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At the corner of 36th Street and Madison Avenue on the east side of Manhattan, you’ll find a small campus of buildings that make up one of the most remarkable literary collections in the world. It’s not a university or a museum, but the private collection, now open to the public, of John Pierpont Morgan, the titan of turn-of-the-century American finance and one of the most influential and well-funded book collectors the world has ever known.
Today, the Morgan holds a truly eye-popping trove of literary treasures. We’re talking three Gutenberg bibles, Shakespeare first folios, drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, manuscripts with marginalia by Toni Morrison, and on and on. If Indiana Jones ever had to steal an ancient scroll, this is the kind of place he would steal it from.
It began as Morgan’s private study, and when that overflowed, a stately new building complete with an ornate reading room was designed by the famous architectural firm McKim, Meade, and White. And 100 years later, a sleek glass pavilion by Renzo Piano brought “The Morgan,” as it is now known into the 20th century.
The most important arrival to the Morgan, though, came the year before the grand new building that opened in 1906: a young librarian’s assistant from New Jersey who, after a single 45-minute interview with J.P. Morgan himself, became the Morgan’s first librarian.
She would also become a confidante, perhaps THE confidante, of America’s most influential banker. And when he died in 1913, he left her $50,000, the largest bequest outside his family, which would be worth more than $1 million today. Her name was Belle de Costa Greene, then a 22-year old woman of Portuguese descent with a hodge-podge training in librarianship who got the meeting after impressing J.P. Morgan’s nephew.
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Except…her name wasn’t Belle de Costa Greene, she wasn’t 22, and she wasn’t Portuguese. It would take almost 100 years after she was hired by the richest man in the world for her true identity to be uncovered.
By the time J.P. Morgan hired Belle de Costa Greene as his personal librarian, he had been seriously collecting artistic treasures for years, but his attention had increasingly turned away from his business and more seriously toward his library and collecting.
And he was just one of a bunch of newly super-wealthy Americans interested in collecting. It’s a particular moment in which men made rich by the industrial revolution combined their unheard-of fortunes with a passion for art and culture.
“There were always people who, both on the American side and on the British side of the equation, that were fond of antiquities, and books, in particular, and sort of the perfect storm occurs,” explains Andrea Mays, author of The Millionaire and the Bard, a history of Henry Folger’s quest to collect every Shakespeare First Folio.
“The thing that enables this all to become extremely important and visible is that we have, after the end of the Civil War, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the consolidation, or the creation of tremendous amounts of wealth for people who had not inherited it,” says Mays.
Unlike European aristocrats, these new American kings of industry did not have castles and palaces full of treasures collected over hundreds of years. They were building giant estates from scratch. And they wanted to fill their world with paintings by the Masters and first editions and antique furniture that, by definition, didn’t exist in the States.
But across the Atlantic, much of the wealth-generating property of landed gentry in England and elsewhere wasn’t keeping pace with what trains and cotton gins and factories could do. And there was a lifestyle to maintain.
”For example, you might have, in England, you might have someone with a royal title and a lot of money, who had no interest, really, in acquisition. There were exceptions, but, you know, some of them would rather go hunting or buy horses and so on,” says Mays.
We often use the word “priceless” to describe treasures like these, but at the time, these items were truly “priceless,” as in they did not have a price. Until the Morgans and Folgers of the world caught the acquisition bug, these family antiquities mostly just weren’t for sale. But remember, these American men weren’t just rich, they were RICH. Imagine what happens when you hear that Henry Folger wants to buy your ancestral copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio:
“A nobleman has a copy that he has, a very fine copy, restored or cleaned, I can’t remember exactly, and the dealer who does the restoration or conservation on his copy essentially reveals the existence of the copy, and then the possibility, ‘Hey, should we try and get this for you?’,” Mays explains. “Essentially, that turns into a multi-year auction. ‘I’ll give you this. I’ll give you that,’ and the price keeps going higher, and at some point, he says, ‘Well, if you would offer me this outrageous amount, then I would consider selling it.’”
