Main / Books / The Personal Librarian / Summary

The Personal Librarian

Quick Recap & Summary By Chapter

The Full Book Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray are below.

Quick(-ish) Recap

The one-paragraph version: Belle de Costa Greene is a light-skinned black woman who is passing as white. She gets a job as J. P. Morgan's personal librarian for his newly constructed Pierpont Morgan Library in 1906. Over many years, she works to acquire and curate J. P. Morgan's collection of rare and ancient works and art, and she eventually becomes indispensable to him, even required to attend family events. They have a mutual attraction, but she decides against pursuing it. When Mr. Morgan passes away in 1913, he provides for Belle in his will, and she stays on as librarian. The book ends with Belle successfully convincing Jack (J. P. Morgan's son) to make the library public in the early 1920's.

Belle de Costa Greene is a light-skinned black woman who is passing as white. Her birth name is Belle Marion Greener. She is the daughter of Genevieve Fleet, woman from a prominent black family, and Richard Greener, a civil rights activist. Belle's parents separated because of Genevieve's decision to have their family pass as white. Belle is working at as a librarian at Princeton University when the cousin of infamous banker J. P. Morgan refers her for a job as J. P. Morgan's personal librarian for his newly-constructed Pierpont Morgan Library.

Belle starts the job in 1906, moving back to New York to live with her mother and siblings, all of whom are also passing as white. Over time, Belle gains the trust of Mr. Morgan and greater responsibilities. As she makes major acquisitions, it raises Belle's profile when she is featured in newspaper articles as a woman succeeding in an entirely male industry and building up an impressive collection of works. Belle is flirtatious and ostentatious, which makes her a society darling. The job also improves the financial security of her family as Belle is given multiple raises.

However, Mr. Morgan's daughter Anne Morgan continues to be wary of Belle. On multiple occasions, she asks Belle about rumors about her heritage (Belle claims to be of Portuguese descent). To fend her off, Belle counters by saying that she has also heard rumors about Anne -- that Anne is in a relationship with two other women, Miss Elsie de Wolfe and Miss Bessie Marbury.

Through her job, Belle meets Bernard Berenson, who wrote a book of art history that Belle's father had gifted her as a child. Though he is older than her, married and lives in Italy, Belle finds herself attracted to Bernard. When she learns that he's in an open marriage, Belle allows herself to pursue a romance with him. Eventually, however, when she's on a work trip to Europe, she becomes pregnant by him. He demands that she get an abortion. When it goes poorly and she is hospitalized for two days, he doesn't go to see her. Belle returns to New York heartbroken.

When Belle's grandmother on her mom's side dies, they finally go back to D.C., where the Fleet family lives, for a visit. For a long time now, they've had to stay away in order to distance themselves from their black ancestry. Later, Belle learns that her mother wasn't always set on passing as white. Belle's father Richard had been hired as a professor at a newly-integrated university when they were younger. They both became involved in activism for equal rights upon seeing the resistance people had to being de-segregated. However, eventually most Reconstruction-era policies were dismantled. The university went back to being whites-only, and Richard and Genevieve left with people spitting and throwing garbage at them. It was that experience that launched Richard's civil rights career, but it also led Genevieve to believe that the only way to survive was to take advantage of their light skin and pass as white.

In present day, since she began working for him, Mr. Morgan's most desired work had been the William Caxton edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. When Belle finally acquires it in 1911, they both give into their mutual attraction and share a kiss. However, Belle decides that a romantic relationship is not a good idea, given Mr. Morgan's history of cycling through mistresses. Afterwards, it causes her relationship with him to change as he becomes increasingly needy and jealous.

In 1913, Mr. Morgan passes away. He leaves Belle $50,000, which is enough to provide financial security for her family for the rest of their lives. After Mr. Morgan's death, his son Jack takes over the running of the library. Jack recognizes how valuable Belle has been for the library and keeps her on as librarian. Additionally, Anne's paramour Bessie encourages Anne to accept Belle, and Anne makes her peace with Belle.

