By that term, I mean the people who not only make the decisions (financially, politically, culturally), but set the standards (and tastes) for everyone else.
Marketing gurus have often been puzzled by the underlying demographic info on the readership of various publications. The actual readers did not have the kind of levels of income and education advertisers assumed would be necessary to buy the goods and services pitched to the affluent audiences those publications were aimed at. The readership was, in other words, “aspirational.”
Closely linked to this is the uniquely American gift for reinventing yourself through social mobility. This is a constant theme in American culture and includes Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby,” and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” (best remembered as the 1999 movie with Jude Law and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as two Ivy League playboys, done in by Matt Damon as a “wanna-be” Ivy Leaguer!)
About the time that motion picture came out a scholar by the name of Jean Strouse rediscovered a fascinating woman named Belle da Costa Greene while researching her biography of Gilded Age financier J.P. Morgan.
Greene was a young librarian at Princeton University who was hired by Morgan to be the curator of the extraordinary private library and museum he had created on Fifth Avenue in New York at the turn of the century. Suddenly a pretty girl of modest background was swept into the very center of the country’s elite. She was given a carte blanche to make acquisitions for Morgan and ranged the world in a grand style, seeking out and acquiring the finest treasures in paintings and rare books. Belle Greene is best known for her saying, “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one!”
From the time that she was hired in 1905 and for the next 40 plus years she was not only at the top of the American art world, but had a rare insight and access into the country’s ruling class. Belle had a high profile romance with the art historian Bernard Berenson and was proposed to by a succession of suitors, with names like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. There is a photograph in her own biography (“An Illuminated Life,” by Heidi Ardizzone) of Belle Greene acting as the recording secretary of the Republican National Committee, which Morgan ran as a department of his bank. Most significantly, Greene was at Morgan’s side when he averted a major financial crisis in 1907 by locking all the players in finance and industry in Belle’s library and refusing to let them leave for forty-eight hours until they arrived at a solution.
What makes this story all the more amazing is that Belle da Costa Greene had extraordinary power for a woman in that era, but as an African-American woman it was almost inconceivable. (Belle’s father had been the first black graduate of Harvard and a prominent black educator and political figure in his own right, but with the end of her parent’s marriage, her mother crossed the color line and Belle “passed” for white from age eleven on.) This probably explains why Belle never married. It was only by keeping her independence and the secret of her identity that she could safeguard the privilege and position she had attained.
A visit to the Morgan Museum and Library in New York, which Belle da Costa Greene created just as much as Morgan himself, is a reminder of the ultimate cost of human ambition. The East Room, where the collection of rare books is housed is considered by many the most beautiful room in New York, but it came at a price beyond measure and I don’t just mean in terms of money.