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The Soul of the Morgan Library


Belle da Costa Greene (1879-1950), circa 1913 by Paul-César Helleu (Black, red, and white chalk; postcard from the The Morgan Library)

This is Belle da Costa Greene. She became J.P. Morgan’s librarian in 1905 and for the next 43 years she spent millions of dollars buying rare manuscripts, books, and art. Her aim was to make Morgan’s library “pre-eminent, especially for incunabula, manuscripts, bindings and the classics.” She traveled frequently, staying at the best hotels in Europe and collecting autographed manuscripts, rare books, old master drawings, and medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. (I have a degree in Library and Information Science and this is a job I’d like to have!)

We loved discovering the hidden treasures of The Morgan Library & Museum at Madison Ave. and 36th  St. in New York where “every object is a treasure.” We saw original manuscripts by Mozart, drawings by great masters, illuminated texts, an envelope that Galileo had used to sketch Jupiter’s moons, and even the Martin guitars that belonged to Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie (in a special exhibit). A recent addition integrates Morgan’s three historical buildings into a steel-and-glass pavilion that feels like an Italian piazza.

From all accounts Belle was beautiful, smart, charming. She said, “Just because I am a librarian, doesn’t mean I have to dress like one,” so she wore couture gowns and jewels to work. See a photo of Belle after the jump.

Photograph of Belle da Costa Greene by Clarence White; Pierpont Morgan's librarian and first director of the Morgan Library, 1911 (For more information see An Illuminated Life: Belle Da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heide Ardizzone; to be published March 2007)



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