As I work through my family tree I come across people, not really part of it, but so interesting that they demand a bit of publicity. Marguerite Duprez Laffy and Belle da Costa Greene were both early 20th century library staff, working for the great, rich Pierpont Morgan whose private library was to form New York’s Morgan Library & Museum.
Marguerite Duprez Lahey (1880 – 1958) was the daughter of Isaiah Anthony Lahey an ‘Importer White Goods’, born in County Cavan in 1839 but lived much of his adult life in New York and Margaret Ayton Duncan, a New Yorker of Scottish extraction.
Marguerite was responsible for the luxurious bindings and cases of many of the finest books and manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library. She first began working for Morgan in 1911, and continued to do so, for over 30 years. A graduate of Brooklyn and Adelphi College, she served a two-year apprenticeship in at New York’s Old Chelsea Bindery and went on to study bookbinding with Paris masters, including Jules Domont. A private woman, not a great deal is known about her life. A 1937 article in Time magazine, written when examples of her work were on display in a major exhibition, described her as “a slender blonde.” Based in her studio which initially was at East Twenty-Second Street, she did all the work of binding herself, selecting and preparing the finest leather, sewing the pages, tooling, and finishing the bindings. A critic described her methods as ‘fifteenth century bindings by fifteenth century methods.’ She said of her vocation ‘I always wanted to use my hands.’ A 1937 exhibition at the Morgan showcased 150 fine examples of her work. She died in Paris in 1958, and is buried in New York’s Wood Green Cemetary
Marguerite worked in association with her friend, the far more extrovert Belle Da Costa Greene (1883-1958). Belle was brought up in Washington, D.C., in an educated, middle class family. She had not attended college but gained her library training on the job at Princeton University. She was described an intelligent, vivacious, independent and beautiful woman with engaging social skills. Her father was Richard Greener, the first African-American to graduate from Harvard , however, after separating from her husband Belle’s mother dropped the final ‘r’ from their name and passed herself and her children as ‘white.’ Belle added ‘da Costa’ to her name and implied she was of Portuguese descent. By 1908 she was working for Morgan, and became one of his most trusted buyers of books and manuscripts. Beautiful, fashionably dressed and a major player on the art scene she declared “Just because I am a librarian doesn’t mean I have to dress like one.” One of her lovers was the critic Bernard Berenson.
In 1913 J.P. Morgan died, he left Belle the considerable sum of $50,000 giving her financial independence. His son made her director of the library in 1934 and she continued to work there until 1948. She died in 1958.
The Fine Bindings of Marguerite Duprez Lahey; an Exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, November 7, 1951-January 5, 1952 (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, 1951; illustrated)
Heidi Ardizonne, An Illuminate Life (Norton 2007)