Belle da Costa Greene, 20th-century New York socialite and librarian to the ultra-rich, lived a book lover’s dream. But her rise to luxury came at a high price: She had to keep enormous, ruinous secrets.
Spiritual New Yorker Belle da Costa Greene was actually born as the much less exotic “Belle Marian Greener” in Washington DC. But, when she was young, her mom dropped the “r” from her last name, changing it from “Greener” to “Greene”. It was a subtle change designed to separate them from their past.
But the biggest secret wasn’t the name change. The biggest secret was her dad.
Belle’s dad, Richard Greener, was a prominent Black scholar and civil rights activist, and the first Black graduate of Harvard College—he also passed on a love of books to Belle. Yes, this means that Belle was Black herself...but her father's work ultimately tore the family apart.
Belle’s parents separated when she was young, the marriage stressed by Richard’s extensive work. And, even though he and Belle shared a love of literature, Belle eventually disowned him. Her reason was heartbreaking. Light-skinned, she could pass as white, and she wanted to gain freedom from the rampant prejudice she knew would limit her career and education.
Actually, she and her mom, fearing their secret would get out, went even further than disowning him.
Richard Greener didn’t pass until 1922. But, years before that, Belle and her mom pretended that he was already gone, listing her mother as a widow. After all, for anyone to go digging into Belle’s past and discover who her father really was would have crippled her ambitions.
Granted, these ambitions would ultimately take her to the heights of financial and social success. But they also came with a brutal price tag.
In order to successfully “pass” as white, Belle and her family went to great and dangerous lengths. She, her mother, and her brother all added foreign last names to play up their ethnic ambiguity. She and her brother added the last name “da (or de) Costa,” a Portuguese surname. And that wasn't all.
Greene wasn't one to do anything by halves, and once these lies started, they kept on coming. While the Portuguese ancestry helped explain her "exotic" looks, she also eventually began spreading around that she was from Virginia. Oh, and she started to claim she was younger than she was.
The lies snowballed, but they also had a strange effect: They gave Belle da Costa Greene an air of mystery, one that would later become a big part of her personality. Thankfully, all these sacrifices were about to pay off in a big way.
In 1902, Greene had clawed her way up the still-embryonic library sciences field, and was working at Princeton University's library. Then she got an unexpected invitation. She became friends with Junius Morgan, a student at Princeton, and Junius put a word in about Greene with his uncle.
Only, this was not just any uncle. The introduction would change the course of Greene's life forever.
Junius’s uncle just so happened to be one of the richest men in America: The blustery railroad magnate JP Morgan. JP Morgan was so rich, he supposedly said, in response to a question about how much it cost to maintain his multiple yachts: “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”.
And Junius knew Greene would be perfect for his uncle.
You see, like Greene, Morgan loved books. A lot. He liked literature, and he also liked that you could import books tax-free. He had so many that they couldn’t fit in his house, and this was a house that was big enough to host a 1000-person wedding reception. So, Morgan had a library built just to house his private collection in New York...and this is where Greene came in.
For his personal library, JP Morgan needed a personal librarian. But this was no ordinary job. With his piles of money and voracious appetite for collecting, Morgan wanted his librarian to be able to accrue a lot of expensive books in a very short time.
Though still in her mid-20s, Greene was bright, fashionable, and famously persuasive. She was, in short, already a force to be reckoned with, and Morgan hired her. But he may have had ulterior motives.
There was no doubt that Greene was an excellent librarian already, but she was also very pretty—and Morgan, a notorious philanderer, was a man who noticed such things. Morgan was also more than 40 years her senior at 68 years old, physically huge, and had a large, deformed nose.
Not exactly a catch, despite his money. But then something strange happened.
JP Morgan and Belle da Costa Greene were a strange match, no doubt about it—besides their physical differences, Morgan also had a gruff, imposing personality, where Greene reportedly had a "wild" sense of humor. Despite this, they grew incredibly close and developed a relationship that went far beyond typical employer–employee interactions.
After all, Greene had a nerve and self-confidence to match Morgan's bluster. Soon, rumors were swirling.
JP Morgan was a public figure in the early 1900s. So when he hired Greene as his personal librarian, New York journalists and gossips instantly started speculating about the nature of their intensely personal relationship. One was even so bold as to ask Greene to comment directly. That's when they got more than they bargained for.
When a journalist asked Greene whether she and JP Morgan were romantically involved, her answer scandalized the papers. She answered coyly, “We tried”. To this day we don’t know what she meant by “we tried”. Did they really? How far did they go? Was she just messing with us?
