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The personal librarian
2021
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Summary
The Instant New York Times Bestseller! A Good Morning America * Book Club Pick!

Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR! Named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post !

"Historical fiction at its best!"*

A remarkable novel about J. P. Morgan's personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white in order to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation, from New York Times bestselling authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.

In her twenties, Belle da Costa Greene is hired by J. P. Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library. Belle becomes a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps create a world-class collection.

But Belle has a secret, one she must protect at all costs. She was born not Belle da Costa Greene but Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality. Belle's complexion isn't dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her pass as white--her complexion is dark because she is African American.

The Personal Librarian tells the story of an extraordinary woman, famous for her intellect, style, and wit, and shares the lengths she must go to--for the protection of her family and her legacy--to preserve her carefully crafted white identity in the racist world in which she lives.
First Chapter or Excerpt
Chapter 1 November 28, 1905 Princeton, New Jersey The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I'll be late. I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways. But just as I gather the heavy material, I hear Mama's voice: Belle, be a lady at all times. I sigh; a lady would never run. I release the fabric and slow down as I weave through Princeton's leafy Gothic landscape, designed to look like Cambridge and Oxford. I know I must do nothing to draw any kind of extra attention. By the time I pass Blair Arch, my stride is quick but acceptable for a lady. It's been five years since I left our New York City apartment for this sleepy New Jersey college town, and the quiet is still unnerving. On the weekends, I wish I could return to the energy of New York, but the sixty cents for a train ticket is outside our family's budget. So, I send money home instead. As I duck under a crenellated tower, I moderate my pace so I won't be breathless when I arrive. You are at Princeton University. You must take extra care working at that all-male institution. Be cautious, never do anything to stand out. Even though she's nearly sixty miles away, Mama insinuates herself into my thoughts. Pushing the heavy oak door slowly to minimize its loud creak, I pad as quietly as my calfskin boots allow, across the marble foyer before I sidle into the office I share with two other librarians. The room is empty, and I exhale in relief. If sweet-natured Miss McKenna saw me arrive late, it would have been of no import, but with hood-eyed, nosy Miss Adams, I could never be certain she wouldn't mention my offense at some future time to our superior. I remove my coat and hat, careful to smooth my rebellious curly hair back into place. Tucking my somber navy skirt beneath me, I slide onto my chair. Within minutes, the office door flies open, slamming against the wood-paneled wall, and I jump. It is my only dear friend, fellow librarian, and housemate, Gertrude Hyde. As the niece of the esteemed head of purchasing for the library, Charlotte Martins, she can breach the quiet of the library's hallowed halls without fear of repercussions. An ebullient twenty-three-year-old with ginger hair and bright eyes, no one makes me laugh as she does. "Sorry to make you jump, dear Belle. I guess I owe you two apologies now, instead of the single one I'd intended. First, we abandoned you this morning, which undoubtedly led to your lateness," she says with a mischievous smile and a glance at the wall clock, "and now, I've given you a fright." "Don't be silly. The fault is mine. I should have put aside that letter to my mother and walked to campus with you and Charlotte. Miss Martins, I mean," I correct myself. Most days, Charlotte, Gertrude, and I walk together from their large family home on University Drive, where I have a room and share meals with Charlotte, Gertrude, and the rest of their family who live in the house as well. From the first, Charlotte and Gertrude have welcomed me into their home and social circles with warmth and generosity and have provided me with abundant guidance at work. I cannot imagine what my time in Princeton would have been like without them. "Belle, why are you fussing about what to call Aunt Charlotte? There's nobody in here but you and me," Gertrude mock scolds me. I don't say what I'm thinking. That Gertrude doesn't need to assess every single moment of every single day against societal standards to ensure her behavior passes muster. She has no need to analyze her words, her walk, her manner, but I do. Even with Gertrude, I must act with care, particularly given the heightened scrutiny in this university town, which operates as if it lies in the segregated South rather than in the supposedly more progressive North. The distinctive clip of Miss Adams's shoes sounds in the hallway outside my office door, and Gertrude's skirt rustles as she moves to leave. She has as much fondness for my office mate as I do, and she'll skedaddle before she can get locked into a conversation. Before she exits the office altogether, she turns back to me, whispering, "Are you still free for the philosophy lecture tonight?" Since Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency of Princeton University three years ago and instituted all sorts of scholastic reform, the number of lectures open to staff and members of the community has increased. While Gertrude and I revel in being included in the academic life of the campus, I loathe certain of Wilson's other decisions, such as maintaining Princeton as a whites-only university when all the other Ivy League schools have admitted colored folks. But I would never voice aloud these views. Instead, I say, "Wouldn't miss it for the world." *** The quiet of the stacks wraps around me like a soft blanket. I relax into the subdued hush of patrons turning pages and the scent of leather bindings. My long days spent in the company of medieval manuscripts and early printed books calm and delight me. Imagining the labors of the first printing press users