The Personal Librarian is one of those books everyone seems to learn from and love and I think it is an historical fiction must read! Belle de Costa Greene was a light skinned Black woman raised by her father, Richard T. Greener, the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University, and her mother, Genevieve Ida Fleet, a well educated Black woman. In 1875 The Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act, and when segregation and racism rose to new heights and there were threats of lynching young children, Belle’s mother decided living life as a Black family was too dangerous, and in order to be treated with equality, she decided she and the children would live their lives as white people. The father was an activist and felt he had to fight for his right to be equal, so they separated and the family unit fell apart.
As a white woman, Belle took full advantage of the opportunities Black women would never be offered and when JP Morgan hired her to develop and organize his personal library of art and rare books, she continued to keep her identity secret, and her skills and talent did not go unnoticed. She became an incredibly important person in history and while working for the most powerful man in his time, she became one of the most successful women of her time. Unfortunately, very little is known about Belle; she had requested all written material about her be destroyed to protect her family as well as the legacy of the Morgan library.
Together, authors Victoria Christopher Murray and Marie Benedict skillfully and seamlessly connect the dots of factual history with fiction based on what they imagined could have been during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Passing was a huge risk surrounded by fear of discovery and the pressure to always do better and be smarter. Belle took on the challenge with grace and charm, and made her mark in history in the most impactful way she could. Marie, the history buff brought specifics of the family, the settings and the time period to life, and Victoria provided a Black woman’s point of view and allowed us to see the world through Belle’s eyes. They worked on revisions together, sentence by sentence, putting their stamp of approval on every word as a team. It is thrilling that The Personal Librarian readers are learning about her today, and in 2024 the Morgan Library in NYC will be celebrating 100 years as a public library and will be spotlighting Belle de Costa Greene.
Clearly soul sisters and a perfect match, Victoria and Marie will be treating us to another great story soon – this one about the unique friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Mcleod Bethune. Unlike Belle de Costa Greene, who thought about race in her head but didn’t say a word, Eleanor and Mary will talk about it in the book, much like Marie and Victoria as they were forced to address and discuss race while writing The Personal Librarian during the racial unrest following the George Floyd murder.
It was such a joy to spend time with Victoria at the Book Nation Book Club event, learning about the collaboration process, Belle de Costa Greene, and JP Morgan’s personal library that is now public. Some of what we discussed is below in Q & A!
Q & A with Victoria Christopher Murray
Q: You wrote The Personal Librarian together with Marie Benedict – how did the idea for this story and this writing partnership come about?
A: Well, it all started with Marie. She learned about Belle while visiting The Morgan Library in New York. A docent mentioned Belle in passing, which intrigued her. Over time she wanted to explore Belle’s life and write her story but because Belle was a black woman passing as white, Marie knew she wanted to write Belle’s story with a black author.
After reading my novel, Stand Your Ground, Marie reached out to me and it took me a minute to get on board. But once I did I couldn’t wait to join forces to write this novel.
Q: What are the challenges of writing with someone else? How did you divide responsibilities?
A: For me, there are no challenges to writing with someone else. I prefer collaborations rather than writing alone and Marie and I worked out our system. We’d discuss every chapter and then depending on the chapter, I’d write the first draft or Marie would. Then we would switch the chapters for the other one to fill in/change/edit. During the editing we went over each line together.
Q: The writing of The Personal Librarian took place during the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, the protests across the country, Black Lives Matter movement, institutional racism, white supremacy and the Trump presidency. How did these occurrences in 2020 and 2021 impact your approach to telling Belle’s story?
A: Our book was about race while we were living in the middle of a racial reckoning. This gave us an opportunity to have honest conversations and begin to see the world through each other’s eyes. I can’t point to any specific situations where the storyline changed, but both of us had a better understanding of race in America from the other’s perspective and we were able to give those thoughts and feelings to Belle.
Q: The concept of passing has been around for a long time and recently it has become a topic of discussion – the movie, Passing, based on the book by Nella Larsen published in the mid 1980s and the more recent novel, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett both have brought about more conversations. I read your grandmother had some experience with passing as a white woman – can you tell us a bit about that?
A: The subject of passing is not a recent topic of discussion. From the movie Imitation of Life to Passing, there have been many other books about passing — it’s just that this year, all of those books became best sellers. As far as my personal family experience, my grandmother, like many in her time, would pass for convenience. If she went into a grocery store or a bank, she wouldn’t correct white people who thought she was white. She would move through the world that way to be treated fairly.
Q: This book required a deep dive into research. Where did you begin, did you visit any of the locations that you wrote about in the book (NYC, the Morgan Library, Washington DC, Chicago, England and France), and did you find everything you were looking for? Did you fall down any rabbit holes while doing research?
A: One thing that people think about historical fiction is that the writers are sitting in the bowels of libraries reading thousands of books and periodicals about one topic. That’s not what happens and definitely not in this case where there was little information available about Belle da Costa Greene. We read the definitive biography of Belle and then, we would research something when we came to it. When you’re writing, you don’t even know what you don’t know — until you get to it. So when it was time for the Vanderbilt Ball, we realized that we needed to get a floor plan of the mansion, determine what the women would wear, what would the waitstaff wear. We even had to research what kind of music would be played. So as a historical fiction writer, you are writing and researching at the same time.