And the outrageous amount, which Folger ended up paying, was about $50,000 in 1903, and it was at that time the most anyone had ever paid for a book. By a lot.
“So there’s certainly that part to it, that people who had perhaps not really thought about selling one of their antiquities, a book or a piece of art, would have become more aware that the prices that were being offered for those works were so high that it became very appealing to them,” says Mays.
It’s a classic case of demand creating supply. And as the demand, in the form of robber baron fortunes, was vast, the price started going up. And everybody knew it, from the owners to the dealers to the brokers and the buyers. The competition for literary masterworks was blistering, and it would take not just money but serious skill to assemble a world-class collection.
It’s at this point that the nature of Morgan’s interest in collecting springs a leak. He has the motivation and resources to buy, but the kind of collecting he wants to do requires an expertise he just doesn’t possess, so he is now the biggest whale in the history of antiquities: a guy with unlimited funds who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s in danger of being the mark in one of the most lucrative European industries: price-gouging keen-but-uninformed Americans.
Someone like Henry Folger, who made collecting Shakespeare his life’s work, could do it because he dedicated almost his entire attention to collecting, and one particular area at that. Morgan didn’t have that kind of dedication, both in terms of time and focus. He wanted the best…of everything.
“Morgan tended to collect high spots, so he would go out and he would get a really fantastic copy, a big one, uncut, with the original binding on it, or something extremely elaborate, if it wasn’t the original binding, and just a fantastic copy, and then he was done,” says Mays.
So with competition increasing and sellers getting more sophisticated, Morgan needed help. He needed someone to appraise and negotiate and locate these treasures spread over multiple continents, created over millennia, and written in dozens of languages. And that person turned out to be Belle de Costa Greene.
We don’t exactly know why Morgan chose Greene, but we do know the sequence of events that brought her to his study for an interview. By 1905, Green was working at Princeton’s library after having gone to Teacher’s College in New York and then taking a short series of courses at Amherst in librarianship. But nothing on her resume suggested she was qualified for this job. She had some experience with illuminated manuscripts at Princeton, but what she had more than anything was an “in”: JP Morgan’s nephew Junius had met her and was enthralled by her.
So when his uncle is asking around about bright, capable, educated people to help him with his library, Junius suggests Belle. She comes into Manhattan for a sit-down and walks away with one of the most fascinating literary jobs that has ever existed: scouring the world for marvelous books to buy.
So while we may not KNOW why Morgan hired her, but we have a pretty good guess: she was simply one of the most charming women of her time.
“I had a list of adjectives that I had found in a thesaurus that would replace the adjectives that I kept falling back on.”
This is Professor Heidi Adrizzone, who wrote a biography of Greene called An Illuminated Life.
“They were things like brilliant, flamboyant, animated, beautiful, exotic, these were the kinds of words that were used to describe her over, and [00:05:00] over again by people both in her personal and her professional life. Her personality was actually something that drove her profession, and her career.”
Remember that Morgan is a collector of interesting things, and even at his advanced age when he met Belle he was…let’s just say a great admirer of women. He was entranced by her in much the same way that the rest of society would eventually be:
“People responded to it, they remarked on it. She didn’t fit their expectation of what a librarian or a secretary, or a cataloger should be, both in her appearance, and then also in her demeanor in how she interacted with people. And the kind of flair that she had, really up until the final decade of her life,” says Adrizzone.
Morgan knew that to do the job well, you needed to be able to wear many different hats. You had to advise Morgan, basically tell him what to do with his money, but you also needed to be judicious about approaching European noblemen and the like.
“It was a job that, once she entered the world of buying and selling, and acting as his representative to dealers and other collectors, it was crucial that she be comfortable and able to interact with people of all ranks and backgrounds. And hold her ground against people who were her supposed social superiors, which she had to do often.”
If Morgan was impressed that Belle was able to get an interview with him AND nail it without much in the way of pedigree or social standing, he didn’t know the half of it. Greene’s whole life to that point was about negotiating her place in the world — as we mentioned earlier, Morgan’s new Portuguese librarian wasn’t exactly Portuguese.