as they memorialized the English language and broadly disseminated its literature through the meticulous work of placing the type letter by letter, transforming empty pages into beautiful text to inspire worshippers and readers, transports me beyond the limitations of this time and place, just as Papa always believed. To him, the written word could act as an invitation to free thought and the broader world, and nowhere was that more true than in the dawn of the printed word, where--for the first time--that invitation could be made to the masses instead of a select few. "Miss Greene." I hear a soft voice from beyond the stacks. Two simple words, but my visitor's modulated tone and distinctive accent give him away, and anyway, I've been waiting for him. "Good day, Mr. Morgan," I reply, turning in his direction. Even though I'm talking softly, Miss Scott glances up from the circulation desk with a disapproving scowl. It isn't so much the volume of my speech as the pleasantness of my relationship with the fellow librarian and collection benefactor that vexes her. While Mr. Junius Morgan is ostensibly a banker, he has generously donated dozens of ancient and medieval manuscripts to the university, which is why he also holds the titular position of associate head librarian. I'm convinced that Miss Scott thinks any sort of relationship between us--even the cordial, professional one we share--is beneath him. A slight man, with wispy brown hair and a kindly expression behind his circular glasses, materializes. "How are you today, Miss Greene?" "Well, sir. And yourself?" My tone is professional and reserved. He's twenty minutes later than the time we'd mentioned, and I'd begun to think he'd forgotten about our appointment. But I would never dare mention his tardiness. "I was going to take a gander at the Virgils, as we discussed yesterday. I wonder if you'd still care to accompany me. Assuming your duties and your interest permit, of course." Mr. Morgan, whom I think of as Junius in the privacy of my thoughts, knows that my zeal for the library's most valuable collection is nearly as intense as his own and that none of my other tasks will stand in the way of the private viewing he has promised. We share a passion for the ancient Roman poet Virgil. The library houses fifty-two volumes of his poetry. My discussions with Junius about the dark voyages in The Aeneid and The Odyssey are some of the brightest moments in my days. While Junius admires Odysseus, I identify always with Aeneas, the Trojan refugee who desperately tries to fulfill his destiny in a world that holds no place for him. Aeneas was driven by duty, sacrificing for the good of others. "I have cleared my schedule, sir." I smile. "Wonderful. If you'll follow me." My skirts swish the oak floor as I follow Junius to the small, elegant room where the Virgils are housed. I have to inhale and restrain my foot from tapping as I wait for him to fish out a heavy key ring from his pocket. Finally, he pushes the door open to reveal the glass cases holding the precious collection of rare books. There are only about one hundred and fifty printed books of Virgil's poetry in existence. These volumes were all printed in the fifteenth century. Most of them have been donated by Junius. I've seen these books only a few times before, while in the company of the restoration team. This is a holy moment. Mr. Morgan's voice worms its way into the sanctity of my thoughts. "Would you care to hold my favorite?" Junius is carrying the Sweynheym and Pannartz copy of Virgil, the rarest of all the books. German clerics Conrad Sweynheym and Arnold Pannartz were two of the first users of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and the book he's proffering is one of their press's very first editions. "May I?" I ask, incredulous at this opportunity. "Of course." His eyes are bright behind his spectacles. I suspect it's a thrill for him to share his prize with one who cares equally about it. I slide the proffered white gloves onto my hands. The book is heavier than I expected. I sit before its open pages. How Papa would have relished this moment. I think of my father, who introduced me to the rarefied world of art and manuscripts when I was only a girl. One day, the beauty of your mind and the beauty of art will be as one, Papa had said once. The memory of Papa's words makes me smile as I turn the yellowed pages. I examine the hand-detailed letter T that marks the beginning of a page, marveling at the luster of its gold leaf. I am oblivious to Junius's presence near me until he begins talking. "I saw my uncle last evening." Junius doesn't need to identify who his uncle is. Everyone at the library knows he is the nephew of the infamous financier J. P. Morgan, which is exactly why I never mention him. I want Junius to understand that I appreciate him for his erudition alone. "Ah?" I answer politely, never moving my eyes from the page. "Yes, at the Grolier Club." I know the club he speaks of, by reputation anyway. Founded about twenty years ago, in 1884, the private club consists of moneyed bibliophiles whose main aim is to promote the scholarship and collection of books. I would adore a peek behind the closed doors of its Romanesque townhouse on East Thirty-Second Street. But as a woman, I'd never be admitted, and to those men, my gender would not be my only sin. "Were you attending an interesting lecture?" I attempt to continue making small talk. "Actually, Miss Greene, it wasn't the lecture that was interesting." Junius's tone contains a quality unusual for him, bordering on playful. Curious, I turn away from the Virgil. Junius's placid face, always pleasant but always serious, has cracked open wide with a smile. It is a bit disconcerting, and as I lean away a little, I wonder what on earth is going on. "No?" I ask. "The lecture wasn't good?" "The lecture was fine, but the most fascinating discussion of the evening was with my uncle about his personal art and manuscript collection. I advise him about it from time to time, as well as the new library he's constructing for it right next door to his home in New York City." "Oh, yes," I say with a small nod. "Is he considering an intriguing new acquisition?" Junius pauses for a moment before he answers. "In a manner of speaking, I suppose he is in search of a new acquisition," he says with a knowing chuckle. "I have recommended that he interview you for his newly created post of personal librarian." Excerpted from The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Trade Reviews
