An Illuminated Life: Belle Da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone

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An Illuminated Life: Belle Da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege by Heidi Ardizzone

Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A world of fact squashed into a dense read regarding perhaps the most fascinating librarian to ever deserve a biography.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 514 Date: August 2007
Publisher: W W Norton & Co Ltd
ISBN: 978-0393051049

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About a hundred years ago, at the time of writing, a young woman was starting employment for the hugely rich industrialist JP Morgan, working in his collection of rare books, manuscripts, paintings and objets d'art that was soon to become one of the major philanthropic exercises of New York City.

Her name was Belle da Costa Greene, except it wasn't. She might have claimed to be nineteen, except she wasn't. She got the job that would have been perfect for a person, probably male, with expertise in such a world, although she wasn't and hadn't. She went on to become one of the highlights of New York society, however she might have wished otherwise - and of White New York society at that. Although, again, she wasn't.

Born Belle Greener she, like the rest of her family, made subtle and not-so subtle changes to her name when her father (the first African American to graduate Harvard) finally left his wife. He had seldom been around long enough to do much more than impregnate her, and certainly was away working for a few of his children's births.

Belle started working in libraries at Princeton, developing a fascination with older books and illustrated manuscripts, and learning at every opportunity - chances her parents, however middle class they managed to become seldom had. Before long, however, she was being introduced to the world of JP Morgan's rich collection, and becoming the personal guide for him as he expanded his wealth in the realms of great European artworks, incunabula, and Coptic Egyptian rarities found by chance.

The wage was a lot more than she should have expected, and New York was perhaps a lot more than she expected. She found the men there willing to share with her in the changing times of the 1910s and 1920s. They found her exotic, the world seemingly found fascination in a single woman of some intelligence doing so well and finagling great prices and auction wins for her boss, and she found one of her companions in the world of art dealing of great interest - the scholarly Bernard "BB" Berenson.

Berenson took advantage of his open marriage with his wife, if he didn't take advantage of Belle herself, and an affair of sorts was carried out with the occasional trans-Atlantic voyage allowing them to supplement the letters they wrote to each other. Never a straight-forward romance (like so much of Belle's life) it came to be summarised by her biographer here as "Thirteen years, five visits, untold numbers of other affairs for each of them, and one world war".

But there are a lot of other facets of Belle's life this book concentrates on, not least of which is the fact that her family history, and her own life, was chequered by whatever the consensus and the actual Census declared her race was. The addition of the Da Costa to her name was used to allege Mediterranean roots she hardly had, but in a world where many Americans relied on the not-one-drop rule of damning anybody with any black forefathers as Negro, mulatto, octoroon or indeed much worse, she was well aware she needed to work around her inheritance and make her way in life regardless.

She might well have practiced the idea of hiding in plain sight with her romances, although details of who she was seeing when and to what extent are very scarce, as well as sometimes flagrantly bringing a racial element to conversations to disarm her companions - and perhaps stop any questioning thoughts they might have had. And she would never admit to her real age, once at least claiming a twenty per cent discount on the actual figure.

The good selection of pictures will at times make you easily believe she was able to 'pass' - act white for white people, and at other times make you wonder how anybody could ever have been fooled. Photos most certainly can lie.

One of the minor niggles I have with this book, which is a sterling work of encyclopaedic research, detail and fact, is that while there are so many cases where our author sets the scene, detailing racial problems, society weddings and so much more to make her point, she sketches over one side of the racial question. The racism of African Americans against those coloured people who were by nature pale, or were working with white people, like Greener did, is washed out.

There could hardly have been a day or night when Belle was unaware of her colouring, which allowed her to exist in society along other major New York socialites, and that must have included both sides of the story - her wishes, and those of other African Americans who would only see betrayal.

Apart for that - well, who am I to say there are any mistakes in interpretation, errors in fact or misrepresented history? It's not a subject I can comment on, save that I felt very safe in our author's hands, and while I could never doubt her hard work in amassing such a wealth of intricate detail, I never found the book enjoyable to read as a result.

For anyone interested in JP Morgan, or the makers of America's major public institutions, or to a lesser extent life in 1910s and 1920s artistic America in general, this book is a godsend, written by the first person to use every letter still in the BB archives. But for anyone else interested in reading this as a biography of an admittedly very interesting person in very unusual times, it is not appropriate. There is such a wealth of detail regarding who saw Belle and Berenson on which occasion on their holiday in Italy together, so much of the opinion regarding Belle - and in turn of what she thought of every socialite, poet, artist and rake that passed through her circle - that the read is quite exhausting as well as exhaustive, with some periods of the story being told in what feels like real time. The world of her work does leak onto these pages, regarding acquisitions, forgeries and new finds, but only too seldom.

The rating from this member of the Bookbag team would be two stars and not a drop more, as I'm sure he would not be alone in finding the density of fact far too much, even discounting the sixty pages of notes. To those sharing a specialist interest with the author, however, it must count as a major work, and therefore only get five stars.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Thos interested in this period might well enjoy Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines.

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