|Belle da Costa Greene|
"The Personal Librarian" has introduced countless readers to the life and legacy of Belle da Costa Greene. Belle has been well and truly outed as the smart, ambitious and accomplished Black woman that she was, thanks in no small part to the efforts of co-authors Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray. It was a real treat to hear from Murray about Belle and the process of bringing her to life for their readers.
Belle was not the first accomplished member of her family. Her father was Richard T. Greener, a professor, lawyer and diplomat who was the first African-American graduate of Harvard. It was Greener who introduced Belle to the world of illuminated books and art, taking her to museums and poring through art history books with her from her earliest years. And it was Greener's activism that led his wife Genevieve and their children -- but not Greener himself -- to live their lives passing as White.
In 1883, the Supreme Court overruled the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Predictably, violence against Blacks rose. One day Greener received a message from some friends that the Klan was coming for him. Genevieve told him to escape and that she and the children would follow in a few days. But there had been a misunderstanding. The Klan was after the entire family, including the kids. And so the Greeners decamped and moved to New York. From the age of 16, Belle passed as White when outside her home. No longer was she Belle Marion Greener. She had become Belle da Costa Greene, a young woman from a family of Portuguese descent.
The fact that Belle was Black wasn't unearthed until more than 30 years after her death. She burned all of her personal papers before she died, leaving little for researchers to discover. But a writer researching J.P. Morgan and those close to him stumbled upon Belle's birth certificate. The box next to "colored" was checked for Belle's race. She had suddenly become an even more complex figure.
|Victoria Christopher Murray|
Murray shared that two pivotal events happened during the writing process. The first was the pandemic. The second was the death of George Floyd. Suddenly, these two women were in an altered world. Imagine how these new colleagues -- one White and one Black -- must have felt during a time of such turmoil to be working on a book about a woman who had hidden her race from the world. Not surprisingly, the fate of George Floyd, the societal underpinnings of his death and the Black Lives Matter movement became major topics of discussion. These conversations brought a depth to their relationship that might not have otherwise occurred. It facilitated their trust in one another. Today they consider themselves sisters.
Murray and Benedict spent hours each day on Zoom going over the book. They would work on five chapters at a time, with one person writing the first draft and then handing it over to the other for editing. The process can't have been easy given their wildly different styles. Murray said she would write something like, "Belle would go into J.P,'s office and say, 'What's up, dude?" Benedict would massage the language. Then Benedict would pen a lead up to a steamy love scene that went something like, "They entered the room and closed the door." Murray definitely needed more. At the end of the day, the book reads more like Benedict than Murray, but it is after all set in the Victorian era.
|Bust of Belle by Jo Davidson|
On display at the Morgan Library
And as to the question of whether Murray and Benedict got the story right? Well, as Murray pointed out, the genre is called historical fiction. But the pair had the opportunity to hear from a Morgan family member on a Zoom call with the board of the Morgan Library. At first, all they could see of the speaker was his forehead. "That book was a hoot!" the forehead repeatedly said. It wasn't exactly what Murray and Benedict had been going for, but okay. Eventually someone helped the gentleman get his face on the screen. It was one of J.P. Morgan's great grandsons, now 90+ years old. After repeating once again that the book was a "hoot," he told Murray and Benedict that they had gotten two things wrong. And what, they asked, was that? "Ann [J.P.'s daughter] was nicer than you portray her in the book, and Jack [J.P's son] was boring." Or so it seemed to the man who was six years old at the time in question. I'm pretty sure this insight wouldn't have altered the storyline.
Kudos to everyone involved in creating and implementing Sarasota's One Book/One Community project for the past 20 years. And, of course, to those responsible for bringing Victoria Christopher Murray to Sarasota to talk about "The Personal Librarian." In a season packed with fun events, it's a night that continues to stand out. Murray was a hoot.
And if you want more from the team of Murray and Benedict, be on the look out for "The First Ladies" come June. This time they're taking on the partnership between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Murray shared that a third book by the pair is already in the works. For a short interview with Benedict and Murray that took place in the Morgan Library, click here. And for more on Victoria Christopher Murray, click here.