The Personal Librarian

The Personal Librarian

One of the great treasures of New York City, unknown to many people, is the Morgan Library. Located on an unassuming street a few blocks south of Grand Central Station, the library houses a priceless collection of books and other documents centering around the Renaissance, which were owned by the towering financier J. P. Morgan. 

My wife Yvonne and I visited the Morgan Library on a recent trip. We aren’t bibliofiles or historians, but we love beautiful spaces and were overwhelmed by the quiet majesty of the place. 

In 1902, Morgan hired McKim, Mead & White (architects of the original Penn Station, Brooklyn Museum, Columbia University, and dozens of other historic structures) to design a place where he could house and enjoy his growing collection of rare books, manuscripts, and old master drawings and prints. The resulting building must be seen to be appreciated. It consists of a rotunda, Morgan’s personal offices, and the library itself, surely one of the most magnificent rooms in America.

The building is next door to the townhouse where J. P. Morgan lived, and in 2006 the two buildings were joined by a high, graceful structure designed by the gifted Italian architect Renzo Piano. This new space, containing public areas, an art gallery, a concert hall, and a wonderful small cafĂ©, has a magical, uplifting quality whose light shifts over the course of a day. From the new building, you can take a fine tour of the library, as we did. 

On the tour, we heard the remarkable story of Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the flamboyant librarian and keeper of Morgan’s collection, who purchased most of its volumes and, following Morgan’s death in 1913, oversaw its conversion from private library to public institution and research facility, which it remains to this day.

Unknown at the time was an amazing fact about Greene’s life: she was African American. Her light skin and the exotic name she adopted (her birth name was Belle Marion Greener) allowed her to pass as white, supposedly of Portuguese descent. Hiding in plain sight, she became one of the most famous and powerful women in the world. 

Greene’s story is told in The Personal Librarian, an engaging and carefully researched historical novel written by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. I read the book shortly after our visit to the Morgan Library, and I heartily recommend it to you. 

After reading it, you must visit the library!


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