Two beloved novelists shed light on another notable partnership—between J.P. Morgan and his librarian, a captivating woman with a big secret.
“What has this got to do with me?” wondered Victoria Christopher Murray. The award-winning author of more than 20 novels had received a request from historical novelist Marie Benedict to collaborate on a novel. Murray quickly glanced at the first page of the pitch, which described financier J.P. Morgan’s opulent New York City library. She chuckled, thinking, “The only thing I have in common [with him] is a Chase account”—referring to the modern-day banking company with historical ties to Morgan.
Weeks later, when Murray’s literary agent pestered her to take a closer look at Benedict’s proposal, Murray’s attitude changed. Morgan’s librarian, a woman named Belle da Costa Greene, was one of the most important librarians in American history. She was also a Black woman who passed as white. Greene’s father was the first Black graduate of Harvard College as well as a professor, diplomat and prominent racial justice activist. Once Murray digested this new information, she quickly got in touch with Benedict.
“I feel like she chose us and we did a good job, and now she’s just sitting there with her arms folded, tapping her foot, waiting for the book to come out.”
Their resulting collaboration, The Personal Librarian, imagines the sacrifices and struggles that Greene surely endured to protect her secret. Benedict and Murray’s teamwork also produced a deep, enduring friendship, and the two writers now call themselves sisters. As we chat via Zoom—with Murray in Washington, D.C., and Benedict in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—their admiration for each other is evident, as is their esteem for Greene.
“I feel her presence a lot,” Murray says. “I can’t believe how much I still think about her. I feel like she chose us and we did a good job, and now she’s just sitting there with her arms folded, tapping her foot, waiting for the book to come out.” Benedict agrees, adding that of all the women she’s written about—Agatha Christie, Hedy Lamarr, Clementine Churchill and others—Greene is the one she’d most like to meet.
Greene ran the Morgan Library for 43 years, first helping Morgan to amass an important collection of rare books and manuscripts and, after his death in 1913, transforming his private collection into a public resource. “As time went on,” Benedict says, “Belle and J.P. became closer and closer, just like Victoria and me. Their relationship really defied description.”
Like Morgan, Greene was extremely charismatic. “It’s hard for us to convey how much of a celebrity she really was,” Benedict says. Greene ran in multiple social circles and had numerous affairs. She was known for her flamboyant fashion, famously saying, “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.”
Once on board with the novel, Murray brought a whole new perspective to Greene’s story. During one of their earliest meetings, the two writers made a quick stop at the Morgan Library. Benedict knew the space well; it had been a place of refuge when she worked as a corporate lawyer for more than 10 years before turning to fiction. She describes its stunning interior as being like a jewel box. However, this was Murray’s first visit. As she looked around Morgan’s study, she pointed to an oil painting and said, “What is that Black man doing up there?”
Benedict had never noticed the portrait of a Moorish ambassador to the Venetian court, painted around 1600. But the ambassador bore a resemblance to Greene’s father, and the authors began to speculate that Greene bought the portrait as an homage to him. “That is something that I would have never seen without Victoria,” Benedict says. “And in many ways, as time went on, that really became a symbol of Belle. Here she was, this African American woman in the room that nobody saw.”
“And I think that’s why she put the painting there,” Murray says. “One of the themes that Marie and I put in the book was that Belle was hiding in plain sight.”
Both writers agree that Morgan likely had suspicions about Greene’s race that he chose to ignore. “He didn’t want to be known in society as the man who had been duped by a Black woman,” Murray says. She describes showing a photograph of Greene to her friends, who responded with surprise. “How did she pass?” they asked. “How in the world did that happen?”
Such questions, inherent to the creation of the novel, sparked a childhood memory for Murray of a time when her younger sister looked at a photograph on their mantle and asked, “Who is that white woman?” It was their grandmother, who on at least one occasion had passed as white during a train trip from North Carolina to New York. “Writing this book, I really began to understand what that must’ve been like,” Murray says.
“As time went on, Belle and J.P. became closer and closer, just like Victoria and me. Their relationship really defied description.”
Greene burned her personal papers before she died, no doubt to protect her secret, so much must be imagined about her life. But as daunting a task as re-creating her story may have been, the two authors render it with gusto, from Greene’s defiant wit to the drama and danger that surrounded her.
The success of Benedict and Murray’s partnership is in part due to a difficult reality: surviving a pandemic while coping with the horror of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders in 2020. They spent hours on Zoom each day, often discussing race issues vital to both their novel and current events. The experience sent them on a “fast track to sisterhood," they agree.
“I think it was a gift for me to work with an author who was not African American,” Murray says, “because I got to see all kinds of perspectives. I had wider eyes. We hope that African American book clubs and white book clubs will get together and talk about our book together the same way [Marie] and I did.”
Benedict chimes in, “During her lifetime, Belle knew that her story couldn't be told because it might eviscerate the impact of her legacy. But now we're at a point where her legacy can be known and celebrated. It’s time.”
Benedict author photo by Anthony Musmanno 2020. Murray photo by Jason Frost Photography 2020.