Belle briefly reconnects with her father, and she tells him about her conflicting feelings about passing as white. But he recognizes that doing so allows her to do meaningful work, and he encourages to stay on her path if it allows her to keep doing it. Belle then starts to think about her legacy and how turning the library from a private collection into a public institution would make her work more meaningful. Meanwhile, Belle has been seeing Bernard again, but ends up realizing how selfish and uncaring he has been towards her and breaks things off with him.

The book ends with Belle successfully convincing Jack to make the library public. Many years later, as she burns all her records (to protect her identity and her life's work by extension), she wonders if people will someday learn that the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan was a black woman.

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

Section-by-Section Summary

Chapters 1 – 2 (November 28, 1905 – December 7, 1905)

In November 1905, Belle da Costa Greene, 26, is working as a librarian at Princeton University. Belle is a Black American who is passing as white. Belle’s real name is Belle Marion Greener.

At Princeton, Woodrow Wilson is the university president. The student body is all male and all white — despite all their other Ivy League peers accepting non-white students.

Mr. Junius Morgan is a banker and alumnus who has donated many historical manuscripts to the library (and therefore holds the titular title of associate head librarian). He and Belle are friendly and share a love for the poet Virgil. Today, Junius has arranged for a private viewing of the library’s very valuable Virgil collection for Belle. As they admire these rare works, Junius says his uncle, the “infamous” financier J. P. Morgan, is constructing a new home library in New York City. Junius has recommended Belle for the post of J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian.

Soon, Belle is back in New York City, where she lived from when she was 8 (before moving to Princeton), to interview for the job. Belle’s mother, Genevieve Fleet Greener, and siblings live in a small two-bedroom brownstone on West 113th St. They moved there two years ago because her older brother, Russell, was starting an engineering graduate program where he’s now pursuing degrees in multiple fields at Columbia University. As for her other siblings, Louise and Ethel, are schoolteachers, while the youngest, Theodora (“Teddy”), is still in school.

Before New York, Belle’s family lived with her mother’s family in Washington D.C. Belle thinks fondly of how beloved she was by Gramma Fleet, the family matriarch. The Fleets were raised to value education and hard work, and they were taught to maintain their comportment at all times.

At home, Belle’s mother reminds her that opportunities like this is why she wanted them to pass as white. Belle recalls her parents fighting over this when she was younger and she remembers how her parents’ marriage had became fractured over time. When Belle is 17, her father leaves. Richard had been the first Black graduate of Harvard and was the former dean of the Howard University School of Law. Also, while Belle’s mother came from the well-established Fleet family, her father was descended from slaves.

Belle’s father, Richard Greener, had been away frequently as part of his job for the Grant Monument Association where he often made speeches about equal rights. Her father felt that passing as white went against his work advocating for equal rights for Black people. It also caused other activists to distance themselves from him.

Chapters 3 – 5 (December 8, 1905 – January 8, 1906)

On December 8, the interview takes place at the Pierpont Morgan Library, the beautiful and newly constructed library of J. P. Morgan (referred to as Uncle Pierpont by Junius). J. P. inspects Belle carefully, and he asks her questions about rare works to assess her qualifications, pointing out that she is younger, female and less experienced than many of her peers. Belle answers him confidently and promises to make his library and collection unparalleled.

A month later, Belle arrives at the library to start her new job which pays a generous $75 a month and will give her family some financial breathing room. She also hopes the job will give her access to the higher tiers of society life. She’s greeted by King, J. P. Morgan’s business secretary, and she’s given an office and an assistant.

At home where Belle is back to living with her family, Belle’s family is excited to hear about her first day and are filled with thoughts of how the money will change their lives, while Belle worries about reports she’s heard of J. P. Morgan’s mercurial temperament. Belle’s also very aware that unlike her siblings, she’s attempting to pass as a white in an arena that is exclusively white, despite having a slightly darker skin tone than some of her siblings.

Thinking about the absence of her father for the last 8 years, Belle thinks back to her 10th birthday when he had bought her an art history book, The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance by Bernard Berenson. He had encouraged her love of art and history, but her mother had chided him for it. Instead, she wanted Belle to focus on being a schoolteacher in the future due to the reliability of the profession.

