An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege: Heidi Ardizzone Ph.D

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The secret life of the sensational woman behind the Morgan masterpieces, who lit up New York society.

What would you give up to achieve your dream? When J. P. Morgan hired Belle da Costa Greene in 1905 to organize his rare book and manuscript collection, she had only her personality and a few years of experience to recommend her. Ten years later, she had shaped the famous Pierpont Morgan Library collection and was a proto-celebrity in New York and the art world, renowned for her self-made expertise, her acerbic wit, and her flirtatious relationships. Born to a family of free people of color, Greene changed her name and invented a Portuguese grandmother to enter white society. In her new world, she dined both at the tables of the highest society and with bohemian artists and activists. She also engaged in a decades-long affair with art critic Bernard Berenson. Greene is pure fascination―the buyer of illuminated manuscripts who attracted others to her like moths to a flame.

From Publishers Weekly

Ardizzone’s competent, complimentary biography explains the complicated, glamorous woman who transcended her lack of formal higher education and obfuscated her race to become head of the Pierpont Morgan Library and confidante of the financial mogul who founded it. Belle Green (1879–1950), the daughter of a civil rights activist who was the first African-American man to graduate from Harvard College, was plucked by J.P. Morgan’s nephew Junius Morgan from the Princeton Library in 1905, where she had developed a passion for the rare pre–15th-century illuminated manuscripts that were to become the basis of her work for Morgan.

Greene became a key player in major acquisitions, such as 16 Caxtons from Lord Amherst’s collection. She famously lived at full throttle, speaking her mind and taking many lovers, notably married art scholar Bernard Berenson. Morgan’s death left her with a sizable inheritance, and she continued at his library. Although Ardizzone delineates the intricacies of major art transactions, she devotes more space to the copious details of Greene’s flamboyant personal life than to assessments of the Morgan treasures that were her legacy. Still, Ardizzone (coauthor, Love on Trial) showcases the impressive talents of a woman who once wielded enormous power in New York society. (June)
[Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.]

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In 1905, Greene, a young woman in her twenties, was hired by J. P. Morgan to organize his immense collection of rare books and manuscripts. The incredible opportunity was one more reason for Greene to continue the fiction of her exotic background with a Portuguese grandmother and conceal her true racial heritage as African American. Her lineage was quite remarkable—her father was the first black man to graduate from Harvard—but Greene understood the limitations that black blood presented and took full advantage of her appearance, intelligence, vivacity, and drive to create a dazzling life among the wealthy. Greene socialized with the rich and famous and conducted affairs with well-placed men, including art critic Bernard Berenson.

Known for her beauty and charm, she coyly dodged questions of her ancestry as she cleverly navigated the art world and its “intricate web of secrets and gossip and deals.” Her influence with the irascible Morgan extended beyond his library—which amassed an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts—as she acted as purchasing agent, confidante, and friend. Ardizzone offers a rich and fabulous look at an amazing woman determined to live beyond the limitations assigned by race and sex in her time. Bush, Vanessa


“Deeply researched…More than any biography I’ve ever read, this one shows how people really do contain multitudes. Instead of making [Belle da Costa Greene] a tidy and consistent character, this book shows the true complexity of her astonishing and fascinating life.”
― Isabelle Popp, Book Riot

“Ardizzone offers a rich and fabulous look at an amazing woman determined to live beyond the limitations assigned by race and sex in her time.”
― Booklist (starred review)

“Ardizzone showcases the impressive talents of a woman who once wielded enormous power in New York society.”
― Publishers Weekly

“Ardizzone makes an important contribution by bringing Greene’s little-known, culturally significant work to light.”
― Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Heidi Ardizzone is associate professor of American studies at Saint Louis University. She is the author of An Illuminated Life and The Color of Blood and coauthor of Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White.

  • Publisher‏ : ‎ W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (June 4, 2007)
  • Language‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover‏ : ‎ 514 pages
  • ISBN-10‏ : ‎ 0393051048
  • ISBN-13‏ : ‎ 978-0393051049
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 2.19 pounds
  • Dimensions‏ : ‎ 6.6 x 1.9 x 9.6 inches

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