Passing as white, Belle da Costa Greene managed J.P. Morgan’s fortune from the 1900s

Mildred Europa Taylor Dec 1, 2020 at 01:00pm

December 01, 2020 at 01:00 pm | History, Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

December 01, 2020 at 01:00 pm | History, Women

Belle da Costa Greene became "arguably the most powerful woman in the New York art and book world”. Photo by Clarence White of Belle da Costa Greene

For 43 years, Belle da Costa Greene ran the Morgan Library — 19 years as the private librarian of financier J. Pierpont Morgan and later his son, Jack, then 24 years as the inaugural director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, which is now known as the Morgan Library & Museum.

She did not only help Morgan to organize his legendary collection of manuscripts and rare books, but also transformed Morgan’s private collection into a major public resource which, to date, hosts series of lectures, exhibitions, publications, and research services, all of which first started under Greene.

Becoming “arguably the most powerful woman in the New York art and book world” at the turn of the 20th century, Greene, with a flamboyant fashion sense, dined with the rich and famous, including opera stars, tycoons, and royalty. She had access to places that were not welcome to Black people, and she won many admirers who were charmed by her acuity and intelligence.

But historians say she probably wouldn’t have made it to that level had she revealed her background. Greene told everyone who bothered to ask that she was Portuguese, but in fact, she was Black. Her employers did not even learn of her secret until her death.

The child of two African-American parents of mixed ancestry, her birth certificate identified her as “colored” though she was light-skinned as both her parents. Her father was lawyer Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard and the first librarian of color at the University of South Carolina. Genevieve Fleet was her mother.

Growing up in a community of color in Washington, D.C., Greene, by the age of 12, wanted to work with rare books. “I loved them even then, the sight of them, the wonderful feel of them, the romance and the thrill of them,” she once said. Though Greene perhaps developed her love for rare books from her father, she knew that it would be difficult for her to rise, being in a deeply segregated and racist society and having witnessed her father being subjected to discrimination.

So when her father left the country in 1898 for a consular post in Vladivostok, Russia, and her parents’ marriage came to an end, Greene and her mother shortened their last name. They began publicly describing themselves as Americans of Portuguese descent and passed as white.
Greene (named Belle Marion Greener at birth) became Bella da Costa Greene, constantly explaining that “da Costa” was a reflection of her Portuguese ancestry.

While in her teens, Greene, unable to afford college without her father’s help, started working at the Princeton University library where she soon mastered cataloging and served in the reference department. However, it was her interest in the library’s rare-book collection that grabbed the attention of Junius Spencer Morgan, a nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan. Junius recommended Greene to his uncle, Morgan, who was then building a library in New York City for his large collection of manuscripts and early books.

By late 1905, Greene had begun working as the private librarian of Morgan. Managing, documenting and building his collection of rare books and manuscripts, she also organized public exhibitions at outside venues and traveled regularly to Europe to purchase additions to the financier’s collection. Morgan admired her work and soon made her his “primary adviser on manuscript matters,” according to a report by The New York Times. By 1911, Greene had become a well-known figure to dealers and scholars, and could even defeat experienced bidders during auctions. By 1912, she was earning a quarter million a year.

When Morgan died in 1913, it was found that nearly half of his $3 billion was in his art collection. “Some went to the Met but the rest remained under the control of Belle da Costa Greene,” a report noted. It is also documented that Morgan’s “considerable fortune” was at her disposal. Greene continued to work as a private librarian to Morgan’s son, J.P. Morgan Jr. It was during this period that Greene thought of making the rare books in her employer’s collection available to the public instead of getting them locked in the vaults of private collectors.

Thus, in 1924 when Morgan’s library became a public institution and she became its first director, she mounted a series of exhibitions, and one even drew a record 170,000 people. She continued to make trips to Europe and would for the next 24 years transform her boss’ library into a world center for scholarly research.

In 1949 — a year after she retired — an exhibition was mounted at the library in her honor. She died the following year but her legacy lives on in the many contributions she made to bibliography and scholarship. Her employer’s library was renovated in 2006. The Morgan Library & Museum to date caters to scholars while playing its role as a public institution.

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