Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

Steve Thomas: Marie, Victoria, welcome to the show.

Victoria Christopher Murray: Thank you for having us.

Marie Benedict:  Thank you for having us. We’re excited to talk about The Personal Librarian.

Steve Thomas: So , this is a library podcast , so I wanted to start off with just asking about, what’s been your experience with libraries either as a kid or now as an adult doing research. How have you been interacting with libraries throughout your life?

Victoria Christopher Murray: So , my first earliest memories are of being in the library. I got my library card when I was seven years old and it was the greatest, it had my name on it. I no longer had to go through my mom, even though she had to drive me. I didn’t know how to get there, and every week, every Tuesday, either my mom or dad. Would take us to the library and I will never forget of that.  I was determined to read every book from A to Z in the children’s section , and that’s where my love for books and writing began.

Marie Benedict: I love that., um, also, you know, like a specter in the library that wouldn’t leave from what I was a young kid,  like Victoria, I was a really young precocious reader.

I’m always had my nose buried in a book and it’s hard to keep kids like that in reading, you know, in books. I grew up in Pittsburgh where I’ve returned to now, and we had a wonderful children’s librarian in our local library. Who really helped my mom out to find books that  were age appropriate, but also kind of level appropriate and she kept me in books for most of my childhood.

Steve Thomas: That’s great. So your book, the Personal Librarian tells the story of a different kind of librarian. This is JP Morgan’s personal librarian Belle de Costa Greene , who the big twist, I guess, is that she’s black, but is she is passing for white.  How did you first come across Bell’s story? And, what made you want to write about her when you heard about her?

Marie Benedict: It started for me years ago I was a New York city lawyer. I was a commercial litigator for a long time and , I don’t want to say disgruntled, but maybe it wasn’t quite the right fit. And I knew it and I would, you know, take little field trips to, for myself to kind of envision another life. And the Morgan library was one of those places for me. People who maybe who haven’t had the opportunity to go there, it is just a stunning place. The original building is really four main huge multiple story rooms. JP Morgan’s study, the librarian’s office, and of course the library itself and it houses and has always housed a world-class collection of rare and priceless manuscripts. I used to go there to escape and I was there, gosh, I don’t want to say it was a long time ago. Over 15 years, we’ll go maybe 20, could be longer, and a docent happened to mention Belle da Costa Greene. She mentioned that there was this, you know, young librarian who was really JP Morgan’s right-hand person, not just , collecting and organizing books, but curating the collection, acquiring, representing negotiating.

And so much more to him personally. And I didn’t know at that time about her secret but I thought it was just astonishing that a woman at that time period held such power. Cause she really did grow up to become an extremely powerful and influential person in the, in the art in mirror book world , and so she kind of made her man to my list. I write books about unknown historical women , and I knew though that I really needed and wanted to have a partner in the story. And Belle is a black woman. Who’s passing this white, and I knew she deserved to have a black woman tell her story as well. And it wasn’t until I read Victoria’s fantastic book, which I’m sure is in many of your libraries, Stand Your Ground , which looks at the really hard issue of the shooting of young black men by police officers.

 The perspective of the boy’s mother and also the wife of the white police officer, really different look from the women’s point of view of this issue. I really had hoped I found my partner in that. So that’s sort of a long-winded explanation of how I came to the story, but that’s not how we came to write the book, but there’s a lot more to that.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, Victoria, a lot of your work is more contemporary,

Victoria Christopher Murray: Much more contemporary..

Steve Thomas: Yeah. So what was it about sort of Marie’s pitch or just Belle’s story that wanted you to get involved?

Victoria Christopher Murray: It was Marie’s pitch. My agent sent me a copy of The Other Einstein, which I loved, but when I was reading it, I just knew that wasn’t for, I could write like that. I couldn’t write the detail of the history and drawing up the characters that way. And I just wasn’t sure if that was for me , but after reading through the treatment, it took me a couple of months to say, okay, let me speak with Marie. And once we spoke after two minutes, I was absolutely sure I could do it because it was a collaboration. So I didn’t have to know all of the history. I didn’t have to know how to do that. I felt very comfortable immediately that I could do this with Marie and she would lift me up with any of the weaknesses I  had for writing historical fiction and what was so great is that I learned it all. I started learning how to use the language and researching so it became something that was really a lot of fun for me.

