As the severe weather season is upon us again I was smiling over the days as a child when the dark storm clouds would gather and we all headed to the basement for protection. My mom would grab the small file of tax and insurance papers and off we would go, hoping as we always did that the large, and in our minds most vulnerable oak tree, would not blow over from the storm winds. Decades later that tree is still standing and home from time to time to a raccoon. The reason all this came to mind was the thought recently of what I would take with me to the basement should I not have the desire to see the storms up close. This of course is all a moot point since I love thunderstorms, and would now never head to the basement and miss one. But if I had to choose what to take, given that copies of every important document, and all the pictures are on CD-ROMs and kept in a safe deposit box at a bank, I would take my overstuffed zippered binder.
The binder has long held interesting articles from newspapers that I have clipped from over the years. As I waded into the binder during a recent rainy day I ran across a book review for “Hetty: The Genius And Madness Of America’s First Female Tycoon”. The great write-up in the USA Today article from 2005 made me save it, and want to read the book. As with most book lovers there are more great reads than time, so I never ordered it, until now. (I suspect some will wonder why I still clip articles if I can just save them online……just the way I grew up I guess.)
In the 1890s, she was the richest woman in America, though she made her fortune in the shadow of Carnegie, Morgan and the Rockefellers. But she and her two children wore ragged clothes, sought health treatment at free clinics and lived in one run-down hotel after another (no permanent address — no property tax). Newspapers wrote editorials against her. She was blamed for a bank failure and was ridiculed for her skinflint ways.
She died in 1916 at age 81 with a net worth conservatively valued at $100 million ($1.6 billion today) — and left not a penny to charity.
Biographer Charles Slack takes on the considerable task of humanizing this caricature of greed and obsession, introducing us to her family and friend (yes, just one) and putting Hetty into the context of the male-dominated Gilded Age. Slack tries to show another side of Hetty Green. He nearly succeeds. But the fault lies with the subject, not the biographer.
If she had built libraries or opened steel mills like Andrew Carnegie or built railroads or collected and donated art like J.P. Morgan, it might have been an easier job. Hetty Green could have founded a bank or a railroad or a foundation for that matter. All she did was make money.
Slack writes: “Unlike Carnegie, Morgan and Vanderbilt, who transformed their spotty reputations through philanthropy, Hetty Green left no monuments to herself. She therefore left it up to others to determine her legacy — and this process has not been kind to her. … In the century after her death, as the immediacy of her financial prowess receded, she slipped into obscurity, remembered (when remembered at all) as a mean old woman with too much money and too little heart.”
Hetty Green was born into money. Her family was one of the founders of New Bedford, Mass., and had built a whaling business there. Slack’s description of whaling ships and the whaling business are well told. When the business started to wane with the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, Hetty’s father wisely moved the money out of whaling and into new investments.
At her father’s death in 1865, 30-year-old Hetty, an only child, inherited $5.7 million. During her childhood she had learned business from her grandfather, with whom she lived from the time she was a toddler. She followed her father as he did business around the docks. (From that she also learned to swear like a whaler.)
Slack makes clear that if she had been a man, she would have been groomed to take over the business. Women were not considered wise enough to manage their own money. Her father left her $900,000 in cash and put the rest in a trust, run by men. For the rest of her life, Hetty would burn at this slight and over and over she would sue and be sued to get or keep control of her money.
Court records and newspaper coverage gave Charles Slack the best stories in the book. Hetty’s trials are remarkable: Hetty trying to bribe one judge, interrupting another, having her own lawyer object to HER line of questioning. Quite probably she forged a mysterious extra page of her Aunt Sylvia’s will. In her most famous trial, Oliver Wendell Holmes testified against her as an expert on the use of the microscope to detect forgery. She spent thousands of dollars on lawyers, sometimes in losing causes, just to take revenge on old enemies.
Slack makes clear that in nearly every case there was a reason for Hetty to feel she had been cheated, and if she hadn’t been worth millions, that could make a reader feel sorry for her. Our sympathy goes to Hetty’s husband, Edward Green, by all accounts a likable fellow, wealthy when he married. But Hetty did not share her funds with her husband, and his speculating in railroads wiped him out. When she learned that he had $700,000 in debt at the New York bank where she kept millions in securities, she pulled her securities (the bank folded) and until the end of his life, severed her relationship with her husband.
The most appealing character in the book is Hetty and Edward’s son, Ned, who was trained in business by his parents and sent to Texas to make his mark. There Ned made his fortune in railroads, became active in politics, and was given the title “Colonel.” He also led a fast life, taking on a prostitute as his lover and, after Hetty’s death, as his wife — with a prenuptial agreement cutting her out of the family money.
Hetty was a pioneer investment banker. She lent money to New York City several times. She bought the bonds for the water and sewer system in Tucson. In the Panic of ’07 when banks all but stopped making loans, Hetty lent millions to what she considered well-run companies and made more millions afterward. She gave low-interest loans to churches. Newspapers covered the ups and downs of her interest rates the way the media covers the Fed today. Hetty looked long term. She took property as collateral and if the loans weren’t paid, Hetty added to her empire. She owned whole blocks of Chicago, but she never invested to improve her properties
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