Playing the Game Square

An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege

By Heidi Ardizzone

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007, 580 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Marilyn Richardson

Belle da Costa Greene had it all and then some. She was beautiful, brilliant, and independent. She was a prodigiously successful international career woman from the early days of the twentieth century until her retirement, amid tributes and honors, in the 1940s. She could pull off both rarified art historical insights and filthy humor in at least four languages. She dined with Fifth Avenue robber barons and partied till dawn with Greenwich Village bohemians. In all of her many circles she was sexual catnip to a bevy of enchanted and enchanting men and women, and thoroughly enjoyed “indoor sports,” as she called her dalliances.

Complex and contradictory, she considered herself a woman of the left, but early on pronounced herself a “masculinist” rather than a feminist. She felt most allied with the type of woman

who takes her pleasures as a man does and wearies of them and throws them aside as a man does—who is economically independent and so does not have to earn her living through marriage—who has no morals, but a sense of decency—no scruples outside of playing the game square

Although she worked for women’s suffrage—speaking, raising money, and distributing literature—she never joined large public demonstrations. Her ambivalence toward political activism might have had to do with a certain, singular mystery about the very public Miss Greene, who swept through boardrooms, bedrooms, and bank balances like a high fashion bolt of lightening: She was African American.

With the American conversation on race still, for the most part, in the “let’s do lunch . . . someday” stage, academics cannot really be blamed for taking cover behind a wall of jargon when the topic startles them. One jacket blurb extolling this juicy, historically important story of international passion, financial derring-do, the building of great museum collections, and lively family dramas, sells it with the observation that

Heidi Ardizzone challenges the lived experience of “passing” and indeed the whole construct of “passing” in American history. . . . Ardizzone has interrogated historical sources . . . offering us a deep cultural history of the art and literary worlds of New York and Europe at the turn of the century.

Another suggests that a life “so full of contradictions . . . hardly seems possible,” but it does show “the possibilities and dilemmas of modern womanhood.” Right.

Belle da Costa Greene was a daughter of Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922). A member of the Harvard College class of 1870, Greener was the school’s first known African American graduate. He was a fine student, a young man of wide interests and abilities in history, philosophy, languages ancient and modern, the arts, and political theory. After college, he launched himself into a career of public service, soon adding a law degree from the University of South Carolina Law School to his activist arsenal.

In 1874 Greener married Genevieve Fleet, the accomplished and beautiful daughter of a middle-class, black Washington, DC, family. They had five children in fairly rapid succession; Belle Marion was their third. Greener became widely known and respected as an attorney, educator, speaker, and writer. In 1885, he was appointed secretary to the Grant Monument Association, the committee overseeing the funding and construction of Grant’s Tomb—an indication of his considerable political influence. Former President Chester A. Arthur headed the committee, and J. Pierpont Morgan, who was later to become a significant force in Belle’s life, was its treasurer.

Greener’s nonstop speaking engagements, his extensive travels on behalf of the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln), and his apparent lack of empathy for Genevieve’s struggles on the home front, where she more than once gave birth in his absence, all took a toll on the marriage. She appears to have been blindsided by the nugget of truth in the adage, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” In 1898, Greener accepted an appointment to a consular post in Vladivostok, Russia, and though it appears that he and his wife never divorced, they never again lived under the same roof.

Genevieve Greener was a very light-skinned woman, and her children ranged in color from cream to olive, although all understood themselves to be African American—at least until, for whatever emotional, financial, or other reasons, Genevieve chose to disassociate the family from her well-known husband by moving herself and her children to the other side of the color line. She changed the family name to Greene, invented a Portuguese grandparent named da Costa to account for that Mediterranean tint, and set up housekeeping in Princeton, New Jersey, a decidedly segregated community.

Belle da Costa Greene loved beautiful books. She determined at an early age to become a librarian and set herself a rigorous preparation. She studied Latin, Greek, modern languages, and European history. After taking a summer course in library studies at Amherst College, she found an entry-level position at the Princeton University Libraries. There, she spent three years in intensive study of early printing, rare books, and historical and illuminated manuscripts. Her knowledge and connoisseurship so impressed her friend and mentor, Junius Morgan, that he recommended her to his uncle, J. Pierpont Morgan, who needed an expert to oversee the growing collection of rare books and artwork that eventually became the Morgan Library.

Greene’s rise was spectacular. She quickly gained Morgan’s trust and admiration, and became his agent in the great race to plunder Europe’s medieval and renaissance treasures and deploy them as evidence of American wealth, ambition, and culture. While other employees quaked in the presence of the imperious Morgan, Greene took him on with feisty humor, and a depth of knowledge and insight into her field that equalled his in the realm of finance. Had they been lovers? she was asked after his death. “No,” she is said to have replied, “We tried.”

