Belle da Costa Greene

Belle da Costa Greene


Belle da Costa Greene was an American librarian who managed and developed the personal library of J. P. Morgan. Her father shared with Greene his passion for medieval books, especially illuminated manuscripts, and it was her knowledge acquired from him of this field that enabled her to secure a position with J.P. Morgan.  

Belle Marion Greener was renamed Belle da Costa Green by her mother who knew Belle would have more employment and social opportunities if she could pass for white. Da Costa was a common Portuguese surname and that inheritance was used to explain her dusky colored skin. Further, her last name had to be changed because her Black father, Richard Greener, was a well-known lawyer and diplomat. NYC was segregated and deeply racist at the time, so it was important to pass as white to get good employment opportunities. Greene was working at the Princeton University Library where she met bibliophile Junius Morgan, nephew of J.P. Morgan. Junius recommended her to his uncle and she became Junius’ assistant in 1905.   

Greene was able to single-handedly expand Morgan’s rare books and art collection through buying trips to Europe. Her expertise allowed her to find authentic objects to purchase and her uncanny ability to manipulate collectors with her unusual bargaining skills allowed her to acquire them. Often she would meet with collectors before auctions and convince them to sell to Morgan rather than go through with a public auction. Greene bought thousands of dollars of rare manuscripts, books, and art for Morgan. 

After Morgan died in 1913, Greene continued as librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library for his son, Jack Morgan. In 1924, the private library, housed in an ornate building completed in 1906, was donated to the public by his son.  Greene was named its first director and remained there until her retirement, two years before her death. She worked at the library for 43 years, including through two additions that expanded the site.

I learned of many of these fascinating facts about her life in The Personal Librarian by Heather Terrell and Victoria Christopher Murray.