“Her father had a very public and prominent career as the first Black graduate of Harvard College. One of the first Black professors of University of South Carolina after the Civil War ended, and was a dean at Howard University, which is a historically Black at the time, all Black college in D.C. Very openly Black,” explains Adrizzone.
Belle Marion Greener, who would later be known as Belle de Costa Greene, was born on November 26, 1879, to Richard and Genevieve Greener, members of Washington, D.C.’s emerging black middle class. When Belle was 6, the Greeners moved to New York City where Richard Greener had taken a job as treasurer for the Grant National Monument foundation which was at the time beginning to raise money to build Grant’s Tomb.
It was during this move that the Greener’s racial identity began to shift. While Richard Greener was known to be black — in fact, he was hired in part because the Grant Foundation wanted at least one black representative — his light-skinned wife and daughters could live as white relatively easily in New York. They moved into a largely white neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan where it was possible to take on a new identity.
It was a precarious existence, with Richard a high-profile figure whose work was written about in local Black newspapers and with Genevieve and their children living their day-to-day lives, for all intents and purposes, as white. It was the opposite, really, of how most stories of passing worked.
“We have a lot of evidence that,most African Americans who passed did so temporarily, primarily for work. To get a better job, or just to get a job. And some would do it, and come back to a Black family and a Black neighborhood, so that they weren’t fully passing. It was just at work,” explains Adrizzone.
Eventually the strain was too much for the Greener marriage. In 1888, Richard took a foreign posting in Russia, and he would never again live with the rest of the family. With him out of the country and out of the spotlight, the “Greenes” as they would be known, entered the 20th Century as white.
“I certainly think that the debate about how to live and present themselves was one of the points of contention between Richard Greener and his wife that ultimately led to their separation. But the extent to which the children were aware of this as an issue or an option, I just don’t know. Belle was one of the older ones, so if any of them were part of the conversation, and part of the decision, she would have been one of them.”
Little did Morgan know that the stunning self-assurance and charisma that his new librarian displayed came from long experience in observing and adjusting to unfamiliar circles. Her ability to consort with billionaires and barons with ease and flair was just another example of her “fitting in” to whatever room she was in.
Adrizzone says, “There’s certainly the self-creation, or the self-recreation that comes with denying or living without explicit reference to having Black ancestry. And so part of passing requires an individual to be able to navigate a world that they did not grow up in.”
The name she took, and the personal history she told people, were carefully crafted. A Portuguese background could explain her slightly darker complexion, and her middle name seemed to affirm a vaguely mediterranean lineage. And when pressed for details, she would admit to being from down south, but never would she mention Washington, DC. And people did wonder about who she was.
Mays adds, “Her race, her racial background, with the fact that she’s not just white. People aren’t quite sure what else she might be. Although she doesn’t overly talk about it. She does covertly talk about it, or talk about it in coded ways. She would make these joking references to looking Black, to having a Black appearance. To being the darkest person in the room.”
Her strategy seemed to be to defuse interest by tacitly acknowledging that she did look a little different, and wasn’t that funny? But the stakes were enormously high. If it was known who her father was, everything she had worked for would go away, especially when she was just making a name for herself and proving her abilities.
“If it happened in the early years, I think it would have been over. Morgan was willing to challenge some aspects of racism, and defend some people of color, but his son was less interested in going against the grain, shall we say?” asks Mays.
It’s doubtful that Greene could have known the attention that would come to her within just a few years of joining The Morgan. For obvious reasons, she avoided the limelight as long as she could, but the booming world of high-stakes book collecting wouldn’t let her duck publicity for long. Eventually, she had a virtual blank check from Morgan to hunt the big-game and she found herself center stage at the most widely covered auction of the age.
“The Hoe Auction takes place in 1911. It’s actually not a big deal in terms of the books that are available, or even what Greene eventually gets for the library, which is a copy, an early English language printer name Caxton, copy of the Death of Arthur, which is a version of the King Arthur myth. What makes it a turning point is the publicity that’s given to it, and the prices that in part drive that publicity,” says Mays.