That night, Belle gets started on studying Latin. While not required of her, she knows many ancient texts Mr. Morgan will want to acquire will be in other languages, and Belle is determined to learn some additional languages to help assess those documents. As she studies, her mother brings in a letter from her Uncle Mozart with news about her father Richard. The letter states that Richard is now in Russia and has taken a Japanese woman as a common law wife. They have two kids. Hearing this, Belle thinks that her identity as “Belle Marion Greener” is truly gone and that she must embrace her identity as “Belle da Costa Greene”, a white woman (with Portuguese ancestry to explain her slightly darker skin).

Chapters 6 – 8 (May 24, 1906 – May 29, 1906)

By May, Belle’s responsibilities at the library have grown as Mr. Morgan has come to appreciate her. One request Belle thus far has not fulfilled yet regards Mr. Morgan’s desire to acquire Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, as printed by William Caxton. Only two copies are rumored to exist, though Belle has been unable to track it down thus far. Mr. Morgan also often asks Belle to read to him, often from the Bible or some rare book.

Mr. Morgan often has “special” visitors come by the library, which basically are his female paramours. His unmarried 32-year-old daughter, Anne, is sometimes recruited to travel with them as a cover. Anne’s political sensibilities lean liberal, unlike her father’s. Anne is cold towards Belle, which Belle suspects is because Anne is wary of any woman getting so much of her father’s attention. Mr. Morgan’s other children are Louisa (the favorite) and Juliet, both of whom are married, and his son John “Jack” Pierpont Jr.

Today, Mr. Morgan invites Belle to a ball being held at the Vanderbilt’s in four days. He says there will be a number of dealers, collectors and experts there. A few days later, Belle arrives alone at the Vanderbilt mansion for the ball, where everyone is dressed in finery. The Vanderbilts are newly rich and the opulence of their home acts as a showcase for that wealth. In comparison, Mr. Morgan lives in luxury, but not ostentatiously so. At the ball, Belle inspects the crowd, analyzing their mannerisms and social etiquette.

The reaction from the butler to discover that she attended solo lets her know she’s committed a social faux pas. And despite the effort she put into dressing herself, Belle knows she looks dowdy in comparison to everyone else. Still, Belle does a good job of being charming towards the people she meets, hoping to be accepted in this crowd. When she passes by a black serving-woman, the woman recognizes what she is, smiles and nods at her. Afterwards, Mr. Morgan praises Belle on her handling of an art dealer who had tried to sell them an substandard work. Belle senses a brief moment of attraction between the two of them.

At home just after midnight after the ball, Teddy is eager to hear all about the party. But Belle’s mother sternly reminds her she still needs to do her language lessons for the day, despite how exhausted Belle is from the party. Her mother sits with her while she does them. Even though her mother doesn’t know any Latin, Belle understands that her mother sitting with her is her mother’s way of caring for her.

Chapters 9 – 10 (November 4, 1906 – November 5, 1906)

By November, Belle feels comfortable in her role, though it still feels daunting for her to go talk to him. Today, they make arrangements to Belle to acquire a Bible formerly owned by King Charles the First. Belle asks to go to Boston to make the bid herself, and Mr. Morgan agrees.

Then, Anne walks in, and when Mr. Morgan walks away, she asks a pointed question about Belle’s ancestry, saying that she’s heard rumors about Belle’s “tropical” roots. Belle parries in response by hinting at rumors about Anne being in a relationship with two other women, Miss Elsie de Wolfe and Miss Bessie Marbury.

At the auction, Belle is ostracized by her male peers, but she makes it known that she’s been entrusted with this task by Mr. Morgan and that she’s up for the task. Belle wears a noticeable red scarf. When she ends up placing the final bid of a crowd-silencing $15k for the bible, she feels confident she’s made herself and the Pierpont Morgan Library known.

Chapters 11 – 12 (February 9, 1907 – November 2, 1907)

By February 1907, Belle has now gotten a raise and has had an article written about her in the New York Times. Today, Belle and Russell are at the Metropolitan Opera House (the “MET”) watching Aida from Mr. Morgan’s box. Since the Vanderbilt party, she’s been careful not to attend social gatherings unaccompanied. However, she generally prefers to attend with her fairer-skinned sisters to help deflect questions about their ancestry. After the show, Anne’s friend Elsie de Wolfe flags down Belle and Russell. Like Anne, she questions Belle about their heritage until Belle mentions rumors about Elsie’s personal life.

