The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict & Victoria Christopher Murray is a fictional account of the real-life story of Belle da Costa Greene, who worked as J. P. Morgan‘s personal librarian. Only her real name isn’t Belle da Costa Greene. It’s Belle Marion Greener. Long before she worked for one of the wealthiest men in America, Belle’s mother had decided to shield her light-skinned family from the horrors of racism by changing the family name, pretending Porteguese ancestry, and passing as white. In order to excel as Mr. Morgan’s librarian, Belle has to become a force in the male-dominated book and art collecting world while also concealing the fact that she is African-American. She must be both bold and invisible at the same time. If Mr. Morgan, or anyone else, finds out her secret, her family will face poverty and violence.
Although I wish the book had focused more on Belle’s career achievements, rather than some of her romantic entanglements, I did enjoy The Personal Librarian. Belle’s story of blowing up societal conventions to become a leading expert in her field during the early 1900s is quite inspirational, though it is heartbreaking that she felt compelled to pass because society wouldn’t accept who she really was. Belle da Costa Greene is a fascinating historical figure and I hope more books and documentaries are made about her incredible story.