The Personal Librarian is an astounding work. I began it thinking it was a novel, a work of fiction. Not quite so. It’s somewhat akin to my own work. I’m in the midst of presenting to all and sundry six of my historical fiction novels, each of them the subject of historical events and characters wrapped in plots and action which is an amalgam of history and my own imagination. The Personal Librarian carries my notion to a different, I hate to admit it, higher level. Murray eloquently describes the literary technique, which reflects my own concept of the process in presenting the story of a imagination
The space between the pillars of the architecture formed between the architecture formed by facts as space where we used a blend of research, personal experience, fiction and logical extrapolation to reach Belle’s inner self. . .
Bella Da Costa Greene, nee Belle Marion Greener, was from humble beginnings in North Carolina. In the late nineteenth century she worked her way not only to New York City and a job as a lowly clerk in The employ of financier, steel magnate, and railroad tycoon J.P. Morgan to the post–Personal Librarian– as the overseer of his rich collection of antique objects related to the written word–manuscripts, books, artwork. She was not only responsible for cataloguing and curating it all, but she became his trusted agent for purchases and negotiations internationally. So, if you’re wondering, as I was, what a personal librarian was or did, this is it. At least it was for J.P. Morgan.
Morgan acquired his collection with the idea of enjoying it privately. But shortly after his death in 1913, Bella convinced Morgan’s son, Jack Morgan, to make the library a gift to New York City. The Morgan, as it is now known, welcomes thousands of visitors each year — scholars, researchers, tourists and art lovers — to enjoy it.
But if that were the end of the story, it would make an interesting but rather dull tale. What justifies the word “astounding” in my opening sentence is this: Bella was black. Not that people noticed. Remarkable as the story is, it would have been unbelievable, and impossible, if they had. For more than forty years, she passed as white in order to become the literary helpmeet to one of the most powerful men in the twentieth century.
Was she cheating? Maybe, but not to my mind. The personal cost was enormous. She had to essentially give up her family, settling for occasional covert visits, She could reveal her secret to only a trusted few, and each one she told represented a risk. Yes, she got to hob nob with the hoi polloi, but she couldn’t hob nob with the people she knew and grew up with. And her entire work and social life was totally counterfeit. Anything more would have obliterated her professional life, which was always under threat. What unimaginable pressure.
Of course, the phenomenon of “passing” has been well-known in the black community for centuries. But seldom has the protagonist achieved such heights. As least as far as we know. The recent film Passing has lately drawn some attention to the dilemma faced by those who travel this road, but anonymity is an essential component for the folks who want to survive the situation. Exposure means destruction for individuals and families involved. So, the closet is the prudent place to stay.
Double and triple kudos to co-authors Benedict and Murray for bringing Greene’s astonishing achievement to light. The world is better for it, and for knowing about it. I hope some film people somehow glom on to it and make both these authors rich and famous. They deserve it.