Marie Benedict: You know, I had never collaborated before. So for me the way our strengths and weaknesses just really meshed really beautifully was such a gift in this process. And just the way in which our conversations shaped the novel as well.

It was really. I I’ve said it before, but the gift for me in writing this book, obviously, of course, is having Belle’s story known because she is important , not just for the Morgan Library itself, but the legacy she left for libraries in general. But, the gift for me  is my friendship with Victoria

Steve Thomas: Victoria,  I know you have collaborated in the past.  so what is it about collaborations that you love doing?

Victoria Christopher Murray: That I love? Oh, I love collaborating more than I enjoy writing alone now because I’ve done six books with ReShonda Tate Billingsley. And what I love about collaborating is you’re not in it alone. So with Maria and I, on this book, we talked about every chapter even far more than I had done in past collaborations, we talk through the chapters ahead of time. And then depending on whose strength we thought it was, we would write it and then we switched it. And so I am so proud of the fact that we wrote every word of this book together. Now I do believe that you have to have a writing soulmate. I don’t think I could just choose any other writer, even if it was a writer that I loved reading.  Your personalities have to mesh as well, and you have to trust each other. You have to know that anything you’re going to change or talk about or you’re going to have to be okay with disagreements.

So I can’t even think of it disagreement Marie and I had, but you’re going to have to be okay with that and just wanting to explore deeper. That’s one of the things I loved about working with Marie, we had a first draft, which was very surface. We didn’t know that at the time . But then the longer we went on with Belle and do the editing process. And as social unrest, came up in the country around us, her story got deeper. 

Steve Thomas: And obviously during a pandemic there probably wasn’t the time that you were able to get together physically to do that. So what kind of technology did you guys use to collaborate? Like you’re talking about, you’re both working on the texts at the same time. Are you doing like a Google docs kind of thing? Or what kind of stuff did you use?

Marie Benedict: Well, you’re not talking to two of the most tech savvy individuals in the world here. Oh, I will say what I personally am super thankful for is Zoom. I mean , it was something that was available previously prior to the pandemic, but it was something that became so second nature during the pandemic. And Victoria and I made excellent use of it. I mean,  we probably connected much more efficiently, effectively, more deeply once we added zoom to the equation . You know, previously it was more phone calls and we did meet in person. You know, Victoria, both prior to the pandemic, traveled a ton to do events and, um, you know, book book-related activities.  So I feel like the technology of Zoom and the fact of the pandemic, which was terrible, but forced us in particular to kind of settle in one place that actually gave us much more of an opportunity to be in some ways together. When I look back on the pandemic , one of my strongest memories of that whole time stretch is actually being with Victoria, even though we were never actually been physically together. So I think for me, that was probably the best fit. Victoria. Was there some other technology that you loved?

Victoria Christopher Murray: And she’s saying that because we are not very techy,  but it was Zoom every day for hours, not 15 minutes, but hours as we wrote it. And you asked if we would use a Google docs, if we did you wouldn’t see this book right now, because one of us would have been able to figure out how to do it. So we did, we had to do some old fashioned, just making sure you deleted the other chapter. You know, when you got it, we had to do a lot of that organizing. But everything just meshed together. She’s my soulmate in writing, she’s my writing soulmate. It just was so easy. People say the book is seamless and that’s because it was seamless as we wrote it. 

Marie Benedict: That’s exactly right.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I was going to say that, just reading it, if you didn’t know, there were two authors, you wouldn’t know that because I mean, it flows so well, like I have no idea which chapters anybody wrote.

