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The Personal Librarian

by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

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

Reviewed by Ed Lengel

Anyone who has worked for the rich and powerful–especially in a direct reporting role–understands how mind-crushingly difficult it can be. Independent thought, initiative, and creativity rarely are valued in subordinates. Instead, elites frequently don’t just demand, but seem dependent upon, supine cronyism. Ironically given the power at their command, such individuals often are extremely insecure, and liable to view free-thinking, or just unconventional, employees as threats. With some notable exceptions, it has ever been thus.

Imagine, then, working for one of the most powerful oligarchs in American history: banker and financier John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), a man known for his business success, personal irascibility, and ruthlessness. Such was the force of Morgan’s personality, backed by his large physical size, unattractive face, and confrontational personality, that those who met him often felt emotionally physically drained afterwards. Journalists who attempted to photograph him in public became instant targets of Morgan’s explosive temper.

Though personally overwhelming. Morgan also was a man of refined tastes in art and literature. And he was a collector. His donations and legacies underpinned major institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Morgan’s vast and unique collection of books became the foundation for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City, founded by his son and still in existence near the Union Club he once frequented. With all of his gargantuan business interests, however, Morgan was a very busy man. And so, like other wealthy individuals then and now, he relied upon personal assistants—curators and librarians to manage his collections. For the most part they worked in obscurity. Among connoisseurs in their respective fields, however, such individuals are deeply respected for their discrimination and expertise. Such was the case with Morgan’s personal librarian, a woman named Belle da Costa Greene.

Hired by Morgan when she was just in her twenties, Greene proved herself a faithful disciple whose personality in–some ways–mirrored that of her employer. As portrayed in this historical novel by novelists Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray, Greene is a confident, strong, and aggressive woman who thrives in the super-competitive and male-dominated world of art and book dealing. Outwitting her rivals at every turn, she secures one trophy after another for the demanding Morgan, ensuring that his collection will be one for the ages.

Complicating but not hindering Greene’s success is the secret of her heritage. Dark-complexioned, she claims to be descended from a Portuguese family. In fact, though, her ancestry is partly African American. While this is not necessarily the crippling liability in Gilded Age New York City that it would have been in the South, it certainly is problematic, especially for entrance into high society. Unsurprisingly, the authors play this alleged scandal for all it is worth, speaking the language of young twenty-first century readers trained to regard past generations as irredeemably racist and misogynistic. In the process, the complexities of fin-de-siècle urban American high society—which in fact often regarded people of mixed backgrounds as exotic and intriguing, instead of horrifying—are lost in favor of a more simplistic and easily digestible narrative. Whether in historical fact Greene “hid” her identity (which actually any of her interlocutors could and probably did easily guess) as a matter of social convenience, or to prevent betrayal and ruin, isn’t really a relevant question to the story presented here.

The authors’ fixation on Greene’s ancestry—and her love life—is understandable from a storytelling perspective; and it’s vindicated by The Personal Librarian’s tremendous commercial success. In essence, the book perfectly captures the priorities and preoccupations of young readers in the 2020s. It’s doubtful, however, if the novel comes anywhere close to capturing Greene’s actual personality or the keys to her success. A highly intelligent woman, she was the daughter of the first African American graduate of Harvard University. And her ability in securing fine books and works of art arguably was based less on her finesse in wheeling and dealing, than on an intimate and intellectual understanding of the items she collected, and their intrinsic value—as any bibliophile visiting the Morgan Library today will understand.

Benedict and Murray, however, palpably have little interest in the actual items that Greene collected on Morgan’s behalf. Instead, they appear merely as sparkly baubles to decorate a rich person’s trophy case. Keeping the focus on the vibrant if one-dimensional personality that they have constructed for Greene, and on the dramatic (and dramatized) deals she struck, serves the purpose of keeping the narrative fast-paced and not too demanding—and, one imagines, fitted for easy movie screenplay adaptation. As she appears here, Greene really isn’t a librarian, but a swashbuckling businesswoman. Actual collectors, whether of books or art, will find The Personal Librarian stilted if not silly as a result. But they, of course, are not the book’s intended audience.

Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.

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