Authors: Janet Wallach
Copyright © 2012 by Janet Wallach
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc. Nan A. Talese and the colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
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Jacket design by John Fontana
Jacket photograph of street © Street Scenes, Fifth Avenue, 57th to 59th Streets, ca. 1897, Museum of the City of New York, Byron Co. Collection; inset image of Hetty Green courtesy of the Library of Congress
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The richest woman in America : Hetty Green in the Gilded Age / Janet Wallach. — 1st ed.
Includes bibliographical references
1. Green, Hetty Howland Robinson, 1835–1916. 2. Women capitalists and financiers—United States—Biography. 3. Millionaires—United States—Biography. I. Title.
(a favorite poem of Hetty Howland Robinson Green)
To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
And refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly,
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.
Hetty Green left no diaries, journals, or correspondence, no personal jottings to serve as a key to her enigmatic ways. She did, however, leave behind thousands of articles and interviews published by newspapers and magazines around the world. They range from a few brief lines to lengthy accounts. Some of them are reliable, many are not. It took scores of hours to read these stories and scores more, combing through the myths, to begin to understand her. For these reasons, this is not a traditional biography: it does not have the precise images, the fine line drawings, that such a book requires: rather, it is an impressionist painting, a series of brushstrokes meant to shed light on a woman and her times.
Hetty Green respected reporters and enjoyed talking to them. She understood the value of newspapers, and, from childhood on, she read the evening news to her father and grandfather. As an adult, she used the news as a matter of course in her daily investing. But though she relied on newspapers, much of what was reported about her was smeared with the yellow journalism so popular in her day. Worse, the snarky stories were repeated again and again, changing and growing like Pinocchio’s nose. And she too repeated her stories and changed her accounts, embellishing facts here, embroidering memories there. She liked to attract attention and she enjoyed saying outrageous things.
Hetty Green was a strong and independent woman who rejected the trappings of her upper-class background and avoided the glittery style of the Gilded Age. Instead, she broke new ground and set her own course for marriage, family, and a career. She encouraged girls to educate themselves about business; she urged women to manage their own money and take control of their finances. In her own investing, she ignored the emotions of the crowd and kept a cool head. I hope that reading about her wise financial ways will inspire others. And every once in a while, as Hetty no doubt would have wanted, I hope that her words make the reader smile.
pack of reporters swarmed around the woman who emerged from the heavy doors of the courthouse. A cape of black cloth wrapped her tall frame, a black bonnet obscured her thick gray hair, a frayed black purse hung from her wrist. A passerby might say she looked as poor as a church mouse, but her clothes were merely a costume to conceal her incredible wealth. Standing in front of the granite building was Hetty Green, the richest woman in America.
A twinkle lit up her blue eyes, a half smile appeared on her lips as she glanced at the eager men and shook her head in resignation. She was, admittedly, the smartest woman on Wall Street, a financial genius, a railroad magnate, a real estate mogul, a Gilded Era renegade, a reliable source for city funds. Wherever she went, whatever she did, reporters were lurking, ready to hound her: Where was she living? Where was her husband? What about her children? How many millions did she have now? How did it feel to be the richest woman in America? Did she win the case? Who would she sue next?
“I have had fights with some of the greatest financial men in the country,” she said in her broad New England accent. “Did you ever hear of any of them getting ahead of Hetty Green?”
Pleased with her victory in court on that spring day in 1896, her rights affirmed by the judge, she assured the men she was content with her work, at peace with her life.
If it was true that her constant lawsuits filled court dockets and her mounds of dollars overflowed bank vaults, it was also true that she was devoted to her children, adoring of her dogs, loving to youngsters, kind to strangers, and generous to friends. But reporters and readers refused to acknowledge her softer side; they demanded something more of the nation’s richest woman. They did not begrudge her the piles of money, if only she would allow them the vicarious pleasure of spending it. What was the point of being a multi-multimillionaire if she did not carry out the role, if she did not parade about in Worth dresses or reside in beaux arts mansions, if she did not appear at the opera and never dined at Delmonico’s?