In October, with an economic crisis brewing, prices of certain object drop substantially, and Mr. Morgan insists they continue their purchasing spree to take advantage of the lower prices. Mr. Morgan has been educating Belle on financial matters, and she understands that this strategy is based on the assumption that the value of these items will rise again in the future. Soon, the stock market collapses and runs on banks begin as people desperately try to get their money out of banks when they realize that those stocks are serving as collateral for bank loans. At one point, Mr. Morgan reports that a friend of his has committed suicide due to his company being in financial distress.

As the crisis deepens, Mr. Morgan begins to lobby the government for economic stimulus spending. On November 2, he puts together a meeting of financial men — banking and trust people — to work out a way out of the crisis. As the men talk, Mr. Morgan asks Belle if she plays bridge, and she accidentally mentions seeing Grandmother Fleet playing. It confuses Mr. Morgan because Belle’s grandmother is supposed to be in Portugal.

Eventually, the men report that they believe they have a solution. In a celebratory mood, there is a moment where Belle sensing a feeling of attraction and longing between them. However, Mr. Morgan tells Belle that his romances tend to end badly, and he doesn’t want to lose her so he does nothing.

Chapter 13 (March 20, 1908)

On March 20, 1908, Belle is on her way to Washington, D.C. with her family for the funeral of Grandma Fleet, who passed away two days ago. Today, they are sitting in the noticeably worse black train car. Their mother has decided that as long as they are in the D.C. area, they are to live as black people.

On the way, Ethel asks why they haven’t been back to D.C. in so long. Belle says that after their father left, they could no longer afford the trip. However, while that is part of it, the main reason they haven’t gone back is that part of their mother’s decision for them to be “white” was to separate completely from her (black) family. Her siblings start talking about their anger towards their father and their lack of memories of him, and Belle feels sad for them because she has many fond memories of him.

When they arrive at the Fleet house, there is a tension in the air between their mother and her family members as Belle and her siblings enter. Aunt Minerva makes a pointed comment about the “Greene” family passing as white in New York, and she criticizes Belle’s mother for not letting Uncle Mozart visit them. But Belle’s mother defends herself, saying that she’s merely doing what’s best for her kids as a single mother with five children. Finally, Aunt Adalaide calms them all down, pointing out that Grandma Fleet would not have wanted them to fight if she were here.

A few days later, Belle is glad to see that despite the initial tension her mother and her mother’s siblings are now getting along. Privately, Uncle Mozart tells Belle that he’s heard from her father and that Richard is back in the United States. He also warns Belle to be careful in New York, in case Mr. Morgan discovers that she’s black. Because of the visibility of her new status, the costs of being discovered would be much higher.

Chapters 14 (May 2, 1908)

In May, Belle attends the gallery exposition for Edward Steichen, a photographer and gallery owner. He introduces her to his gallery partner, Alfred Stieglitz. They talk some modern artists, Rodin and Matisse, and afterwards Mr. Stieglitz gives her a photograph of the Rodin sculpture. However, the next day, a newspaper prints a rumor about modern art possibly finding its way into the Pierpont Library, and Mr. Morgan is furious. Belle has to reassure him that she has no intention of veering away from their focus on “traditional” works.

Chapters 15 – 17 (December 2, 1908 – December 22, 1908)

In December, Belle is sent on a trip to London involving an auction of a large number of Caxtons and other works, and she brings her mother as her chaperone. As they unpack Belle’s dresses, Belle explains to her mother that she is never going to fit in with her male peers, so she instead chooses to flaunt her gender. Her mother questions the wisdom of being so brazen and inviting scrutiny, but Belle insists that no one would suspect that someone who was secretly passing as white would invite that attention.

In London, Belle and her mother feel freer since slavery has been outlawed in the U.K. for longer, and less formalized segregation exists here. Belle soon meets with Lord Amherst, who owns the auction’s items, offering a pre-emptive bid on the Caxton works. She hints they she may not be willing to attend the auction otherwise. As she waits for his response, she meets with a number of collectors and dealers around the city. At the last minute, Lord Amherst accepts her offer, and Belle returns to New York victorious.