Marie Benedict: Well really there was so much exchange of the chapters, you know, we might start, you know, history is really my jam  obviously and so I might start out in a particular chapter, writing the historical section and Victoria might be in love with a certain exchange and we would try that and then switch it, talk it through and then each of us would kind of add to it. You know, one of my strengths is getting that first draft done. And that’s something that Victoria, I don’t mind saying this for her because she hates it. And so, you know, I would put those tracks out, hand them to her and she would say, you know what? We need some emotional tension here, or we need to go deeper here and that’s something that I couldn’t see, because I was already done, right. That’s her real specialty.

Victoria Christopher Murray: That’s my jam.

Marie Benedict: Yeah. So it really so fortunate in our friendship and in  our sort of gift of collaboration.

Steve Thomas:  So Victoria, you had mentioned the racial discussions that have come up as you were writing this book.  Do you feel like that makes this even more so the right time to tell Belle’s story?

Victoria Christopher Murray: It is so perfect. Even when Marie describes  Belle, sometimes she says she’s timely because you know, we’re thinking her story is set in the early 20th century, but everything that she was going through is happening now because of the one thing that links these times together is the fight for equality. It has not changed. And , you know, I was thinking about the civil rights act of 1875 impacting her life the way it impacted her life. And here just a few years ago, we had this Supreme Court overturn the Voting Rights Act or the major part of it in 2010 I think or so they did that. And so here we are fighting again for equality. So there was so many parallels between Belle’s story and Belle’s time and today, and because of that, Maria and I had to have so many conversations there, wasn’t a conversation about this book that wasn’t centered around race. And then because of that, then we could talk about our own experiences, mine with living through experiences and Marie having to listen to some of these experiences, and it was just an amazing time that hasn’t ended for me because Marie is still my friend that I can now talk to. The elephant in the room: she’s a white friend that I can talk honestly about race, and I have never had that before in my life. But when I say, honestly, I think we’ve had honest conversations with other people and other friends, when I’m talking about the little tiny microaggressions that now I don’t feel bad texting her, like, you know…

Marie Benedict:  She better text me!

Victoria Christopher Murray:  And I text her all this and so I texted the same things to Marie that I would have texted to my black friends in the past. But now I text them to her forgetting her color because she gave me such a safe place to land and to speak about those.

Marie Benedict: That for me, I mean, was such a gift that Victoria would trust me to share those things, you know, to share those things, which you know, are hard to talk about are difficult , that are emotional and I felt so honored that she was sharing that with me.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, and it’s kind of like the pandemic where you don’t want to say this was a good thing, but it did bring out a lot of conversations that needed to happen.

Victoria Christopher Murray: It did. It really did all the social unrest the last summer, all around that.  There were a lot of conversations that needed to be had, and there were people that needed to listen, but there were some of us who needed to speak, who they hadn’t spoken to before, because  we’re as exhausted of it as well. So some of us need to speak up and we weren’t speaking.

Steve Thomas:  Well, I’m glad there’s a little more comfort there now to get that expression out.

Victoria Christopher Murray: Oh, yeah, Marie hears everything!

Marie Benedict: And I want to, when she holds back, I’m like pulling it out. If she wants to tell me, you know, obviously I don’t want to tread where it’s not my place to tread, but, gosh, if I can serve as in any capacity, I’m honored to do that.

Steve Thomas: Well, the racial issues are the big thing, but there are some kind of intersectional identity issues in here too, because there’s issues with her being a woman in that time because women in that time, and today are still majority in the profession except in leadership positions. Whereas, you know, anybody who’s heading a library, especially back then, it was what, 90 something percent probably were men , and she even mentioned that I think when she’s doing her interview with Morgan and she’s like, well, I’m probably the only woman that you have you ever even interviewed for this. Can you talk about that a little bit, too,?