Library Journal Review
Novelists Benedict (The Mystery of Mrs. Christie), who is white, and Murray (Stand Your Ground), who is Black, collaborate on an excellent book about Belle da Costa Greene, a powerful real-life figure in early 20th-century New York City. In 1905, J.P. Morgan hired Greene as the librarian to his private collection of art and rare books and manuscripts; she worked tirelessly (selling and acquiring millions of dollars of works) to turn it into the major public collection now known as the Pierpont Morgan Library. Greene became the first director of the Morgan Library when it was opened to the public. In Benedict and Murray's novel, Belle enters a society dominated by men, where she makes her mark with her incredible knowledge of books, art, and people. But she fears that someone will learn her secret: that she is a Black woman in a white social circle. When Belle's father left the family, Belle's mother had moved them from Washington, DC, to New York, where, with their light skin, the family could "pass" for white. Belle doesn't want to live a lie, but she knows that many doors would close to her if she revealed her origins. VERDICT This fictional account of Greene's life feels authentic; the authors bring to life not only Belle but all those around her. An excellent piece of historical fiction that many readers will find hard to put down.--Pamela O'Sullivan, Coll. at Brockport Lib., SUNY
Publishers Weekly Review
Benedict (The Mystery of Mrs. Christie) and Murray (Wrath) deliver a powerful take on the accomplishments of J.P. Morgan's librarian. In 1906, Belle da Costa Greene is hired away from Princeton University to run the Pierpont Morgan Library. There, Belle adds notable works to the library's collection and successfully navigates a high-stakes auction. As Belle's position requires her to attend social events with New York's elite, she is ever cognizant of maintaining the secrecy of her Black heritage, asserting that her grandmother is Portuguese. Belle's father, Richard Greener, an equal rights advocate, was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University, and left the family after Belle's mother insisted on raising her as white. Though Belle enjoys her personal success as J.P. Morgan's personal librarian, which brings her significant influence in the city's art world and rare books market, her public role increases her risk of exposure for passing as white, which she fears would cost her the job and bring an end to her family's financial support. Benedict and Murray do a great job capturing Belle's passion and tenacity as she carves a place for herself in a racist male-dominated society. This does fine justice to a remarkable historical figure. (June)
Booklist Review
Every element of this blockbuster historical novel is compelling and revelatory, beginning with the bedazzling protagonist based with awestruck care on Belle da Costa Greene. Hired in 1905 when she is her twenties, over the years Belle boldly oversees J. P. Morgan's world-class collection of rare books and illuminated manuscripts, strategically acquires treasures with witty charm and ruthless bargaining, and becomes the feared financier's most trusted confidante. She attains international renown while secretly navigating the severe risks involved in presenting herself as an olive-skinned white woman of Portuguese descent when she is, in fact, African American. To fully explore the reasons for and anguish of Belle's precarious double life, Benedict, who is white and the author of best-selling biographical novels featuring remarkable, overlooked women, and best-selling and remarkably versatile fiction-writer Murray, who is Black, joined forces to create a novel of enthralling drama, humor, sensuality, and insight. Belle's abiding belief in the radiance of books and art; her passionate and tragic relationship with renowned art historian Bernard Berenson, who is also hiding his true identity; and her longing for her father, Richard Greener, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard, deepen this resounding tale of a brilliant and resilient woman defying sexism, classism, and racism during the brutality of Jim Crow. Benedict and Murray do splendidly right by Belle in this captivating and profoundly enlightening portrayal.
Kirkus Review
The little-known story of the Black woman who supervised J. Pierpont Morgan's storied library. It's 1905, and financier J.P. Morgan is seeking a librarian for his burgeoning collection of rare books and classical and Renaissance artworks. Belle da Costa Greene, with her on-the-job training at Princeton University, seems the ideal candidate. But Belle has a secret: Born Belle Marion Greener, she is the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard, and she's passing as White. Her mother, Genevieve, daughter of a prominent African American family in Washington, D.C., decided on moving to New York to live as White to expand her family's opportunities. Richard, an early civil rights advocate, was so dismayed by Genevieve's decision that he left the family. As Belle thrives in her new position, the main source of suspense is whether her secret will be discovered. But the stakes are low--history discloses that the career-ending exposure she feared never came. There are close calls. J.P. is incensed with her but not because of her race: She considered buying a Matisse. Anne Morgan, J.P.'s disgruntled daughter, insinuates that Belle has "tropical roots," but Belle is perfectly capable of leveraging Anne's own secrets against her. Leverage is a talent of Belle's, and her ruthless negotiating prowess--not to mention her fashion sense and flirtatious mien--wins her grudging admiration and a certain notoriety in the all-White and male world of curators and dealers. Though instructive about both the Morgan collection and racial injustice, the book is exposition-laden and its dialogue is stilted--the characters, particularly Belle, tend to declaim rather than discuss. The real Belle left scant records, so the authors must flesh out her personal life, particularly her affair with Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson and the sexual tension between Belle and Morgan. But Belle's mask of competence and confidence, so ably depicted, distances readers from her internal clashes, just as her veneer must have deterred close inquiry in real life. Strangely stuffy and muted. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
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