Back in the states, Mr. Morgan is delighted with Belle. Their celebrations are interrupted by the presence of Bernard Berenson, the Italian art expert who authored the art history book that Belle’s father had given her as a child, and his wife. (Privately, Mr. Morgan tells Belle that it’s rumored that Berenson is Jewish, with an anti-Semitic negative implication.) The Berensons live in Italy, and Mr. Berenson’s patron is Isabella Stewart Gardner, who has been amassing an art collection of her own in Boston. When Belle meets him, she tells him about reading his book as a child.

Later in the month, Belle attends a red-themed party hosted by Joseph Duveen and his wife where everything there is red-colored. By now, even though Belle sometimes senses the stares of others, she feels more confident and less worried about any whisperings about her heritage. As Belle chats with Mrs. Huntington, reportedly the richest woman in New York, she spots Mr. Berenson and his wife. When he comes over to talk to her, Belle senses that Mr. Berenson is flirting with her. As they talk about her role as Mr. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle feels he understands what she’s trying to accomplish with her collection. By the end of the night, Belle is eager to learn more about him.

Chapters 18 – 19 (March 24, 1909 – March 26, 1909)

In March, Mr. Morgan asks Belle to go to the opera with Rachel Costelloe, the stepdaughter of Mr. Berenson, in the hope of learning about Isabella Stewart Gardner’s intended art acquisition targets. Belle is excited at the prospect, knowing that her curiosity about in Mr. Berenson has only grown in the last three months.

Rachel and Belle meet at the MET for a showing of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. While Rachel knows nothing about her father’s business affairs, she does tell Belle that Mr. and Mrs. Berenson are in an open relationship. Belle has always known that her family’s heritage makes things like marriage unlikely, and she thinks that perhaps Mr. Berenson’s unique situation is good if she wants to explore that without worrying he’ll want more from her.

When she sees Bernard again, it’s at the “inner sanctum” of the MET. They meet with Mr. Johnson for a private viewing of a statue, and Bernard ends up correcting his dating and provenance of the statue. When Mr. Johnson protests, Belle defends Mr. Bernard. Afterwards, Bernard tells Belle that he’s leaving for Italy in three days, but he asks Belle to go to dinner with him before he departs. They end up at Bernard’s hotel suite for dinner, where things get physical. However, before things can go further, Belle stops him and he promises to prove his devotion to her before things progress.

Chapter 20 (April 1909 – August 1909)

Belle grows increasingly ostentatious and flirtatious in society life, and gets invited to everything. She says outrageous things, which people love, but she starts to feel like she’s being trotted out to put on a show. Belle starts drinking a little too much, to the consternation of her mother. Belle decides to rent her family a summer lakehouse for two months to get some distance from her mother.

While she’s alone, Belle decides to reach out to some old friends from school, Katrina and Evelyn. Katerina is now an officer of the Woman Suffrage Party of New York, and Evelyn paints portraits. They both talk about how other women they know look up to Belle because of what she’s been able to achieve. Meanwhile, Belle feels inspired by the work her friends do, too. Afterwards, Belle goes home and reads letters that Bernard has sent her.

Chapters 21 – 23 (June 2, 1910 – August 14, 1910)

By June 1910, Belle is starting to feel a bit stifled by Mr. Morgan’s neediness as he depends on her for all aspects of life. It started after Mr. Morgan insisted that she attend his son Jack’s birthday celebration not to long ago, despite never having asked her to attend strictly family events. It was the first of many family affairs he would require her presence at.

Today, Belle pitches the idea of a trip to London and Italy to acquire a rare manuscript and other items. However, Mr. Morgan asks her to promise that her real goal isn’t just to find an excuse to see Bernard Berenson (which is, in fact, her real goal). Belle reassures him that her focus will be on the Pierpont Library.

