By Nancy Bilyeau
On March 27, 1902, leading architect Charles McKim had an appointment to see John Pierpont Morgan in Manhattan. Any time J.P. Morgan beckoned, people came running. He was the most powerful banker in America, the financier of railroads and the U.S. Steel purchase. That day McKim was astounded—and excited—to learn that Morgan wanted him to design a new building but not an office or bank. It was to be a private library to hold the banker’s overflowing collection of rare books, ancient treasures, sculptures, and paintings.
The library was planned for next door to Morgan’s house on Madison Avenue and 36th Street, McKim learned. As for its design, this was to be no simple collection of rooms to house books and other valuables. In his voracious collecting of valuables, Morgan seems to have seen himself as a Medici prince. So his library reflected that: McKim was hired to design an Italian Renaissance wonder built with Italianate marble, its rotunda boasting ceiling frescoes painted by Harry Siddons Mowbray that were fit for a cathedral.
Morgan had so much to house there. He collected Old Masters paintings and sculptures, tapestries, Regency furniture, bronzes, jewelry, armor, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, Gutenberg bibles, ancient Babylonian cylinder seals, and medieval metalwork with gold.
And then there were the books. He bought Charles Dickens’ original manuscript of A Christmas Carol, with the author’s revision notes in the margin. Morgan owned the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Henry David Thoreau’s journals, Thomas Jefferson’s letters to his daughter Martha, and rare letters to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
One of his most cherished acquisitions was the Lindau Gospels. Its importance was suggested by the designation it held: M1. The gospels were written by monks in the 9th century and the jeweled covers were considered the finest treasures of the Carolingian age. The way Morgan acquired it was significant. His scholarly nephew, Junius Spencer Morgan, sent a telegram in code to him in July 1899 saying that the Lindau Gospels, in the possession of the Earl of Ashburnham, could be purchased, and the British Museum could not meet the asking price. “Morgan could: he paid 10,000—nearly $50,000—for something that would be valued at millions if it came on the market a century later,” wrote Jean Strouse in Morgan: American Financier.
Junius Spencer was also the person who told the banker about a prospective librarian: a young brilliant woman named Belle da Costa Greene, who was then working at the Princeton University library. Once she came to work for Morgan at his library in 1906, she took charge and not only cataloged his acquisitions but helped him pursue new purchases.
Morgan loved his private library so much that he spent most of his time there instead of the bank office at 23 Wall Street. He worked out of his study, also known as the West Room. As Herbert Satterlee, Morgan’s son-in-law and first biographer, later recalled, “No one could really know Mr. Morgan at all unless he had seen him in the West Room. This was because the room expressed his conception of beauty and color in varied and wonderful forms.” The study had an antique wooden ceiling, stained glass windows, and red damask silk covering the walls.
Much of Morgan’s collection of books was stored in the main library room. The walls, reaching to a height of thirty feet, were lined floor to ceiling with triple tiers of bookcases fashioned of bronze and inlaid Circassian walnut. Above were ceiling frescoes, many of them showing astrological figures. Morgan was a member of the mysterious Zodiac Club in New York, which never had more or less than twelve members. Morgan is believed to have met with astrologers as well as psychics.
Another remarkable feature of the main room was two secret winding staircases that allowed people to move between the levels of bookshelves and balconies. Two staircases, concealed behind bookcases at the corners of the room, could only be revealed by pulling a certain lever.
And this was but one of the secrets contained in J.P. Morgan’s sumptuous, magical private library…
Article written by Author and Editor Nancy Bilyeau
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers “The Blue” and “Dreamland” and the Tudor mystery series “The Crown,” “The Chalice,” and “The Tapestry.” She is a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada.
In “The Blue,” Nancy drew on her own heritage as a Huguenot. She is a direct descendant of Pierre Billiou, a French Huguenot who immigrated to what was then New Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1661. Nancy’s ancestor, Isaac, was born on the boat crossing the Atlantic, the St. Jean de Baptiste. Pierre’s stone house still stands and is the third oldest house in New York State.
Nancy, who studied History at the University of Michigan, has worked on the staffs of “InStyle,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Rolling Stone.” She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributor to “Town & Country” and “Mystery Scene Magazine.”
Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in New York City.
From the author of The Blue and the Joanna Stafford trilogy—a compelling mystery set in the faded glory of New York’s Gilded Age.
In this unforgettable story, bestselling author Nancy Bilyeau takes readers to J. P. Morgan’s private library in December 1912, when two very different people haunted by lost love come together in an unexpected way.
Helen O’Neill, part of a tight-knit Irish-American family in the Bronx, is only too happy to report to work at the spectacular private library built on Madison Avenue by millionaire financier J. P. Morgan. The head librarian, the brilliant and beautiful Belle da Costa Greene, had hired Helen away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art after she witnessed Helen’s unusual talent with handling artifacts.
Helen soon discovers the Morgan Library is a place like no other, with its secret staircases, magical manuscripts, and mysterious murals. But that’s nothing compared to a person Helen alone sees: a young woman standing on Madison Avenue, looking as if she were keeping watch. In learning the woman’s true link to the Morgan, Helen must face the pain of her own past. She finds herself with a second chance at happiness—if she has the courage.
From the author of The Blue, the Joanna Stafford trilogy, and the soon-to-be published Dreamland, set in 1911 Coney Island, comes The Ghost of Madison Avenue, a story both thrilling and moving.
Praise for Nancy Bilyeau’s Fiction
“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books”
—Alison Weir, bestselling historian and novelist
On The Ghost of Madison Avenue:
“The Gilded Age splendors of the Morgan Library come to life in this wonderful, warm-hearted tale of Christmases past, present, and future. Bilyeau weaves a wealth of gorgeous period detail into her ghost story of old New York, delivering genuine chills, family drama, and poignant romance with equal skill. A gorgeous holiday treat!”
—Mariah Fredericks, author of Death of a New American
“This fast-paced, engrossing novel from Bilyeau … gives readers an up-close and personal view of New York’s Gilded Age”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Beautifully written and impeccably researched, Dreamland is a rollicking ride.”
—Fiona Davis, author of The Chelsea Girls
“A marvelous book!”
—Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of What She Left Behind
On The Blue:
“Definitely a winner!”
—Kate Quinn, author of The Alice Network
—Ian Rankin, international bestseller
On the Joanna Stafford Trilogy:
“All the ingredients of the best historical fiction … will satisfy even the most ardent mystery fans.”
—Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches
“Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy and betrayal.”