Marie Benedict: Sure.  Back then, as I’m sure you probably know there wasn’t a formal library training. There was no formal education in the library sciences, as there is today. It was starting, you know, and there were some individual, but there wasn’t a degree specifically. So a lot of the learning was done more in an apprenticeship fashion, you know, on the job, there were classes and Belle availed herself of some of those, her educational backgrounds, a little bit murky, I’m sure intentionally on her part , and so a lot of what she learned, she learned from others and I think you’re right there were a lot of women in librarian sort of roles, but they would almost never be made head of a particular library. You know, certainly the Princeton University library where she got a lot of her training from an excellent, excellent library. It was led by a man. We do talk about that in the book and, um, certainly JP Morgan wouldn’t have interviewed and didn’t interview any other women for the role , but there was something about Belle, not just her intellect, her brilliance, her facility and understanding with these manuscripts and books that JP Morgan was collecting, there was something sort of indescribable about her that drew him to her.

That was sort of, you know, that line between fact and fiction that we had to imagine, because we don’t actually know what it is, but knowing Belle’s reputation, knowing how formidable she really was. He really sensed that in her at a time when that wouldn’t have been an attractive quality in other people’s perspectives.

So, they were an excellent match in that way, but what’s amazing about Belle is that, you know, over the years her titles grew, right? She was JP Morgan’s personal librarian, and then Jack Morgan’s personal librarian. And as she kind of facilitated the public nature of the Morgan Library, you know, it transitioned from really a wealthy individual’s, private collection to a world-class public institution. She also was so innovative and in the kinds of things she started,  when you look back on what she was doing, you know, traveling collections, almost like speaker series, ways in which she made the Morgan collection relevant to a variety of libraries and institutions, scholars, the public.

 She was really, from what I understand, I’m not a library expert, but from what I understand, she was really the forefront of a lot of that. And, some of the things that she really initiated at that time are now standard in a lot of libraries. So, you know, I feel like she had an impact and a footprint beyond just being ultimately the director of the Morgan Library, which was a huge job and accomplishment unto itself, but in terms of her legacy in the library community at large.

Victoria Christopher Murray: And, you know, I listened to Marie say all of that. And she did all of that and she couldn’t even vote. Bell could not even vote.

Marie Benedict: Think about that. And she wouldn’t have, in most cases been allowed in the institution that she ran if people knew her secret. You think about the tight rope that she was walking every single day as she wielded this enormous power, this enormous command.  It’s really astonishing when you think about it in that perspective.

Steve Thomas:  And some of that tight rope is even within her own personal life in that , her father was like a big civil rights leader and yet her mom was the one that was advocating for them passing for white.  There records about her feelings about that conflict or did you guys have to kind of fictionalize and be creative with that?

Victoria Christopher Murray: I think we had to do more fictionalizing there, because we just didn’t know, but we were able to extrapolate a couple of things. You know, she followed most in her father’s footsteps in terms of being a librarian than the other children. So we could just imagine how she had to be a daddy’s girl, and he gave her that love of arts and rare manuscripts. So we had to extrapolate some of that, but yeah. I think we got pretty close , but it is so interesting though, because today her father would have been the head of the Black Lives Matter movement, you know, and yet she was able to keep it a secret only because it was the early 20th century and there was no Instagram.

Marie Benedict: Her life would have been very different today, oh my God, you know, they did their best to separate from him because he was so well known , in his time period. You know, he was the first black graduate of Harvard. He was a professor at the University of South Carolina during its brief period of integration.

He was the Dean of Howard law school who was a lawyer, famous orator , activist for civil rights, alongside people that are maybe better known Frederick Douglas and Booker T Washington. And they distanced themselves, you know, they changed their name from Greener to Greene, added the da Costa, and if that link between Belle and her father had been established, that would have been the end of her fiction, which was that she was actually, a white woman of Portuguese heritage.

Victoria Christopher Murray: And it would have brought them, the whole family would have suffered from that. And one thing I do want to say about Belle’s mother in this because I think it’s important to know. I believe that she was ready to stand by her husband or that she had stood by her husband’s side. She left DC, the comfortable place, to go down to South Carolina. She had never been to south of the Mason Dixie line, but she went with him and I believe as a woman, she probably supported everything that he was fighting for until she saw that fighting wasn’t going to get her what she needed to have. When Maria and I were writing this, it was very important for us, for people to understand that we did not believe she was passing to be white. She was passing to be equal. And that was the only way to achieve it.

