Author Marie Benedict has brought us wonderful, fictionalized biographies of true-life women who have gotten lost in history, mostly overshadowed by the more famous men in their lives. Once again, she has brought us an interesting story of someone most of us are not familiar with. The Personal Librarian is the story of Belle da Costa Greene. And to best tell the story, she partnered with author Victoria Christopher Murray, who was able to provide the right perspective for Belle and her family. Together, they present us with one remarkable woman.
In 1906, J.P. Morgan, American financier and industrialist, hires Belle, a young, ambitious librarian from Princeton University, to help transform his world-class collection of manuscripts, rare books and artwork in his personal Pierpont Morgan Library into an unparalleled masterpiece. This feared titan of industry soon comes to value his new assistant and she becomes a close confident. She proves to be a shrewd negotiator building his collection. But Belle is hiding a deep secret. She was born Belle Marion Greener. Her mother is from a wealthy Black family from Washington, DC. Her father is a graduate of Harvard University. The first Black man to do so. Once the family moves to New York City, Belle’s mother decides that the light-skinned family should pass as white to insure her children’s future. Her father is outraged and leaves the family. Belle’s life includes attending auctions and society functions, all while denying her true heritage.
The Personal Librarian is a fascinating story of an accomplished woman who defied all odds to succeed not only in a man’s world but a white world. Authors Benedict and Murray, who are white and Black respectively, aptly capture the era and the world of the ultra wealthy. They did a fine job imagining the dilemma the real Belle must have felt living a lie yet achieving so much. It offers a good launching pad for a discussion on race. Perfect for book clubs.
You’re sure to follow up the book with more online research on this intriguing woman. And don’t pass by the Author’s Notes.
Rated 4 out of 5 stars.
Publication Date: June 29, 2021.
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