by Denise Bibro Fine Art

The life of Belle da Costa Greene, or Belle Marion Greener as she was named at birth, is one for the history books. The title of Librarian seems to be a misnomer for such an exceptional scholar and art entrepreneur of Ms. Greene’s caliber. This woman of color single-handedly developed the most prestigious and treasured library in the world.

The Morgan would not be what it is today without her. She had the courage, scholarship, and moxie to create one of the most important libraries in the world, putting her mostly male peers at bay. Even Mr. Morgan’s keen interest, passion, taste, and great wealth would not have been enough to create such a force in the rare book and art world at that time. The combination of the two was a tour de force. Her life and depth of accomplishment are a testament to her courage, fortitude, and genius.

Despite the unjust shackles that society places on some, both men and women of any color and ethnicity can conquer and aspire to great heights. There are many unsung heroes who rightfully deserve their place in the history books, and Belle da Costa Greene is one of them. Why wasn’t her history shared with us in the classroom in my day? Why didn’t books and teachers discuss great women and people of color? Even being in the Library Club didn’t give me insight into her journey and achievements. Greene’s life of defiance and disguise was the only path that she felt she could take, even sacrificing time with her most treasured father who could not stomach the art of secret passage that she and her family believed they had to subscribe and succumb to in order to have a fulfilled life, home, beauty, and recreation. Much has changed, but too much is still the same.

The story of Belle da Costa Greene was of particular interest to me, prompted by memories of a program for Art Administration I took with my best friend at NYU. One of our collaborations was a paper on the Morgan Library & Museum. It baffles me that neither Morgan nor NYU mentioned the herculean tasks that Greene had to develop such a valuable and comprehensive collection of such world renown. Why didn’t they? My friend and I were two aspiring women who wanted to get involved with the arts, a world still dominated by men, on a high level. I can’t believe we received an A without discussing her at greater length. Why wasn’t she heralded as a great scholar, leader, and entrepreneur? Certainly, she should have been an example and someone to aspire to, not only for all people but particularly for women of color. This valuable information makes a big difference to some and at the very least enlightens others.

I was prompted to take note of this great woman and write this article out of idle curiosity when I was in the wonderful Sanibel Library in Sanibel, Florida. I came across the New York Times bestseller “The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. When I read a synopsis of the story on the back, I couldn’t believe that in all these decades I did not know much about Belle da Costa Greene and her importance. I encourage everyone to read this book. It is beautifully written, an easy read, full of wonderful historical details. Not only does it highlight the incredible life and accomplishments of a woman who had to pass as White, struggling to survive in a world of hypocrisy with all its cruelties, but it also illustrates how societies, both the poor and the privileged, navigated their journeys in life in a United States that is still flawed to this day. Even the existence of this book is hopeful. It is a wonderful story, and it is a true one. We need to celebrate the accomplishments of people like Belle da Costa Greene, pushing forward and advocating for education and awareness for all so that everyone can be enlightened. There is a lot more to the book than its cover.


“The Personal Librarian” by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, Berkley, 2021