In August, Belle arrives by ship in London for her trip. She is accompanied by Marie, a woman she hired to serve as a chaperone for the trip, though their plan is to actually have Marie go off to visit Switzerland so Belle can be alone. Bernard meets Belle at the docks, and the two embrace. The next few days, they meet with various art dealers and collectors. Then, on the third day, Bernard says that Mary, his wife, is joining them for lunch because she would like to meet Belle. At lunch, Mary acts casual about the whole thing, though Belle feels very uncomfortable.

Later, they meet with Mr. Taylor so Belle can make a pre-emptive bid for an item that is soon to go to auction. She knows that the item in question is incorrectly attributed to the wrong painter, and she uses that information to secure her bid to acquire that item without an auction.

A few days later, Belle and Bernard travel to Italy. In Verona, Bernard is spotted by Jacques Seligmann, an art dealer who knows them both. Belle makes a hasty getaway so that Jacques does not see her there. Back at the hotel room, Belle and Bernard finally sleep together. When they finish, Bernard says something in Russian, and Belle wonders who Bernard Berenson really is. She wonders if he perhaps is a Russian Jewish immigrant.

Chapters 24 – 27 (September 23, 1910 – October 26, 1910)

Weeks later, as Belle pens an update for Mr. Morgan, Bernard expresses jealousy over Belle’s closeness with her employer. However, Belle reassures him that while Mr. Morgan has her loyalty, Bernard has her heart.

Soon, Belle realizes that she is pregnant. She realizes that she will need to tell Bernard the truth about herself if she is to keep the child. When she tells him about the pregnancy the next day, Bernard is cold. He says that he doesn’t want children and she knew that. He tells her to do something about “her condition”. Belle wants to keep the child, but she doesn’t know what complexion it would have. As she thinks through what could happen, she sees that as an unmarried mother and a black woman, her options are severely limited.

Belle first takes a “liver pill” to try to abort the pregnancy, but it doesn’t work. She is soon accompanied back to London by a friend of Bernard’s, Ethel Harrison, where she gets an abortion. After being feverish for two days, likely due to the pill she took, she finally comes to, though she cries about what she’s had to do. Afterwards, Ethel informs Belle that Bernard will not be traveling back to London to see her.

A few weeks later, Belle is on a ship back to the States, heartbroken from not having seen Bernard since departing Italy. On the ship, she runs into Anne Morgan. Anne is traveling with Bessie Marbury, one of Anne’s romantic partners who is also a famous literary agent who represents George Bernard Shaw and formerly represented Oscar Wilde. As they talk, Bessie and Anne mention that they saw Bernard, who mentioned showing Belle parts of Italy. Afterwards, Anne warns Belle that she now knows another one of her secrets.

Chapter 28 (December 14, 1910)

Since the Europe trip, Bernard has continued to write her, making it difficult for Belle to move on. A few months later, Belle is back in New York and at the opening of the Century Theatre, and she is drunk. Her companion, Giulio Gatti-Casazza (director of the MET), suggests she better end the night, but Belle disagrees and offers to go home with him. He declines and sends her home. Belle makes a drunken comment about her “dark blood”, though Giulio seems to dismiss it as nonsense.

Back at her apartment, Belle’s mother chides her for coming home drunk at 2:00 AM and asks her what happened in Europe, saying that she seems reckless now. When Belle dismisses her mother’s words, her mother starts telling a story about herself and Belle’s father when they were much younger. Richard had just become a professor at a newly un-segregated university following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. At first, things had gone okay, though the white people disliked being in classes with black people and being taught by a black professor. That had prompted Richard to start really fighting for equality, and Belle is surprised to learn that her own mother had once been a part of that fight (instead of just wanting to pass for white). Her mother also tells her that during that time period, she had their first baby, Horace, but he was sickly and died.

However, in the government, when the Democrats took over, they dismantled the work of the Reconstruction era. In the end, the university was turned back into a white-only institution, and Richard and Genevieve were spat at and had garbage thrown at them as they left campus. Based on that experience, Richard had launched his career advocating for civil rights while Genevieve had decided that passing as white was the only way to survive. Listening it her story, she understands her mother’s mentality and why she gave up a life she loved to pass as white, and it strengthens Belle’s resolve to do justice to the opportunity she has now.