One of the handful of top scholars, collectors, and wheeler-dealers of her day in the world of rare, gorgeous, and fabulously valuable books and artworks, she was the only woman among them. Morgan trusted her with millions of dollars. Her goal was to establish a collection that would one day have “neither rival nor equal,” not even the British Museum or the French Bibiotheque Nationale. And in fact, it has long been acknowledged that Greene “transformed a rich man’s casually built collection into one which ranks with the greatest in the world.”

Greene was also celebrated as an outstanding beauty. She was small, willowy, and animated by both an indomitable will and a contagious joie de vivre. The photographs, paintings, and drawings of her gathered here show her to have had an almost chameleon-like quality. By turns sultry, elegant and, with the passage of time, matronly, her skin color is defined by the artists’ handling of light and shadow. Not one to sequester herself in the stacks, Greene enjoyed wearing designer couture, eyebrow-raising jewelry, and extravagant hats. Her quip, “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one” became something of a guild motto for the profession.

Greene’s great love was the pre-eminent authority on renaissance art, Bernard Berenson, the married proprietor of the Villa I Tatti in the hills above Florence (now the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies). The two met around 1908 and were in and out of each other’s lives and beds, in Europe and the United States, from then until Greene’s death in 1950. Ardizzone’s greatest resource is the trove of hundreds of Greene’s letters to Berenson, archived at I Tatti. In them, we hear her utterly distinctive voice, commenting on the personal seasons and major events of her adult life.

Mary Berenson, Bernard’s wife, herself no paragon of fidelity, viewed Greene with a cold eye—but not simply because of her husband’s infatuation. Mary was Bertrand Russell’s former sister-in-law and a woman used to holding her own in intellectual circles. She had left her first husband for Berenson, and accepted that he was a philanderer. But she had ambitions as an art critic and scholar, and felt as much left out of the conversation as out of her husband’s affections.

This book tells two stories. One is the life and extraordinary career of Belle Da Costa Greene. The other, uneasily embedded within the first, is Ardizzone’s struggle over how to discuss the sticky matter of race in America. She and her publisher seem to have thought they needed to justify this 500-page biography with its subject’s ambiguous racial identity and the extended frisson her act of racial transgression would provide to its readers.

Thus, the first section is rather a slog, a droning narrative of genealogical begats and muddled African American history. Apparently the author assumes that the shockwave she sets off when she establishes Greene’s racial identity will reverberate throughout the narrative, supplying a unifying subtext to all the varied facets of this brilliant, witty, and adventurous woman’s life. In fact the effect is just the opposite; Ardizzione separates out an integral part of a complex person and makes it the defining lens through which we see her. Yet if ever a subject demanded a kaleidoscope rather than a monocle, it was Belle Greene.

A certain naiveté further undercuts this approach. The reader is asked to believe that J. P. Morgan would have given the keys to his collection, an endless series of blank checks, and a role as his international representative to someone whom he had not vetted to a fare-thee-well. Greene’s father—whom, we have seen, Morgan knew—was a dedicated “race man,” and the only passing he ever did was of the bar exam. When he and Morgan served together on the Grant Monument Association, the members had socialized, dined together, and doubtless politely inquired after each other’s families. J. P. Morgan didn’t get rich by being dumb.

So, was Belle daCosta Green passing? Sure, but once she had become indispensable to Morgan, attached to Berenson, and an influential scholar in her own right, she hardly suffered terrors of unmasking. As speculation about her background became a source of spicy gossip, and Morgan’s collecting rival, Isabella Stewart Gardner of New York and Boston, dismissed Greene as a “half-breed who couldn’t help lying,” Greene simply kept her own counsel. She herself could be just as vulgar and apparently careless in her remarks. Finding the lace sleeve of her tea gown torn, she is reported to have glanced at her arm and commented, “The nigger blood shows through, doesn’t it?” Berenson seems to have figured it all out, and given his own travails with the pervasive anti-Semitism of his friends and clients, one hopes he and Greene found support and humor in comparing notes.

In her work, Belle Greene’s passion was for all aspects of the art of the book: text, type, paper, binding, and overall design—the results of scores of choices and decisions from margins to materials to illustrations. She spent decades contemplating the communion of author, editor, illustrator, designer, and reader. While she certainly would relish this biography for its perpetuation of her name, work, and reputation, she would cringe at much that is unfortunate in its execution. This attempt at a crossover work meant to appeal to both academia and the general public is poorly edited and bizarrely repetitious. Still, the story is worthwhile and wonderfully entertaining. Greene lived through two world wars, encountered hundreds of the most interesting, influential, and just plain spectacular personages of her time, and expressed strong, pithy opinions about all of it. Ardizzone’s research is wide ranging and meticulous. She has compiled the information, but it will be up to someone else to tell Greene’s story as it deserves to be told.

Marilyn Richardson is the principal of Art + History Consultants in Watertown, Massachusetts, which provides programs, exhibitions, and research for museums, historical societies, schools, libraries, and other organizations.

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy