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—initially as the private librarian of J. Pierpont Morgan and then his son, Jack, and later as the inaugural director of the Pierpont Morgan Library (now the Morgan Library & Museum). Not only did Greene 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 (1849–1941) and Richard T. Greener (1844–1922), Belle Greene (named Belle Marion Greener at birth) grew up in a predominantly African American community 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 adolescence, Genevieve changed her surname and that of her children to Greene. From the time Belle was a teenager, they described themselves as Americans of Portuguese descent and passed as White in a segregated and deeply racist society.
Belle Greene was employed at the Princeton University Library when Junius Spencer Morgan, a nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan and an ardent bibliophile, recommended her to his uncle, whose new library building was nearing completion. In 1905, Greene began working as an assistant to Junius and ultimately became J. Pierpont Morgan’s private librarian, with her own assistant, Ada Thurston—managing, documenting, and building Morgan's 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., who established the Pierpont Morgan Library as a public institution in 1924. Greene was named its first director and served in that capacity until her retirement in 1948, two years before her death.
Greene’s legacy is powerful and far-reaching. While the significant role she played as J. Pierpont Morgan’s librarian is often acknowledged, her tenure in that position lasted a mere seven years. During her decades-long career as a library executive, she not only acquired countless significant collection items 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.
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.