But whispers of Greene’s romantic entanglements and scandals would only grow louder as she had more of them.
Romantic entanglements weren’t all that newspapers loved to comment on when it came to Greene. In case you couldn't tell, Greene had no problem at all with the spotlight, and loved going out about town in New York to see and be seen. The papers, though, thought she partied just a little too hard for a serious librarian.
Although Greene was in word and deed a librarian, she dressed nothing like one. Instead, she wore incredibly stylish clothing, dressing like a flamboyant, fashion-obsessed socialite. “Just because I am a librarian,” she apparently quipped, “doesn’t mean I have to dress like one”.
Nor did she—everything she wore screams the exact opposite of “librarian”.
No cardigans or unruly spectacles for Belle da Costa Greene. Newspapers described her as “glamorous” and said she “dressed in Renaissance gowns adorned with matching jewels”. She accessorized to add a hint of drama: She was famous for carrying a large green silk handkerchief, wearing lots of perfume, and, of course, donning fur.
But she spent her money on more than mere clothes. And did she ever know how to spend.
Being a librarian is the best job. Even better is being a librarian for an extremely wealthy dude, because it means you can buy any book you want. We’re talking first editions, we’re talking original works by Rembrandt, the Brontës, you name it. And Greene bought them all for her boss JP Morgan.
In fact, she bought so many valuable works of art and literature for the Morgan Library that sometimes, it caused big problems.
Once, when Morgan found a receipt for a large sum of money that Greene had paid for a bust, he asked her where that bust went. Her reply was cutting. She told him cooly that it had been in the library for about a year already and that, in fact, it sat in full view of him every day.
But Morgan wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of Greene's withering ripostes.
Even though Greene had a massive amount of money at her disposal, she wasn't lax about her deals. Indeed, she was an expert negotiator. One of her tactics was to threaten to withdraw from bidding wars. This, she noted, would cause the price of the object to go down, since Morgan money would no longer be involved in the transaction.
Such was the power of her and Morgan's reputation for excellent taste in fine art: It could literally determine the value of that fine art. And she would soon sit across from some very powerful men at the bargaining table.
Greene often found herself competing against wealthy rare book and manuscript lovers when Morgan sent her over to Europe. She knew just how to beat them. This whippet-thin woman was “the terror of continental collectors’ agents” because, with Morgan backing her, she regularly outbid everyone.
Besides this, Greene was an expert in Medieval works and she knew the value of an illuminated manuscript when she saw one. Her work was so important and expensive, her trips to Europe were practically secret missions. Ones with huge consequences.
Greene's spending habits are enough to assuage the guilt of even the most excessive of modern book buyers. In 1911, she bid our equivalent of 1.3 million dollars for the first printed edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, the famous legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But then she took on bigger prey.
Greene regularly bid not just against private collectors but against large institutions—like the British Museum. One time, there was to be an auction in the morning. The evening before, one of the British Museum’s representatives came to her and begged her not to bid against him the next day for an important object.
Her reaction, as usual, was ice cold.
The British Museum representative, of course, was pleading with Belle da Costa Greene because he knew she would win. Instead of showing any mercy, Greene just brushed him off and, as she said, waited for the telegram "which would tell me whether or not I had swept the collection from under the hammer". Reader, she did.
Of course, Greene simply had more resources than these companies, thanks to JP Morgan's money. Only...that money wasn't always clean.
You see, JP Morgan and Belle da Costa Greene had a bit of a game they played. It’s called tax evasion. Greene's actions were downright deceitful. Morgan despised paying customs, and one time Greene thwarted border agents by letting them find some less valuable purchases in her luggage...all while hiding a very expensive painting, three bronzes, and a luxury watch.
She wasn't humble about her cunning, either.
Belle da Costa Greene was smart, fun-loving, and knew when to celebrate. So when she brought JP Morgan back these tax-free treasures, she watched as he danced around in triumph while she, as she reported to a friend, "laughed in great glee". Keep in mind, too, that she did this kind of thing for Morgan all the time.
One person described the collection she managed as being “sucked from Europe as by a vacuum cleaner”. But European art wasn’t the only thing she was, um, enjoying while she was over the pond.
Belle da Costa Greene went way beyond being a librarian, curator, and art collector. She became friends with the artists themselves. Many artists painted, sketched, and sculpted her, among them the painter Paul Helleu, whose simple sketch captures her glamour and poise incredibly well. And then there were the much more scandalous sketches.
