A Look at Belle da Costa Greene

“Fifty Thousand Dollars for that Book!” Color-printed illustration by Alexander Popini published on page one of The World Magazine (New York), May 21, 1911.

Belle da Costa Greene, librarian of the Pierpont Morgan Library between ca. 1906 and 1948, began her library career at the Princeton University Library.

She started in either 1901 or 1902, depending on the source consulted. Received tradition is that she was the protegé of Junius Spencer Morgan, associate librarian from 1897 to 1909, who, in turn, arranged for her employment by his uncle, financier J. Pierpont Morgan. She began work for JPM in January 1906 and by 1907-8 she was referring to herself as ‘librarian’ (cf. Pierpont Morgan Library Archives, Morgan Collections Correspondence, 1887-1948, Call Number: ARC 1310, G. Gruel, L.).

Little documentary evidence of her work at Princeton remains, however, in the files of collector Morris Parrish (1867-1944) is the following 1934 letter from bookseller E.V. Maun to Parrish. Belle Greene’s unexpected physical characteristics were a source of curious questions from the white alpha males of the rare book world in which she worked. Even though the following is cited by scholar Heidi Ardizzone in her amply detailed biography of Belle Greene’s passage as a woman of color from “prejudice to privilege,” the letter is worth reading in full.

March 27, 1934
Dear Mr. Parrish:
At 11:30 this morning, I delivered the books to Miss Bella da Costa Greene and attach herewith a receipt for them, given at her instance and by her hand because she had visions of being snipped off by a taxicab when she went to lunch.
Miss Bella da Costa Greene is fortyish with brown hair and wears horn-rimmed spectacles. My first impression of her was that she looked bloated as if she had a touch of dropsy or perhaps drank too much, although she is not overly heavy and still not thin. She has a bulbous nose (perhaps caught from the numerous photographs of her patron, many of which hang, stand and lie about her office) and her skin must be very swarthy, for, she wore white powder which made her look kind of speckled gray, like the negro you see pouring dusty cement into the mixers on building construction jobs. She was dressed in a sort of classic garment of black velvet relieved here and there by bits of chartreuse lace. She has short, stubby fingers and chews her nails—to the quick.
Miss Bella da Costa Greene was very gracious and made an appointment to see me at 11:30. I was exceedingly flattered at my distinction when I heard her tell the operator upon several occasions that she was in conference with scholars and could take no calls. She brought out the Dickens that had been offered and pronounced an anathema upon all collectors.
They decided one day that the 1884 book was the first and then decided that the 1883 was the first and why should she bother her head about all of this business anyway. She did give you the distinction, however, of labelling [sic[ your books the best she had ever seen and they certainly were infinitely better than the ones she had. Hers were badly faded and the bindings were somewhat battered. Her 1883 copy was inscribed by Dickens on Dec. 17, 1893 and hence she could see no reason why anyone could see the 1884 book as a first and she was decidedly annoyed that any particular value was placed upon the Stave I—for such a little difference was of no specific import.
Miss Greene told me that she would like to see your library but that she could scarcely afford the time because she had to spend so much of her time with scholars. She hesitated a long time before writing to you, because she felt it was somewhat presumptious [sic] but finally bolstered up the requisite nerve.
She detailed a man to show me through the library and I spent considerable time in the manuscript vault, looking over the Dickens, Collins, Byron, Browning, et al.
I stopped in yesterday to see the dealer, Edward L. Dean and looked over what he had. His prices seemed quite fabulous and I doubt that there is much that would interest you. It is well that you keep him at postage distance or he will talk an ear off you. I went through his safe with him, heard all about his children’s croup and spent no more than 15 minutes there. He professes to be a close friend of A. Edward Newton and accuses his friend of creating artificial values for books by the media of his writings in magazines, etc. Dean also collected for Jerome Kern and says that Harry Smith has been taken to Arizona for his health.
I forgot to tell you that Miss Greene disapproves of your book covers and continued to protest about them even when I told her that they were used only to protect the books while I was transporting them. She would also like to meet Mrs. Maun and have her see the library some time.
I hope that this report of your New York agent is adequate and withal, comprehensive.
And I do thank you for the perfect week-end.
Very truly yours,
Ernest V. Maun

Source: C0171, Series 4: Parrish correspondence, box 22, folder 1

One thought on “A Look at Belle da Costa Greene

  1. Thank you for sharing the full letter. Belle is a fascinating figure and this transcription gives valuable insight into the time in which she lived, worked, and accomplished so much.

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