Art History · Books

The Fascinating Story of Belle da Costa Greene

If you’re interested in rare books, notable bibliophiles, awesome women, or African-American history, you’ll likely enjoy Heidi Ardizzone’s Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007).

Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950) was J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and the first director of the Morgan Library. She was largely responsible for acquiring The Morgan’s greatest objects and for turning it from a private collection into a celebrated public institution. Her professional achievements alone would be worthy of attention, but her life story is even more fascinating.

Belle da Costa Greene by Paul Helleu
Paul Helleu, Belle da Costa Greene, 1913. Morgan Library and Museum, New York, New York.

The mixed-race daughter of a prominent black rights activist, Greene lived her adult life as a white woman in a controversial practice termed “passing” [as white]. The self-created mystery surrounding her life has made her fascinating from her own lifetime through today. She was cagey about her past, routinely lied about her age, and burned all her personal papers before her death. She never married, but she flirted constantly and had numerous love affairs. She claimed to hate the rich yet was quite happy to work with them, party with them, and befriend them. She lacked a college education, but PhDs deferred to her authority and expertise. She was unafraid to make waves and skillfully outmaneuvered rivals for major acquisitions in the rare books market. By all accounts, Belle’s was an magnetic, formidable personality.

There’s no question that Belle da Costa Greene was a unique and very complicated lady. At times throughout the book, I admired her greatly, since I relate to her desire to live on her own terms. On the other hand, I was sometimes bewildered and even put off by her words and actions. Even more often, I simply didn’t know what to make of her undoubtedly fascinating story. Much of what we know about Greene comes from her countless letters to Bernard Berenson, the celebrated art connoisseur with whom she had a long and unbelievably-complicated relationship. This selective lenses into her mind surely adds to her mystique.

Engaging and easy to read, Ardizzone’s biography clearly reflects tons of research into Belle’s life, work, and social milieu. I specifically appreciate the coherent explanation of the 19th and 20th-century American racial politics that informed Belle’s family, upbringing, and eventual decision to pass as white. Even most significantly, I like how Ardizzone handles the protagonist herself. I appreciate storytellers who present complicated women just as they are, acknowledging their contradictions and faults, but letting their stories play out without judgement. I feel that Ardizzone does a good job of that in this first-ever substantial biography of Belle da Costa Greene. I encourage you to read the book and discover this fascinating woman for yourself.

If you’re curious about the institution to which Belle gave so much, check out my review of the Morgan Library and Museum. It seems so strange to realize that I knew almost nothing of Belle during that visit.

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