Greene didn’t just pose for drawings portraying her in her designer wardrobe. She also once posed completely unclothed for Henri Matisse. It’s a simple sketch, with her back to the viewer, but it shows a daring, adventurous side of her that we don’t always see when we think of her fawning over Medieval manuscripts. And that wasn’t the only zany thing she did.
Greene enjoyed playing up her image as a capricious socialite. At one point, there were rumors that she brought her thoroughbred horse with her to London so she could ride it around Hyde Park. That may or may not be true, but she definitely did stay at the most expensive hotels, including Claridge’s in London and the Ritz in Paris.
But soon, she had a more "personal" place to stay on her trips to Europe.
Greene fell in love with an American art historian called Bernard Berenson, or, to his friends, “BB”. While Greene was over in Europe on Morgan business, they spent a lot of time at his villa near Florence. In the meantime, they wrote passionate love letters to each other. “I would kiss you until you cried for mercy,” she wrote to him in one. There was just one problem.
Although Berenson was "all in a whirl" over Greene, he was also a married man. But there was a twist. His wife Mary knew about the affair and had a "reluctant acceptance" of the relationship. Berenson, for his part, described himself as "polygamous". Yep, this went on even in the early 20th century.
But all relationships have their complications, and this one was about to get very complicated.
Although open-minded, Mary Berenson eventually got jealous of Belle da Costa Greene. She grew tired of putting up with a third person in the union, and also complained that her husband had given Greene some of his “loveliest pictures” from his collection. Because you know Greene was wheeling and dealing art no matter what.
Eventually their relationship fizzled—though as we'll see, not without dramatics. But for Greene, it was on to more scandalous lovers.
Socialites attract socialites. And when Greene met Emilie Grigsby, a wealthy woman known as “the American Princess,” the two hit it off. It’s hard to know how far, exactly, their flirtation went, but Greene referred to it as “a very amusing and really interesting affair”. Still, most of Greene’s affairs were with men...and one of those was about to get very serious.
Although Greene had resolved to never marry, at one point she almost broke her vow. She went so far as to have a Venetian lace wedding dress made for her. So who was this mysterious man who caused her to come so close to getting hitched? Like many of Belle’s lovers, he was a big deal. But this one was a bigger deal than most.
Greene was discreet about many of her affairs—this one no less. So, we don’t know for sure for whom she had the wedding dress made, but signs point to the 17th Duke of Alba, who was more than just some Spanish Duke. He was also a close friend and relation of the royal family (he was a leading guest at Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding) and a future Olympic medalist.
Except he had one black spot that Greene picked up on.
The Duke of Alba wasn't a good guy, at least not by today's standards. He supported the fascist Francisco Franco—and he also led Greene down a dark path. Some historians speculate that the Duke's views helped Greene have her own rather tolerant stance on Franco and the rest of his ilk.
Fortunately, her relationship with Duke Alba was not meant to last.
Greene was maddeningly secretive. As we know, she concealed the truth constantly (sometimes for her survival) and stoked rumors about herself. And if there’s one secret she kept that I’d really like to know, it’s: Why didn’t she marry that delicious, problematic snack of a duke?
We may never know. What we do know is that Greene moved on quickly. Very quickly and very, um, fulsomely.
Besides these various affairs, Greene had what one of her acquaintances later referred to as a “procession of beaux”. These beaux included someone named “Count Sala;” an unnamed Norwegian man (a quick “flash-in-the-pan” affair, per her acquaintance); and bunch of other very well-connected men in the world of art and literature.
But Greene herself was well-connected...and not afraid to use her power.
The controversial Dadaist Marcel Duchamp may have been famous, but infamy doesn't always pay the bills. In 1915, the artist came to New York rather destitute, and Greene did him a solid by employing him as a translator for the Morgan Library. But Duchamp didn't know who he was dealing with.
Greene's standards bent for no man, and Duchamp only lasted about six weeks before she let him go. But the artist would not soon forget her…
Duchamp’s art is wide-ranging and often involves a bit of performance. One of his more performative pieces is a series of photographs of himself as his playful alter ego, “Rrose Sélavy,” a pseudonym that he later used to sign some of his art works. The extra “r” in “Rose” is thought to be the “r” that Greene dropped from the end of her original last name.
And it’s not the last time Greene shows up in Duchamp’s work.
Greene might have inspired the most expensive Duchamp piece ever sold: A perfume bottle with a reworked label entitled Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette. Many think the title is a direct reference to Belle. In 2009, it sold for over $11 million. Not that such a sum would have fazed Greene...not when you know her own salary.
