“Your act goes against everything I stand for and everything I’ve worked for,” Richard T. Greener tells his wife in The Personal Librarian. Despite the fact that Richard is a civil rights activist and Harvard University’s first Black graduate, his wife claimed their family was white on the 1905 New York state census.
The act tears the family apart. Richard eventually leaves his wife and children, who change their surname to “Greene,” and his daughter Belle adds “da Costa” to her name, claiming Portuguese ancestors as a way to explain her complexion and still pass for white. Belle da Costa Greene grows up to become J.P. Morgan’s personal librarian and one of the most influential librarians in America.
Belle’s unlikely rise to fame forms the heart of this engrossing, dramatic novel, and co-authors Marie Benedict (who is white) and Victoria Christopher Murray (who is Black) do an admirable job of trying to imagine whether her achievements were worth the sacrifices. Despite the fact that Belle burned her personal papers before she died, no doubt to protect her secret, the authors succeed in bringing her elusive, charismatic personality to life, highlighting her attention-grabbing style, her witty quips and her rich, complicated relationship with Morgan.
Although the novel may have benefitted from a more sharply focused narrative arc, the authors take full advantage of the treasure trove of intriguing historical detail at their disposal. The Personal Librarian explores high-stakes art auctions; Belle’s long-lasting love affair with art critic Bernard Berenson, who had his own secret (his Jewish Lithuanian roots); friendships and encounters with the likes of dancer Isadora Duncan; and an art show featuring the works of Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse. As Belle grapples with her ongoing fear of having her secret discovered, she realizes she can’t have children at the risk of having a dark-skinned baby—although it’s hard to imagine how a husband or child would have fit into her busy, globe-trotting lifestyle.
There is much to enjoy in The Personal Librarian, as well as much to consider, especially the tragic central dilemma of Belle’s life: “While Papa held beautiful dreams of equality for us all, Mama saved me—and all my siblings—from the segregation and racism in America, freeing me to fulfill that early promise Papa saw in me.”