Chapters 29 – 30 (April 20, 1911)

Since that talk with her mother, Belle has been much more careful once again. Today, Mr. Morgan has set Belle upon the task of helping him to juggle the visits of three (out of four) of his mistresses who are all in town at the same time. Of the four mistresses, Lady Johnstone is the only one that Belle really respects.

This year, Belle has purchased two adjoining apartments that are close to the Library. Her family lives in one large one, and Belle lives by herself in a smaller adjacent one.

Tonight is the auction for the William Caxton edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, which Mr. Morgan has been demanding since she started working for him. At the auction, a California railroad tycoon, Henry Huntington, bids aggressively and drives up the prices on all the items, winning a large amount of them. The Caxton is at the end of the auction, and Belle wins with a shocking bid of $50,000.

Afterwards, the reporters flock to Belle to ask her about her victory. She talks about how instead of a private collector in California winning the valuable work, the Caxton will remain in New York to be available for scholarly study. Later, as she finally hands Mr. Morgan his Caxton, he is delighted. He also tells her that publications all around America are eager to write about her in their papers tomorrow. In his last update, Uncle Mozart wrote that Belle’s father was living in Chicago by himself, and she thinks about him reading about her exploits.

In celebration, Belle and Mr. Morgan kiss. But when Mr. Morgan asks if this is a good idea, Belle then says no, thinking of his many lovers who have cycled in and out of his life. After he leaves, Belle wonders if rejecting him was the right choice.

Chapter 31 (January 14, 1913)

By 1913, Belle’s relationship with Mr. Morgan is no longer the same. He has been clingy and jealous as Belle’s raised profile means that more people are speculating about her romantic relationships. Now, he often asks Belle personal questions about what she’s been doing or what her plans are. He tells Belle that if she marries, then he’s done with her, which she views as “a threat, one that has both financial and emotional impact”. When he says that he “owns” her, Belle angrily walks out of his office for the first time without being dismissed.

Chapters 32 – 33 (April 1, 1913 – September 8, 1913)

On April 1, 1913, Belle learns that Mr. Morgan has contracted an illness while traveling in Cairo, and she eventually receives a telegram informing her of his death on March 31, 1913. His body is soon laid to rest at the Pierpont Morgan Library. After the funeral, Jack insists on riding with Belle, and he insists that together they will ensure that his father lives on.

With Mr. Morgan gone, Jack takes over the running of the library, though Belle knows he sees it more as a collection of assets than actually connecting with each of the pieces the way that his father did. Jack soon tells Belle that his father left him the library in his will. He also required that Jack continue employing Belle for at least a year, though Jack says he would have done the regardless. He also says that Mr. Morgan left her a bequest of $50,000, which is enough to provide her and her family financial security for their entire lives.

Chapters 34 – 35 (November 20, 1913 – December 4, 1913)

Still struggling with her grief, Belle turns to reading as she learns about the work that her father does and reads the works of civil rights leaders. She wonders what she, as a black woman passing as white, can do to help with this work. One night as Belle dines with her friend Katrina and some other women, they turn to the topic of equal rights for women. Belle thinks of how she has neglected these issues about race and gender. Then, a friend of Katrina’s, Jonathan, walks up with a book written by W. E. B. DuBois, and he talks about the ideas in the book. Later, Belle goes home with the young man and fooling around, but ends up pushing him away before things get further. Belle realizes what she really needs is to figure out who she wants to become.

In December, Belle makes her way to Chicago to find her father. The happily catch up, and they both express regrets at not having been a part of each others’ lives for so long. She tells her father about her personal crisis in not knowing what to do going forward now that she no longer has to worry about money. He asks her if she thinks her work has meaning, and Belle says yes, but she wonders if she should be living as a black person instead of passing as white. He tells her that it seems right now she can’t have her job and live as a black person, so he advises that she continue her current course given how she has managed the impressive feat of staking out a role as an important librarian and art historian.

Chapters 36 – 37 (December 10, 1913 – December 23, 1913)

Towards the end of the month, Belle finally sees Bernard again with Mary in New York. Belle is cold towards Bernard, telling him about the bohemian friends she hangs out with now, knowing he’ll disapprove. Privately, Mary tells Belle that Bernard is actually from Lithuania (and not Boston) and has to hide that from people. Mary also thinks that there is no one that can replace her (Belle) when it comes to Bernard and urges her to give him another chance.