By 1921, Belle da Costa Greene’s salary at the Morgan Library was $25,000 per year, which is well into the six-figures of today's money, something like $700,000. In case you're wondering, that's about 20 times the salary of the average librarian of her day. And so, one day, she decided to help them out.
Belle Greene was not all parties and flirtations, nor was she all business. When the librarians of New York City's public libraries met to advocate for better wages, Greene showed up. She gave a speech at their meeting, urging their employers to pay them more and noting how much knowledge and skill is required to be a librarian.
As she grew older, her passion for libraries grew ever deeper.
Many photographs exist of Greene in her flamboyant, fashionable heyday. But as she grew older, she had to start turning down requests for photographs. The reason? She wanted the emphasis to be on the library, not on her. Talk about dedication to one’s craft. Of course, it was a very, very lucrative craft, especially considering what was in JP Morgan’s will.
When JP Morgan passed in 1913, Greene received a shocking gift. Her grateful employer (and possibly lover) left her $1.27 million in today’s dollars. At just 34, Greene was now an heiress, and would sail through the problems of the Great Depression with ease...but that didn't mean her problems went away.
She still had to convince JP Morgan's son Jack to keep the library. Well, did she ever.
Belle da Costa Greene was truly not a woman to be trifled with. Not only did she convince Jack Morgan to keep her on and keep the library going, she managed to carve out a close (and this time certainly platonic) relationship with him, too. They were so close, she could rib him in her classic sharp style.
In one exchange between the two, Greene objected to Jack's request that she buy some editions from the writer Alfred, Lord Tennyson by saing, "In regard to the Tennyson items, which personally I loathe, it is a question of perfecting your already very large and fine collection of imbecilities".
Jack, knowing his prickly librarian's temperament, only replied, “I reluctantly confirm that we ought to have the Tennyson idiocies".
Jack Morgan didn't just keep Greene on as librarian, the pair of them also figured out a way to make the Morgan Library—full of delicate, invaluable manuscripts—open to the general public. This is dangerous business; we the public are not famous for always behaving in art museums. Don’t you just want to stroke a bust sometime?
Still, Greene managed it, and when the library opened to the public in 1924, it was a smash hit. But as we'll see, Greene didn't want everything to be public.
Belle and her family were far from the only ones to pass themselves off as white. Between 1910 and 1920, nearly half a million Americans who had formerly said they were of mixed background completely disappeared, and the number of white people increased. They, like Belle, did what they had to to protect themselves from discrimination.
At some point in her affair with Bernard Berenson, Greene made an unsettling discovery. As far as we can tell, she got pregnant. For Greene, who didn't want children, it was a no-brainer to go to England to end it. This, too, ended her relationship with Berenson. But it's why she didn't want children that hurt the most.
Greene was so committed to her identity as a white person that she vowed never to marry. Not because she didn’t love relationships with men—we know she had plenty of those—but because she did not want to risk having children. The reason? Her children, unlike her, might not be able to “pass” as white.
As Greene got older and felt the end was near, she made a gut-wrenching decision. She burned all her private letters, perhaps once more to keep her ancestry locked up tight. Yep. She’s up there competing with Cassandra Austen for title of Most Burny Of The Juiciest Letters: Why Oh Why Must You Destroy The Good Ones?
You have to remember, this is the first bit of the 1900s. There were no emails, no DMs. The flirting happens in the letters. And it’s all gone—almost. Fortunately, Bernard Berenson didn't burn the letters she sent him, and they still exist today in all their passionate glory.
Belle da Costa Greene always had impeccable timing, and shortly after she burned her letters, the reaper came for her. She passed on May 10, 1950 at the age of 70, from cancer. A New Yorker until the end, she had her remains cremated in Valhalla, in New York state.
Still, some of her secrets may have slipped through.
For all that Greene tried to hide her ancestry, there is some indication that she wasn't completely successful, or else made confessions to those with whom she was closest. Among them, JP Morgan himself. Letters from a friend who knew both Greene and Morgan, and which display knowledge of Greene's ancestry, indicate that JP may have known of her race before he died.
So she didn't always have to hide. But she was still hiding things until the end.
Once, when Greene was in the middle of her torrid affair with Bernard Berenson in Europe, she tore herself away to go on a trip somewhere to see someone important. Only, she never told Berenson where or with whom, only that she hadn't seen the person in 20 years. The truth could be tearjerking.
Because of the secrecy and the expanse of time since she'd seen the person, historians think this mystery figure may have been Greene's long-lost father, her closest connection to her hidden past.
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