Belle da Costa Greene, the Morgan’s First Librarian and Director

Belle da Costa Green shown in profile, wearing hat.

Adolf de Meyer (1868–1946). Belle da Costa Greene, ca. 1910. Archives of the Morgan Library & Museum, ARC 1664.

Belle da Costa Greene (1879–1950) was one of the most prominent librarians in American history. She ran the Morgan Library for forty-three years—nineteen as the private librarian of J. Pierpont Morgan and later his son, Jack, and twenty-four as the inaugural director of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now the Morgan Library & Museum). Not only did she build one of the most important collections of rare books and manuscripts in the United States, but she also transformed an exclusive private collection into a major public resource, originating the robust program of exhibitions, lectures, publications, and research services that continues today.

The daughter of Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener and Richard Theodore Greener, Belle Greene (named Belle Marion Greener at birth) grew up in a community of color in Washington, DC. Her father was the first Black graduate of Harvard College and a prominent educator, diplomat, and racial justice activist. After Belle’s parents separated during her childhood, her mother changed her surname and that of her children to Greene. From that point on, they publicly described themselves as Americans of Portuguese descent and passed as white in a deeply segregated and racist society.

Belle Greene was employed at the Princeton University Library when Junius Spencer Morgan, a nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan and ardent bibliophile, recommended her to his uncle, whose new library building was in the final stages of construction. In late 1905, Greene began working as the private librarian of J. Pierpont Morgan—managing, documenting, and building his collection of rare books and manuscripts, organizing public exhibitions at outside venues, and establishing relationships with dealers and scholars. After Morgan’s death in 1913, Greene continued as private librarian to his son, J.P. Morgan Jr. When the Pierpont Morgan Library became a public institution in 1924, she was named its first director and served in that capacity until her retirement in 1948. She died of cancer two years later.

Greene’s legacy is powerful and far-reaching. While she is often acknowledged for the significant role she played as J. Pierpont Morgan’s librarian, her tenure in that position lasted a mere seven years. During her decades-long career as a library executive, she not only built collections but also made immeasurable contributions to bibliography and scholarship, mentored colleagues at the Morgan and elsewhere, facilitated widespread collection access through object loans and ambitious photographic services, and promoted the work of distinguished women scholars and librarians.

Belle da Costa Greene standing looking right in full figure profile.

Clarence H. White (1871–1925). Belle da Costa Greene, 1911. Archives of the Morgan Library & Museum, ARC 2821.

For further reading

Below is a list of selected resources for further reading about Belle da Costa Greene. It includes the only book-length biography (Heidi Ardizzone’s 2007 work An Illuminated Life), a major Festschrift begun during Greene’s lifetime and published shortly after her death (Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, edited by Dorothy Miner), several works of recent scholarship, and a selection of news articles published during her lifetime.

Of interest is The First Quarter Century of the Pierpont Morgan Library: A Retrospective Exhibition in Honor of Belle da Costa Greene, the catalog of the major exhibition the Morgan mounted in Greene’s honor in 1949, just after her retirement, to highlight the accomplishments Greene and her staff made during the institution’s first twenty-five years as a public institution. It includes a tribute to Greene by the American book historian Lawrence C. Wroth.

Also listed below (with links to fully digitized copies provided by HathiTrust) are the earliest reports of the Pierpont Morgan Library, which document the institution’s ambitious activities during Greene’s longtime tenure as director. These publications comprise the reports submitted by Greene to the Morgan’s board of Trustees and describe the institution’s major activities, including exhibitions, acquisitions, publications, lectures, and classes—all spearheaded by Greene.

Ardizzone, Heidi. An Illuminated life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Cleaver, Laura, and Danielle Magnusson. “American Collectors and the Trade in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts in London, 1919–1939: J.P. Morgan Junior, A. Chester Beatty, and Bernard Quaritch Ltd.,” in Collecting the Past: British Collectors and Their Collections from the 18th to the 20th Centuries. Routledge, 2018.

Ferguson, Stephen. “A Look at Belle da Costa Greene,” Rare Book Collections @ Princeton blog, 3 August 1910.