Belle sees now that because of his background Bernard is incapable of letting anyone get too close to him. Instead, she decides to simply enjoy him as a lover. They decide to agree to be with each other only when in one another’s company, and to be separate to pursue other people when they are apart.

On December 23, Jack and his wife return from traveling having spent their time abroad listening to many people extol the virtues of the Pierpont Morgan Library and Belle. Jack has realized that perhaps they don’t need to “divest” assets from the collection, seeing how many people view it as such an important collection. It’s also agreed that Belle will continue her role as librarian.

Anne also goes to talk to Belle, saying that Bessie has been encouraging her to reconsider her negative feelings toward Belle. Anne tells Belle that she supports the idea of her continuing on as the librarian. Anne then brings up the question of Belle’s heritage again, and Belle accidentally confirms her suspicions, but Anne but promises to keep her secret.

Chapters 38 – 39 (October 2, 1916 – December 10, 1916)

By October 1916, Belle arrives in England. The country is now at war, which has resulted in many rare books being up for sale. Belle goes to see Jack, who talks to her about possible acquisitions and the sale of Mr. Morgan’s Fragonard paintings. But when Belle suggests her going next to Paris, Jack forbids it. He says that travelling around Europe is too risky right now because of the war.

A six weeks later, still in London, Belle meets with Joseph and Henry Duveen, two brothers who may be serving as brokers for the Fragonard sale. They also seem to know about another sale of Mr. Morgan’s assets that Belle had told no one about other than Bernard. The Duveen brothers brothers offer Belle a cut if she’s willing to use them as brokers in the sale of Mr. Morgan’s assets, but Belle knows that for her to profit personally in that way is unethical. They also let Belle know that they’ve had these types of dealings with Bernard Berenson, and Belle understands now that Bernard betrayed her to be useful to these men. Belle declines their offer and cries afterwards, realizing what type of man Bernard really is.

On December 10, Belle gets ready to depart London having been triumphant professionally during this trip, but sad about Bernard, who she has sent a parting letter to. Bernard shows up to apologize, but Belle rejects his pleas, telling him how uncaring and selfish he has been towards her.

Chapters 40 – 41 (June 4, 1922 – June 26, 1922)

Belle’s father dies of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 2, 1922, though Belle doesn’t hear about it until after the funeral. A month later, Belle goes to visit his grave at the Cedar Hill Cemetery, passing by Mr. Morgan’s grave on the way. As Belle thinks about the type of legacy she wants to leave and her father’s words about living a life of meaning, Belle realizes that she needs to convince Jack to make the library public to be able to make a positive impact in the world. As she thinks about the type of person Jack is and understands that he’s someone who values tradition. It occurs to her that the way to convince Jack is to make him view turning the library public as a way of honoring his family custom of paying respect to his lineage.

A few weeks later, Belle goes to talk to Jack and asks him how he plans to “pay tribute” to his father, noting how Mr. Morgan had once erected a statue in honor of his own father. She talks about how in the will, Mr. Morgan had mentioned making the library “permanently available for the instruction and pleasure of the American people” and she suggests to him that this means making it publicly accessible.

Chapter 42 (March 28, 1924)

By 1924, all around the United States, there has been rising racial animosity against black people, with lynchings and massacres taking place all over.

In March 1924, Belle has agreed to an interview with Samuel Beckett of the New York Times to discuss the library and her role there. As she gives him a tour of the library, they talk about how the library is now public and what an important cultural gift that is. When he inquires about rumors that Belle and Mr. Morgan had a romantic relationship, Belle gamely responds by saying “suffice it to say that we tried”.

Epilogue (January 14, 1948)

In 1948, Belle is burning a number of her records and old letters to ensure that her ancestry will not be revealed and destroy her legacy. Still, she wonders if someday someone will discover that the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan named Belle de Costa Greene was a black woman.

If this summary was useful to you, please consider supporting this site by leaving a tip ($2, $3, or $5) or joining the Patreon!

Share this post


Bookshelf -- A literary set collection game