Q: Belle was living as a white person along with her mother and siblings. When she got the exceptional job with JP Morgan which allowed her to be exposed to high profile people, wealth and culture, it seemed like she was caught between two worlds where she didn’t completely fit in to either. What would Belle’s life had been like had she and her family lived authentically? In your opinion, was it worth it to hide her true self from the world in order to achieve such great success? How does one make this type of decision?
A: For many people who chose to pass during that time, it wasn’t a matter of preference but a matter of survival. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 had just been overturned by the Supreme Court and the writing was on the wall. Belle’s mother Genevieve made a decision for her family that she thought was best. I could only imagine the daily fear of being discovered or the grief of having to sever relationships only to get to live a life you should be entitled to for simply being human. As to whether or not it was worth it, it was. Belle’s mother kept her children alive during a period where Black people were hunted and lynched.
Q: Belle, a single woman, and Mr. Morgan, a wealthy married man and her employer, had an unusual and special relationship. During the writing process, were you ever tempted to have them explore more intimacy?
A: No, not at all. They weren’t intimate and we tried to stay as close to the truth as possible.
Q: Belle and Bernard seemed to have a mostly honest and trusting relationship, aside from the obvious secrets they both were hiding from each other. Why do you think he kept betraying her?
A: I think Bernard kept betraying Belle because he just didn’t know how to have a committed relationship. I bet through his eyes, he never thought he was betraying her.
Q: When Belle’s father passed, Belle felt an incredible loss, even though he was not actively a part of her life. Do you think it was because he, in part, represented who she would have been had she lived authentically?
A: I think she felt a loss because he was her father. She had a full relationship with him until she was a teenager. Their relationship was formed. She loved him and felt his loss because he was her dad.
Q: Belle De Costa Greene is such an important person in our history; before The Personal Librarian was published, why didn’t more people already know about her?
A: I can’t tell you why people didn’t know about her, except that there was not much information out there about her. As I mentioned before, there was one biography, An Illuminated Life by Heidi Ardizzone that was the first to tell the story of Belle. But why should Belle da Costa Greene be any different from any woman in history. Women’s stories if not erased, have not been told. Women weren’t equal during Belle’s lifetime and certainly not Black women. She held power, but she couldn’t vote. No one had kept a record of her (by her wishes) so there was no way for her story to be told. And there are hundreds of other women like her out there.
Q: When did the world learn Belle’s true background, upbringing and race?
A: Before her death, she destroyed her letters and instructed others to do so. We know Bernard didn’t listen and those letters that she sent to him will be on display in the Morgan Library beginning this year, I believe. But the world came to know Belle through her father. Decades after his death, some of his papers were found and while no one was looking for his family, through those papers, they were able to make connections. Historians connected Richard T. Greener and Belle da Costa Greene, which was the way people discovered she was Black.
Q: I would love to see The Personal Librarian on Netflix! Any talks of making it on the big screen or tv?
A: We are absolutely thrilled to announce Al Roker and Deborah Roberts will be bringing Belle’s story to the screen as a limited series. Marie and I are absolutely honored to work with these two amazing people who have been huge supporters from the beginning.
Q: What other historical fiction books have you read recently that you recommend?
A: I absolutely love The Yellow Wife by Sadequa Johnson, Island Queen by Vanessa Riley, and Wild Women and the Blues by Denny Bryce.
About the Authors:
Victoria Christopher Murray
Victoria Christopher Murray is the author of nine Essence bestselling novels, including The Ex Files; Too Little, Too Late; and Lady Jasmine. Winner of the African American Literary Award for Fiction and Author of the Year (Female).
She has received numerous awards including the Golden Pen Award for Best Inspirational Fiction and the Phyllis Wheatley Trailblazer Award for being a pioneer in African American Fiction. Since 2007, Victoria has won nine African American Literary Awards for best novel, best Christian fiction and Author of the Year — Female. After four nominations, Victoria finally won an NAACP Image Award in Outstanding Literary Work for her social commentary novel, Stand Your Ground.
Victoria splits her time between Los Angeles and Washington DC.
Marie Benedict is a lawyer with more than ten years’ experience as a commercial litigator at two of the country’s premier law firms. While practicing as a NYC lawyer, Marie dreamed of a fantastical job unearthing the hidden historical stories of women — and finally found it when she tried her hand at writing. She embarked on a new, thematically connected series of historical fiction excavating the stories of important, complex and fascinating women from the past with THE OTHER EINSTEIN, which tells the tale of Albert Einstein’s first wife, a physicist herself, and the role she might have played in his theories. She then released CARNEGIE’S MAID, the story of a brilliant woman who may have spurred Andrew Carnegie toward philanthropy, followed by the NYTimes bestseller THE ONLY WOMAN IN THE ROOM, the tale of the Golden Age of Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr who made a world-changing invention, and LADY CLEMENTINE about Winston Churchill’s wife. She then wrote the NYTimes bestseller THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE which focuses on the real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie and the role it played in shaping her into the world’s most successful novelist. In her first co-written novel with Victoria Christopher Murray, Marie recently released the NYTimes bestselling and Good Morning America Book Club pick THE PERSONAL LIBRARIAN — and that will be followed by HER HIDDEN GENIUS in January 2022 about the brilliant British scientist Rosalind Franklin who worked to discover the structure of DNA, only to have her research take by James Watson and Francis Crick and used as the basis for their Nobel Prize-winning paper.