve Fleet, her mother, was from a family of free blacks who had settled in Georgetown and were founding members of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church.

Belle was born in 1879 and grew up on a quiet street on the 1400 block of T Street NW. When the family eventually moved to New York, its members were so light-skinned that many assumed they were from southern Europe. Although the father was a civil rights activist, Belle’s mother wanted to identify and live as white. Eventually the couple separated. Genevieve changed her family name to Greene, as did her children.

How did Belle Greene identify herself racially? No one knows. Belle took many secrets to her grave.

In assuming a different public identity, she gained social and professional access to a world that would have been denied her had her true background been revealed. The author, however, says that Morgan is remembered as a man who might have been able to overcome prejudice in the face of talent and beauty.

Crediting Belle’s success to beauty alone is as false as it is demeaning. This is the story of a self-made woman, all the more remarkable because she was black and a woman at a time when opportunities for both were limited.

Although the patronage and protection of J.P. Morgan and his son were crucial to her rise, Belle earned their trust. Thanks to her, the Morgan Library became a leading and permanent collection of illuminated manuscripts. She befriended and supported scholars throughout her career, making the treasures accessible to them and to the public, thereby transforming, as one scholar put it, “a rich man’s casually built collection into one which ranks with the greatest in the world.”

In April 2006, 90 years after Belle first began her work for Morgan, the Pierpont Library and Museum celebrated the opening of a new four-story building, with new exhibit rooms, offices and an auditorium.

Belle destroyed many of her papers; friends who knew her best have died. Ms. Ardizzone has done a careful job in tracing the context and social history of Belle’s background.

Unfortunately, little assessment of the Morgan treasures that were Belle’s legacy, or any real understanding of the art world and scholarship that made up the bulk of her professional life, is given. The unhappy result is that the book is woefully off balance.

Instead, there is far too much focus on Belle’s love affairs, primarily her relationship with Berenson, gleaned from a trunk of letters from his library, now at the archives of Harvard University’s Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. The letters were written by Belle to Berenson between 1910 and 1944 (she destroyed his half, an action for which he never forgave her).

They are, according to the author, a “gold mine” of information that, “printed out, doubled-sided and single spaced, my transcripts of her letters fill a two-inch binder.” Instead of endlessly paraphrasing from the letters, the author might have done better to cut from her text and quote more snippets at length, especially since “the energy and personality that so many of her contemporaries marveled at leap off the page and reveal a woman who was constantly thinking and learning and seeking inspiration and new ideas.”

Indeed, the author says, Belle wrote “so prolifically and engagingly about New York and the world in the early twentieth century that her letters to Berenson beg to be published in full.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” out in paperback in September.

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