Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray


Have you learned about any interesting historical figures lately? 

Belle de Costa Greene was the personal librarian of J.P. Morgan in the early 1900s.  She was a young librarian at Princeton who came to the attention of Morgan’s nephew.  What no one knows about Belle de Costa Green is that she is African American passing as white.  As she becomes one of the most powerful women in New York City, she always has to be on her guard so that no one will guess her secret.  Will she be able to find satisfaction in life?

I was fascinated by Belle’s story.  I had never heard about her before and was riveted that she was a real person in our history.  This was the January selection for the Page Turners Book Club at the Kewaunee Public Library.  We met last week and discussed this book. Even better, Carol the librarian showed us the pictures online of what this beautiful library looked like. It was so interesting. Belle was able to use almost unlimited purchasing power to build a world class collection of books for J.P. Morgan.  She was also able to use her influence to ensure the collection would be able to be used by the citizens of New York.

I was saddened by her story of never being able to be her true self.  She had a wonderful childhood in Washington, D.C., but her mother took her family to New York City to pass for white.  Her mother wanted her children to have good opportunities that she felt they couldn’t have as African Americans.  Her father was the first black graduate of Harvard and worked towards civil rights.  He left the family after they started to pass.  Belle never got over the loss of her father. Belle had a great love in art collector Bernard, but he really annoyed me.  He seemed very self-centered.  I enjoyed Belle’s triumphs but felt sad for all that she had to give up.

Overall, The Personal Librarian was a very interesting book about a new figure in history for me.  It also got me ready to watch The Gilded Age on HBO.  Is anyone else excited about this new series?

Book Source:  Kewaunee Public Library.  Thank-you!


  1. Fascinating. I read both Passing and The Vanishing Half recently and find the phenomenon so interesting and sad and complex. Plus I love the Morgan Library, so this is a must-read for me.

    I need to remember to watch The Gilded Age. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Belle's story sounds compelling and heart-breaking. I will definitely keep this book in mind. Wonderful book review, Laura! The Gilded Age sounds like it will be fascinating to watch.

  3. I have read several reviews of this book recently. It sounds like an interesting read.

  4. I read this for my book group last month and also enjoyed, although liked it better before she fell for Bernard Berenson. Interestingly, the husband of a woman in my book group is a descendent of Bernard's, through a nephew or cousin. We wished there was more information about her studies to acquire her expertise. I have been the Morgan Library a couple of times but am eager to return now that I have read this book!