Monday, February 23, 2009

An Illuminated Life

13. An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege, by Heidi Ardizzone

It is a rare visit to New York that I do not go to the Morgan Library and Museum. With its extraordinary holdings of illuminated manuscripts, fine bindings, old master prints and drawings, it is a splendid place to while away the hours. Although it was J.P. Morgan's interest and money that began the collection, Belle da Costa Greene, his personal librarian and, later, director of the Morgan Library, was, in large part, responsible for shaping and directing it. He hired her, fresh from Princeton, in 1905, and she remained at the Library until shortly before her death in 1950.

Ardizzone's book concentrates on two main themes: Greene's family background and her love affair with Bernard Berenson.

Greene was born Belle Marion Greener, into a family of color that had been part of the District of Columbia's black élite. Indeed, her father was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard. But when he and her mother, Genevieve, separated, perhaps due to class differences, perhaps because of his political activities in the race arena, Mrs. Greener, by then living in New York, changed her name and she and her children lived as white. Ardizzone is careful to use the term "lived as white" as opposed to "passing" to allow for the very real possibility that they considered themselves white, having a predominantly white ancestry. (Her discussion of the changing "rules" and cultural assumptions regarding racial identity is, indeed, one of the more interesting parts of this book.* ) Belle created the fiction of a Portuguese ancestry to account for her darker complexion, and was often described as "exotic"-looking.

The majority of the book is devoted to Greene's relationship with art historian/art dealer Bernard Berenson, a womanizer of great renown. (Berenson's wife, Mary, vacillated between being a facilitator of his relationships, and getting depressed and angry over them. What a household!) Belle differed from Berenson's other women, though, in that she was a career woman. She couldn't (and wouldn't) drop everything to be with him, and over the years they were apart more than they were together. Although each had needs and desires that the other could not fulfill, their influence on each other was enormous. (Sadly, while her letters to Berenson were saved, his to her were lost when she chose to destroy her personal papers before her death. It is to Ardizzone's credit as an historian that she has been able to write such a credible account of this relationship sans those documents.)

Greene, dubbed by the press the "glamorous librarian", was a mass of contradictions (but then, aren't we all?). She was close to her family, living with them and often being the sole, or major, financial support. Yet she seems to have kept them quite separate from her professional life. She lived as white, but frequently made veiled references to her black ancestry (and surely, if she were open about this, it would have negatively affected her in her profession). She had a tumultuous affair with Berenson, as well as relationships with other men, but the times required that she be as discreet as possible. Despite having made her way in the professional world, she was ambivalent about suffrage and the women's rights movement.

Although Ms. Ardizzone is often repetitious in making her points, her subject matter is so interesting that it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that I missed any real sense of how and why Greene became such a powerful figure in her world of book and manuscript collectors. I wanted more about her work, more about her influence on the development of Morgan's collection, more about how she gained her own expert knowledge. Nevertheless, Ardizzone has written a compelling personal biography about a fascinating woman.

*As it happens, while I was reading this book I saw an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art which included a piece by Adrian Piper, Cornered, on this very theme. Addressing the viewer in video, Piper challenges us to consider our assumptions about how we identify ourselves and others racially. On the wall are two birth certificates for Piper's father, issued a couple of decades apart: one identifies him as "mulatto", the other says that he is "white". Appearance often trumped the "one drop" rule (the laws that said "one drop" of Negro blood made a person black). Indeed, the historic Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the United States Supreme Court, allowing legally mandated segregation, arose from a challenge to such laws in which African-Americans sought to show the illogic of such segregation by the very fact that Mr. Plessy had to tell the train conductor that he was not white. Years later, Mr. Plessy self-identified as white in order to vote.

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