Greene, Belle da Costa. “291,” Camera Work, XLVII (July 1914), p. 64.

Miner, Dorothy, ed. Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene. Princeton University Press, 1954.

Miner, Dorothy, and Anne Lyon Haight. “Greene, Belle da Costa,” Notable American Women 1607–1950. Belknap Press, 1971.

The Pierpont Morgan Library. The First Quarter Century of the Pierpont Morgan Library: A Retrospective Exhibition in Honor of Belle da Costa Greene. The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1949.

The Pierpont Morgan Library. The Pierpont Morgan Library: A Review of the Growth, Development and Activities of the Library during the Period between its Establishment as an Educational Institution in February 1924 and the Close of the Year 1929. The Plandome Press, 1930.

The Pierpont Morgan Library. The Pierpont Morgan Library: Review of the Activities and Acquisitions of the Library from 1930 through 1935. A summary of the annual reports of the Director to the Board of Trustees. The Plantin Press, 1937.

The Pierpont Morgan Library. The Pierpont Morgan Library: Review of the Activities and Acquisitions of the Library from 1936 through 1940. A summary of the annual reports of the Director to the Board of Trustees. The Plantin Press, 1941.

The Pierpont Morgan Library. The Pierpont Morgan Library: Review of the Activities and Acquisitions of the Library from 1941 through 1948. A summary of the annual reports of the Director to the Board of Trustees. The Plantin Press, 1949.

Santori, Flaminia Gennari-Santori. “‘This Feminine Scholar’: Belle da Costa Greene and the Shaping of J.P. Morgan’s Legacy,” Visual Resources, 33:1–2, pp. 182–197.

Smith, Stephanie Danette. Passing Shadows: Illuminating the Veiled Legacy of Belle da Costa Greene. Unpublished dissertation, Dominion University Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2015.

Strouse, Jean. “Singular Women,” chapter in Morgan: American Financier. New York: Random House, 1999.

Strouse, Jean. “The Unknown J. P. Morgan.” The New Yorker, 22 March 1999.

Winslow, Karen. “Belle da Costa Greene, in Love with Islamic Book Art.” Blog of Institute of English Studies, University of London, 17 September 2018.

Selected news articles

"$10,000 Librarian Speaks a Word for $400 Sisters," New York Tribune, 22 November 1913.

“Belle D. Greene, Morgan Librarian. Noted Figure in Field, Holder of Post 1905–48, Is Dead—Paid Thousands for Rarities.” The New York Times, 12 May 1950, p. 27.

"Belle of the Books," Time, 11 April 1949, pp. 76-8.

"The Cleverest Girl I Know," Chicago Tribune, 11 August 1912.

“Mr. Morgan’s Librarian a Woman,” Christian Science Monitor, 11 July 1911, p. 17.

“Spending J.P. Morgan’s Money for Rare Books: That Is One of the Pleasant Duties of the Librarian of the Financier, Miss Belle Green[e], Who at 26 Has Won Fame by Her Intimate Knowledge of Valuable Tomes,” The New York Times, 7 April 1912, p. SM8.

“Young Woman Librarian Continues Work of Great Morgan Collection,” New York Herald Sunday Magazine, 3 August 1913, p. 7.

Hungerford, Edward. “The Feminist Movement that Cashes in,” Munsey’s Magazine, 51:3 (April 1914), pp. 471–83.

Bust of Belle da Costa Green seen from front view

Jo Davidson (1883–1952). Belle da Costa Greene, 1925. Terra-cotta. The Morgan Library & Museum, AZ 205. Purchased on the Charles Ryskamp Fund, 2018.
© Estate of Jo Davidson.

Bust of Belle da Costa Greene on display in J. Pierpont Morgan's Library

Terra-cotta bust of Belle da Costa Greene by Jo Davidson (1883–1952), on view in the East Room of J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library. Purchased on the Charles Ryskamp Fund, 2018.

This bust by the American artist Jo Davidson was recently discovered among the works held by the artist’s estate and acquired by the Morgan in 2018. It is the only known sculpted portrait of Greene and one of the few surviving life portraits of her in any medium. The bust is on long-term display in the East Room of J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library.