Belle da Costa Greene (1883-1950), librarian and collector

Belle da Costa Greene,
by Paul Helleu, c. 1913.
Public Domain.

Belle Greene is arguably the most famous woman involved with the medieval manuscript trade in the first half of the twentieth century. As personal librarian to J. P. Morgan, and later as the first Director of the Morgan Library (a position she held for 25 years), Belle occupied an unusually powerful position for a woman at that time. And she did so without hiding her intellect or her femininity, being as praised by her contemporaries for her sharp wit and knowledge of manuscripts as for her dress sense.

Although Greene would go on to learn more about manuscripts through her connections in the rare book world, she started her career as a librarian at Princeton. After an introduction through J. P. Morgan’s nephew in 1905, Greene was hired to catalogue and categorise Morgan’s existing collection, as well as oversee the acquisition of additional manuscripts, such as the Da Costa Hours (no relation) and rare books, like the Caxton edition of Le Morte d’Arthur. She continued to work in a librarian’s capacity for Morgan’s son between Morgan Sr’s death in 1913 and the incorporation of the Library as a public entity in 1924. Alongside her work at the Morgan, Greene also sat on the committees of various museums (like the Walters Art Gallery), was a rare book and art collector in her own right, and was a founding member of the Hroswitha Club, the first rare book club for women.

Born Belle Marion Greener to Richard T. Greener, a prominent figure in the African American community, and Genevieve Fleet, her father’s desertion of the family marked a point of reinvention for the rest of the Greeners. From the moment they dropped the ‘r’, the Greenes, as they were now called, disguised their African-American ancestry by claiming a Portuguese connection that manifested itself by the insertion of “da Costa” into their names. Despite the rumours surrounding her ethnicity during her lifetime, Greene ostensibly passed as white.

Though clearly a trailblazing woman, her attitude towards feminism was ambivalent. At one point she signed up to the Anti-Suffrage League, though she would eventually withdraw her support and mix with Greenwich Village types who were undoubtedly feminists. Ultimately, what is perhaps most telling is that under her leadership, the Morgan Library took on a staff that was over 50% women, whilst also becoming an important centre for scholarly study of medieval manuscripts.

In many senses then, she was hard to fit into a single box; a true one-off. Perhaps it should be noted that no other woman has since filled her (rather fashionable) shoes as Director of the Morgan Library.

Natalia Fantetti