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  • An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege
  • Nena Couch
An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege. By Heidi Ardizzone. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 580 pp. $35.00. ISBN 978-0-393-05104-9.

The life of the librarian seldom is acknowledged beyond the confines of the community in which she or he is active; therefore, Heidi Ardizzone's biography [End Page 375] of Belle da Costa Greene, librarian to J. Pierpont Morgan and first director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, should be a welcome publication. Greene was a widely respected and successful librarian who made significant contributions to the development and refinement of Morgan's collection until his death and continued her work with his son John "Jack" Pierpont Morgan, Jr. She was actively involved in the establishment of the Morgan Library as a public institution. Her work had national and international impact and as such is worthy of a full-length biography. Enhancing her story is her testing of boundaries: she was a woman in what was a man's field, and she was of mixed race passing as white. However, Ardizzone's primary interests are not in Greene's significant professional accomplishments—although they are touched upon in An Illuminated Life—but in "Belle's social life and experiences" (10) and in speculation about a woman with both African American and white ancestry living as white.

Having chosen a subject who was a very private person in many ways and who destroyed her own papers prior to her death, Ardizzone was fortunate that Greene's correspondence of decades to her friend and lover, art scholar Bernard Berenson, is available for research at Harvard University's Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence. The writer has drawn very heavily on this correspondence as well as correspondence between Berenson and his wife, Mary, to document Greene's activities, opinions, ideas, and desires over many years. While Ardizzone has paraphrased large amounts of this material, she has quoted enough for the reader to catch the tantalizing sound of Greene's voice. Yet the reader must ask why the Greene and Berenson correspondence is cited so often. As one example, the information regarding Isabella Stewart Gardner's problems with U.S. Customs (213) is a matter of public record. Is a letter from Mary to Bernard Berenson the best source of factual information regarding that case?

In framing the discussion of Greene's mixed-race ancestry and its implications for her life, Ardizzone's expertise on the issues of race in American culture is evident. The difficulty comes in connecting this broader research to the details of Greene's life because of the lack of direct documentation. The author does the best she can with tenuous evidence but ventures into the area of speculation when discussing increasing rumors regarding Greene's ancestry. In her analysis of a 1934 report from Emmett Maun to M. L. Parrish, Ardizzone attributes Maun's physical description of Greene to Parrish's interest in the rumors; however, nothing in the passage confirms that Parrish specifically requested this report because of the Morgan director's race. The author makes assumptions throughout: "Maun's portrayal of Belle compels the conclusion that he was told to check for himself whether the rumors of Belle's having black ancestry were true"; "Parrish must have told Maun he had heard she might be part black" (442). In fact, if Parrish made such statements to Maun, Ardizzone does not quote or cite them. The information in Maun's letter describing Belle is of interest only if one wishes to engage in speculation. It is also surprising, given how carefully Ardizzone documents her work, that she fails to cite her statement that "at least one newspaper notice of Belle da Costa Greene's death" included the rumors of Greene's mixed race (479). What newspaper, and what did it say?

In Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene (Princeton University Press, 1954) editor Dorothy Miner describes what a biography of Belle Greene would be (x-xi), and some of it Ardizzone has accomplished, indeed illuminating part of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-3033
Print ISSN
2164-8034
Pages
pp. 375-377
Launched on MUSE
2010-08-19
Open Access
No
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