When I was a kid in the mid-70s I had a Guinness Book of World Records. It was a small but think paperback of fine print and few pictures. One of the pictures was of a woman in black walking away seen at a distance. It was made in the early 1900s and was associated with the stingiest woman entry for a Hetty Green. She was said to have a fortune but her son lost his leg after she tried to sneak him in to a free clinic to be found out and refused. That she kept her office cold and ate leftover oatmeal for lunch. It certainly sounded like she deserved the Stingiest Woman In the World Record.
Then a few months ago while looking over the biographies on the shelves of my local library I found Richest Woman In America: Hetty Green In The Guilded Age by Janet Wallach. I got it thinking I’d enjoy being appalled by rich misbehavior like I was when reading DisneyWar by James B. Steward. In the end I was surprised. I didn’t get that, I got something much more interesting than power hungry money grabbing.
Hetty Green was like all real people a complex person with more reasons behind her actions than simply being stingy. She was a loving mother, shrewd business woman, and a Quaker who didn’t place her care in ostentatious clothes or homes like most of her social strata at that time.
I have to admit I knew nothing more about the woman than the entry in my well-worn book from childhood. Janet Wallach didn’t have the luxury of having personal correspondence or journal from Hetty. She had to build the profile from articles, interviews, history, court documents, and comments from those who knew her. She does this well painting what feels to be a fair portrait of a complicated woman who wasn’t understood in her own time.
I want to set some the misconceptions about Hetty to rest. The story about her son was a grain of truth with lots of spin by those who didn’t like a woman working finance much less being vastly successful in it. The truth was tragic but nothing any mother wouldn’t do in the same situation. In his youth her son, Eddie, was injured badly by a sharp ice sled skate when sledding in Central Park one winter. He was quickly taken home to their Park Avenue address and doctors were summoned. The wound never healed well and often smelled. Remember this is before the times of antibiotics. Then shortly later he would injure it again playing baseball. This time it didn’t heal and the bone was exposed. Hetty and her husband Edward Sr., tried everything to help their son gain use of his leg again. They went to France, they went to holistic country doctors, and yes she even dressed and rags and took him to a free clinic where she’d heard the doctor there worked miracles on infected limbs. She was found out and tossed out. In the end Eddie lost his leg and always got the cutting edge prosthetic.
Hetty was born into money. Her father a well-known affluent Quaker and whaler. First you have to understand that the Quakers at that time felt money was a show of God’s blessing for right living. Thus it was to be kept and spent only sparingly. One doesn’t waste God’s blessing on unnecessary things. It was here Hetty got her attitude on money. She learned business at her father’s elbow despite his being disappointed he didn’t have a son.
Hetty also had a spinster aunt that was very influential in her growing up. They had a tumultuous relationship but from it you can see the seeds of a strong financial minded woman develop. It was from her that Hetty got her strong willed stance of going after anyone who lied about her. It was here Hetty saw a woman manage a fortune without harm to her soul but instead with God’s blessing of seeing it grow.
Hetty did come out in New York society. She did marry and she managed her small cash portion left to her management from her father’s death. The bulk of the estate was left to a trust. In the end Hetty out managed them 10 to one. She was right when she declared she could manage it better than them but alas in her father’s eyes her short coming of being a female was unforgivable.
Hetty became estranged from her husband when he wasted millions of her dollars. Remember to her it was wasting God’s blessing on sinful things like smoking, liquor, and gambling. Eventually they did become amicable friends but never would they live together again. Hetty set her son up managing her business interests west of the Mississippi. He made them flourish and was beloved in Texas for his cheerful demeanor and generosity. Unlike his mother who quietly shared God’s blessing of money with the unfortunate quietly he did so with his name attached.
A woman who could and did bail out the city of New York more than once, influenced the stock market with a comment, and saw most of her investments turn to gold wasn’t tolerated well on Wall Street. Those who knew her respected her, those who didn’t resented her calling her greedy, stingy, and the Witch of Wall Street. Truly she was simply a woman before her time.
Her personal frugal ways in light of her millions was misunderstood. Yet she didn’t feel the need to explain herself. I feel for her it was a matter between her and God. Agree some of her manner were quirky but who wasn’t quirky that was rich. When you toss in how the press painted her as a strange filthy rich rag wearing witch, who wouldn’t take to hiding from them and doing things to avoid going out to be seen.
In the end Hetty died worth what would be billions today all made by her management. She left them to her children who had no children so the money was dispersed to society by their wills going to hospitals, churches, museums, and other worthy charitable causes as well as friends.
We think of Hetty’s day the Guilded age of one social stratification of the have and have nots. The Astors here while the average family struggled. Though one fact struck me 1908 the height of Hetty’s wheeling and dealing 2% of the US population owned 60% of the wealth in the USA. Remembering all the Wall Street summer of the lamenting the 1% I looked up 100 years later for the same economic statistic… in 2008 1% owned 90% of the wealth. I stopped and pondered that and still am.
In the end the book is an excellent read profiling an interesting misremembered woman who in many ways was ahead of her time. Aspects of it made me contemplate the responsibility of wealth and the spending of it. I don’t think money is a sign of the condition of one’s soul but I do think how one choose to use it is. Hetty chose to use hers to save the city she lived in, to quietly help those in need, to try to save her son’s leg, to provide for her children, and in the end it went to enrich society. I think that says a lot about Hetty Green much more than her undeserved Guinness Book record. Pick up the book read for yourself and see what you think. It’s well worth your time and money.