The Personal Librarian

Initially, when I asked if someone wanted to be our first responder, the room was surprisingly silent. Many of us had been visiting and chatty for the pre-gathering, so the pause seemed remarkable! With ten of us in the room, and despite the hesitant start, the discussion bounced back and forth revealing our engagement with the subject. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray sparked our interest and our imaginations, so the discussion was peppered with questions and commentary about Belle da Costa Greene’s life, the idea and necessity of “passing,” and only a few personal connections.  

A snapshot: Belle was definitely smart, with a drive to provide a better life for herself and her family. Her story is reflective of many in which parents use their children to build their own dreams. How heartbreaking to be forced to make passing a choice – to follow your dreams but give up your heritage. She couldn’t even make eye contact with black servants. Was there a percentage of blackness?[i] Her experience in Europe, where shading was allowed was interesting. Everywhere has its caste system. Mexico is prejudiced against indigenous populations. The opulence of Belle’s life, travelling with a French maid to help her dress, was a particularly stark contrast to the life she would have led had her mother not chosen for them to pass as white.

But did we like the book? We didn’t love it; we did like it; we found it interesting. One of us nearly quit reading on page 196 when the description of Belle’s meeting with her long-time lover Berenson was so over-bearing. Many of us found it difficult to get into, but we kept reading to see what happened to her. Some of us were on pins and needles, wondering if she would ever be found out.

Some of were skeptical about a lot of things, which also highlights the difference between a well-documented non-fiction account and a fictionalized version such as The Personal Librarian. Belle burned all of her personal correspondence and we may never know the answer to many of our questions, but a non-fiction book called An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone, was published in 2007. It is currently out of print, but the library does have an e-book available. I showed some pictures from the book as well as from a few internet references listed in the endnotes below.[ii]

We are fortunate to live in an age in which so much information is readily available. How did Belle research the documents she wanted to acquire? How did the auctions work? Why didn’t some of her adversaries find her out? One of us surmised that people assumed Belle was J.P. Morgan’s mistress, so no one would dare! Can we ever know the answers to our many questions? How will we know if it is true? This is a question for so many things these days.

For our final book discussion of 2022, we met in the library’s conference room. Although I like the coziness of the Teen Zone, the conference room’s brighter lighting and our usual large table, which keeps us together in one circle, was pleasant, like the comfort of the friends many of us have become – connected through books, movies and more! I look forward to seeing you all again in 2023!  Happy New Year!

Other Works Discussed:

Belle Greene by Alexandra Lapierre (2022 translation of the 2021 French novel)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Wilkerson, Isabel (2020)

Gilded Age (2022 HBO Max Series created by Julian Fellowes)

Passing (2021 Netflix Film)

Pudd’inhead Wilson by Mark Twain (1894)

“The White Problem” by Richard T. Greener (1894 Essay)


[i] “The nation’s answer to the question ‘Who is black?” has long been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry.” Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Mixed race america – who is black? One nation’s definition | jefferson’s blood | frontline. PBS. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html 

[ii] •This is an article focusing on passing and mentions a videoplay performed and available to view by visiting First Baptist Church’s YouTubeChannel. I have not yet watched the video.  Walk through black history: ‘The life of belle da costa greene’. TelegraphHerald.com. michelle.london@thmedia.com, M. I. C. H. E. L. L. E. (2022, February 10). Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://www.telegraphherald.com/news/features/article_d573668b-632a-57cf-acae-90e52ba25124.html 

•The White Problem (PDF) Greener, R. T. (n.d.). The White Problem. Columbia, South Carolina; Christian K. Anderson. I found this online: https://www.christiankanderson.com/uploads/2/4/3/3/24332121/thewhiteproblem.pdf

•Congress, L. of. (2018, March 20). Belle da Costa Greene: JP Morgan’s librarian & one of the highest paid women in the US ($25K/year in 1921 = $317K/year today) #chronamparty #Womenshistorymonthhttps://t.co/TQCFT1HGJ4 pic.twitter.com/5hkc7clbim. Twitter. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://twitter.com/librarycongress/status/976216823053127681?lang=en 

•Chapter 41 refers to Lord Elgin taking statues from the Acropolis from Athens to London and then the news that the sculptures could return to Greece Pier noticed in the Las Vegas Review Journal!  Kirka, D. (2022, December 4). Parthenon Sculptures Could Return to Greece, pg. 13A

•During the meeting, we also looked up the meaning and pronunciation of incunabulum: “in-kyə-ˈna-byə-ləm  –  a book printed before 1501″

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incunabulum?src=search-dict-box

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