See biographies by B. Sparkes and S. T. Moore (1930) and C. Slack (2004); A. H. Lewis, The Day They Shook the Plum Tree (1963).
Hetty Green, 1897
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Henrietta "Hetty" Howland Robinson Green (November 21, 1834 – July 3, 1916) was an American businesswoman, remarkable for her frugality during the Gilded Age, as well as for being the first American woman to make a substantial impact on Wall Street.
When her father died in 1864, she inherited $7.5 million in liquid assets, against the objections of most of her family, and invested in Civil War War bonds. However, when she heard that her aunt Sylvia had willed most of her $2 million to charity, she contested the will with a document she had probably written herself . The case against her aunt's executor, Robinson v. Mandell, was fought for five years before Hetty lost.
As Edward pursued investments as a sort of "gentleman banker", Hetty began parlaying her inheritances into her own astonishing fortune. She formulated an investment strategy to which she stuck throughout her life: conservative investments, substantial cash reserves to back up any movement, and an exceedingly cool head amidst turmoil. During her time in London, most of her investment efforts focused on greenbacks, the notes printed by the U.S. government immediately after the Civil War. When more timid investors were wary of notes put forth by the still-recovering government, Hetty bought at full bore, claiming to have made US$1.25 million from her bond investments in one year alone. Her earnings on that front were to fund her great subsequent rail-bond purchases.
When the Green family returned to the United States, they went to Edward's hometown in Bellows Falls, Vermont. Already something of an eccentric, she began to quarrel not only with her husband and in-laws but also with the domestic servants and neighborhood shopkeepers. After the 1885 collapse of the financial house John J. Cisco & Son, in which Hetty was the largest investor, investigation revealed that Edward had not only been the firm's greatest debtor but that management of the firm had surreptitiously used Hetty's wealth as the basis for their loans to Edward. Hetty, emphasizing that their finances were separate, withdrew her securities and deposited them in Chemical Bank, and Edward moved out of their home. In later years, however, they would effect at least a partial reconciliation, and Hetty helped nurse him in the years before his death from heart disease and chronic nephritis on March 19, 1902. He was buried in Bellows Falls in the graveyard of Immanuel Church.
Green made much of her business at the offices of the Seaboard National Bank in New York, surrounded by trunks and suitcases full of her papers; she did not want to pay rent for an office. Later unfounded rumors claimed that she ate only oatmeal she heated on the office radiator. Possibly because of the stiff competition of the mostly male business environment and partly because of her usually dour dress sense (due mainly to frugality, but perhaps ascribable in part to her Quaker upbringing), she was given the nickname the "Witch of Wall Street". However, she was a successful businesswoman who dealt mainly in real estate and invested in railroads, in addition to lending money. On several occasions, the City of New York came to Hetty in need of loans to keep the city afloat, most particularly during the Panic of 1907; she wrote a check for $1.1 million and took her payment in short-term revenue bonds. Keenly detail-oriented, she would travel thousands of miles – alone, in an era when few women would dare travel unescorted – to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.
Her frugality extended to family life. Her son Ned broke his leg as a child, and Hetty tried to have him admitted in a hospital charity ward. When she was recognized, she stormed away vowing to treat the wounds herself. The leg contracted gangrene and had to be amputated – he ended up with a cork prosthesis. When he moved away from his mother to manage the family's properties in Chicago and, later, Texas, he became an ardent philatelist, who assembled one of the finest stamp collections ever in private hands. In middle age, he returned to New York; his mother would pass her final months with him. Ned ultimately married his long time "housekeeper", Mabel, of whom Hetty wholeheartedly disapproved.
Mrs. Green's extreme respect for her own privacy aside, she entered the lexicon of turn-of-the-century America with the sobriquet "I'm not Hetty if I do look green" ; this phrase is quoted in O. Henry's 1890s story "The Skylight Room" when a young woman, negotiating the rent on a room in a rooming house owned by an imperious old lady, wishes to make it clear she is neither as rich as she appears nor as naive.
Her daughter Sylvia lived with Hetty until her thirties. Hetty disapproved of all of Sylvia's suitors because she suspected they wanted only to get their hands on her money. When Green finally let Matthew Astor Wilks marry Sylvia on February 23, 1909 after a two-year courtship, the groom waived his right to inherit Sylvia's fortune, and received US$5,000 for signing this prenuptial agreement. (Wilks, a minor heir to the Astor fortune, entered the marriage with US$2,000,000 of his own, enough to assure Hetty that he wasn't simply gold-digging.)
When her children left home, Green moved repeatedly among small apartments in Brooklyn Heights and Hoboken, New Jersey, mainly to avoid establishing a residence permanent enough to attract the attention of tax officials in any state.
In her old age she began to suffer from a bad hernia but refused to have an operation because it cost $150. She suffered many strokes and had to rely on a wheelchair. She also became afraid that she would be kidnapped and made detours to evade the would-be pursuers. She began to suspect that her aunt and father had been poisoned.
According to her longstanding "World's Greatest Miser" entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, she died of apoplexy when she was arguing with a maid about the virtues of skimmed milk. However, biographer Charles Slack reports this not to have been the case; Green had in fact suffered a series of strokes since April 17 of that year (the date of the argument with an intemperate cook in the employ of her lifelong friend Annie Leary). An estimate of her net worth was around $100 – $200 million (or $1.9 – $3.8 billion in 2006 dollars), arguably making her the richest woman in the world at the time. She was buried in Bellows Falls, Vermont, next to her late husband, having converted late in life to his Episcopalian faith so they could be interred together.
Her children, lacking their mother's financial genius, also tended to spend their money more freely – though it should be noted that both came through the Great Depression relatively unscathed by following Hetty's investment philosophy of conservative buying backed by substantial cash reserves. Ned, an accomplished collector with interests in everything from auto racing to science to horticulture, spent much of his inheritance living extravagantly and generously. His Round Hill estate was long used by MIT scientists for experiments including a prototype atom smasher, and his powerful WMAF radio transmitters were used to keep in touch with Richard E. Byrd's 1928-30 Antarctic expedition. When Sylvia died in 1951, she left an estate of an estimated US$100 million (over $800 million in today's dollars), donating all but US$1,388,000 of it to 64 charities, including colleges, churches, and hospitals. Both children are also buried in Bellows Falls.