Marie Benedict: She herself came from this wonderful rich culture in DC, you know, the Fleet family was part of this really rich community of color that had been free for generations. And you know, that wasn’t something she was, you know, rushing to leave behind. It was society.  Instead of moving further towards equality, which is kind of what the promise had been when they moved to South Carolina and that civil rights act of 1875  had first started or been enacted  that started to erode over the years. And, you know, she could see very clearly that the kind of equality she hoped for, not just for herself, but her children, was not going to happen, and so the situation really forced her hand as a mother, you know, looking out for her children .

Steve Thomas: And that compromise obviously was not good for the father. It was unacceptable to him basically after that at a certain point and so he left the family.

Victoria Christopher Murray: Unacceptable. And because I think that Genevieve saw the color of her skin as an asset to be used and, and Richard T Greener, as the grandson of a slave, saw the color of their skin as a mark of the most heinous act or one of the most heinous acts in slavery. And so they saw it very differently and, they decided to take separate roads.

Marie Benedict:  Yeah. And Victoria always, has a great way of putting it, saying that, in many ways, Belle never really left that crossroad. That kind of conflict really stayed with Belle, we think kind of for the rest of her life.

Steve Thomas:  And as we were talking about earlier, I mean, identity is a big thing that’s being talked about these days, too, of choosing your own identity and then your identity is defined by you. Not other people’s.

Marie Benedict: And she lives in a time period where they did people didn’t have that luxury, you know, your identity was defined by law was defined by society, but at the end of the day, as Victoria likes to say, she was still a black woman putting her head down on her pillow, right? No matter how she presented herself in the world and that conflict really the way we kind of envisioned bow would have been a terrible, terrible burden to bear.

Steve Thomas: Well, to wrap up, I just wanted to ask if there was anything in particular in the real Belle’s  life that you had to leave out that really stung that you really wish you could’ve included?,

Marie Benedict: oh my gosh. She, she had a such like, you couldn’t make it up. Her life was so, you know, glamorous on one hand and conflicted on the other. I mean, she knew everybody who was anybody in the Gilded Age. You know, John D Rockefeller taught her how to drive and she could hang with the Bohemians and suffragettes in the Village, but I don’t know. Is there one particular thing, Victoria?

Victoria Christopher Murray: Well, the one thing I think we, I mean, it actually ended up on the cutting floor because one of the biggest sacrifices that they’ll make was that she wasn’t able to have children. She wasn’t able to get married and then have children because she was concerned about the tint of her skin, and she was the darkest of all the children and she didn’t know what would happen. We really believe she made that decision not to have children. But she did end up adopting her youngest sister’s son so there’s a whole story around that because she adopted him, but she was still kind of more focused on her career and he seemed to have lived such a sad life. And we had to put a little bit of him in the book, but it wasn’t enough to tell the whole story. And so we left it out and I was sorry, we had to, it was, but I was sorry, because that was another side of Belle that we didn’t get to show , but it was necessary to the plot.

Marie Benedict: Yeah. Yeah. I would have liked to have included that to Victoria because even though she herself wasn’t able to have children because she really would have risked her identity , and that would, of course, impacted not just her, but her entire extended family , but she did get some moments of experiencing motherhood. It would have been nice to show that sort of dream fulfilled from a certain perspective, but it didn’t work for the particular story in the time period that we were focused on.

Steve Thomas:  Right. Well, Marie and Victoria, thank you so much for coming on the show and thank you for writing such a great book that fills in kind of a history history of libraries, a hole, and I don’t know that a lot of people knew about. Again, it’s called The Personal Librarian, so go check it out at your local library.

Marie Benedict: Thank you so much.

Victoria Christopher Murray: Thank you for having us. Have a great day.