In these days, major literary auctions made front-page news, in large part because of the stature of the players involved. The Hoe Auction pitted two of the mightiest against each other: J.P. Morgan and Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate who owned the Pacific Electric Railway. Both of them wanted the Caxton edition of The Death of Arthur, empowering their agents with unprecedented sums to acquire it. Morgan had authorized Greene to spend $100,000 to secure it.
Greene herself didn’t think the copy was worth anywhere near $100,000 and her goal was to not only acquire it, but to do it at a price she could live with. And so she carefully and methodically bid up the prices on other pieces that Huntington wanted but that she herself didn’t find that interesting, so when it time came to bid on the manuscript, she had more money on the sidelines than Huntington, who had been already spent $150,000 in total. In the end, she won the auction for just over $42,000.
“That was really just shocking, and dramatically high, from a public perspective. Then she got another round of publicity for being this young, beautiful woman who is in the middle of all of these Book Men buying this,” says Adrizzone.
The New York papers ran headlines about the price of the book — and the woman who bought it — and the accompanying stories had sketches of them both. After this, Belle was a leading light of New York’s literary and cultural circles.
She clearly enjoyed herself and drank life to the lees, but her work always came first, even if it meant giving up drinking from time to time to climb aboard the “water wagon” as she called it. But her profile also gave her an advantage in her collecting work, one that no one else enjoyed.
“She was — she would talk about this — very overtly finding scholars, charming them to death, and making them give up their secrets to her. What she had to do, then was grab onto visiting scholars who would come in to look at individual works that Morgan owned, and try to glean as much information as she could from them about what they were doing, and what books she should be reading to understand what they were doing,” explains Adrizzone.
Belle was constantly expanding her knowledge base so she could make better decisions about what to buy and how much to pay. Just think of the scope of her task: she had to be able to make informed choices about whether or not to buy this Renaissance painting or that early Christian manuscript. Anything related to European culture going back to antiquity — she needed a working knowledge of it.
It’s sort of difficult to express how unusual a position she was in. This was a world of men, of rich and highly educated men, so initially her tasks were limited, and even then she wasn’t really what Morgan had in mind:
Says Adrizzone: “She wasn’t the kind of person that Morgan was looking for even for the first version of her job there, which was simply just to catalog his possessions at the library. Fairly low-level compared to what she ended up doing, but he was looking for a man with a degree. He wasn’t looking for an un-degreed young woman who had only been a librarian’s assistant for a couple of years.”
But Greene’s ambition and competence quickly became apparent, and she ended up doing much more for Morgan than shelving books:
“She really was organizing his private life as much as his book-related life. She talks about reading Bible passages to him at night when he was worried about the financial situation of the nation and just needed some soothing. She also talks about trying to manage his actual mistresses, of whom he had multiple at one time. And trying to make sure that they didn’t accidentally meet each other as they were coming to meet him.”
When Morgan died in 1913, his son Jack took over the empire, and though he was initially wary about the Morgan collection and Belle herself, she persuaded him to not only continue the process of refining and expanding the collection, but start the process of turning it into a public institution. This was something on her mind from early on, and shortly after she bought the Hoe manuscript, she wrote a rare article in which she warned about private collections taking too many books and manuscripts from one sequestered collection to another. She wanted to make sure these treasures would be accessible to the world.
“Belle da Costa Greene believed, take these volumes off the dusty shelves of the aristocrats in England, and put them into the hands of scholars, and democratize, you know, essentially make available to everybody, what these works are that had formerly been locked up in these libraries,” Mays says.
And in large part thanks to Greene, you can do that today. If you go to the Morgan right now, you can see Jane Austen’s unfinished manuscript of a novel called The Watsons and the journals of Henry David Thoreau and, not for nothing, The Book of Hunting, Hawking, and Heraldry by Juliana Berners which was published in 1486 and is generally thought to be the first printed book written by a woman.
The above piece comes from our former Annotated podcast series, originally aired in July 2017.