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Education: Belle of the Books

4 minute read

Seated massively at his desk that day in 1905, John Pierpont Morgan seemed lost in thought. He hardly even bothered to look up when his nephew Junius appeared before him with a slim, grey-eyed girl in tow. “Uncle,” said Junius, “this is Miss.

Greene.” Thereupon the Great Man grunted a “How d’you do?”—and the interview was over.

Thus, scarcely out of her teens, “quaking with fear and shaking like an aspen,” Belle da Costa Greene began her career as head of the Pierpont Morgan Library. She was not to quake or shake for long. In time she became famous in her own field. The sight of her great plumed hats among auction bidders was enough to send auctioneers into a tizzy. Dealers learned to jump at her summons, and the news of one of her purchases for the Morgan Library could rock the whole book world. It was Belle who turned Morgan’s first haphazard collection of treasures into one of the finest anywhere.

Letters of Gold. This week, on its 25th anniversary as a public institution, the Morgan Library, housed in a Renaissance-style mansion on Manhattan’s East 36th Street, paid tribute to its first director. The staff had placed on exhibition some 256 items—the best of the treasures that Belle had bought before her retirement last December. There were the famous incunabula (the library has perhaps the best collection of these pre-16th Century books in the U.S.) and a 9th Century manuscript of the Four Gospels, written in letters of gold. The exhibition spanned centuries: notes Galileo jotted down on an old letter, the letters of Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Fulton’s notes and sketches on naval torpedoes.

Belle Greene had spent 43 years (and almost as many millions) collecting items like those, and old Pierpont and his heirs relied on her judgment entirely. She was a vivacious, black-haired beauty, who liked to keep her own affairs a mystery. She had been born abroad (Portugal, some friends guessed), but she was raised in the U.S.—perhaps in Virginia. She was working in the library at Princeton University when young Junius found her.

“Gosh . . . Whew.” After that, Belle’s life really began. It was a life of European tours, of chats with kings and diplomats (“Ah, the grandeur I played around with”), and the formidable sight of old Pierpont eating his breakfast (“Gosh . . . whew! It was huge”). But mostly Belle’s days were spent in her library, bustling in brocade along the corridors (“Where the hell’s The City of God?”), rustling among the Rembrandt etchings or answering letters from scholars and collectors all over the world.

In the library, the aging Morgan spent more & more of his time, too. He never read the books that surrounded him, but he liked to sit there and play solitaire by the hour. His conversations with Belle were seldom long (“You think we should have that book? Buy it!”). But he liked to have her read the Bible aloud to him, or sit with him when he was troubled about something. One such time, Belle remembers, she caught him in a mistake in solitaire. “Do you accuse me of cheating?” he thundered. “Well, then . . . I’ll begin again.” On that occasion, he had been thinking of what he would say to the houseful of bankers who were there that night to discuss how they could stop the market panic of 1907.

When the great Morgan died in 1913, he left his library to his son, and Belle stayed on as its head. Now, though retired and slowed by illness, Belle still goes to the library almost every day, “just to finish things up.” There is still much to do—old friends to see and letters to read and send. Besides, Belle is also working on a book, a history of her two favorite collectors—the J. P. Morgans, father & son.

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