Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review: The Richest Woman in America: The Life and Times of Hetty Green by Janet Wallach

I don't know where I first heard of Hetty Green, but if you've read anything about the Gilded Age, she does come up, although mostly as a footnote. Probably because while she participated in the financial side of the Gilded Age in a big way, she didn't in the Gilded part. She was the rare wealthy person in the age of the Robber Barons, to not flaunt her wealth in the slightest. In fact, she lived a nearly miserly life.

Hetty grew up in a whaling town in Massachusetts. Her parents really didn't want her; they wanted a boy. When her younger brother was born, and shortly thereafter died, her parents sent Hetty away to live with an invalid aunt, rejecting her. In her youth, she found the only time her parents (her father in particular) showed any interest in her was when she made money. The family was Quaker, so they lived simply and did not flaunt their money at all, but they had plenty of it. That said, when Hetty's mother died, her father kept the part of her money that should have gone to Hetty, for her own good, because she was a girl and shouldn't be bothered with things like money. When her father died, most of the estate that went to her was tied up in a trust that she wasn't allowed to manage, even though at that point, Hetty had already been making big bucks on Wall Street for years. When her aunt died, her doctor had convinced her to change her will (conveniently, leaving most of her money to him) even though in an earlier will she'd written that no later wills would be valid. Hetty sued. This lawsuit, while not successful, is still studied in law schools today as it was influential.

Stung by these multiple rejections of her, Hetty threw herself into making money. That was the only thing her family valued, but then they gave her as little of it as possible, so she'd make her own, thank you. She had married in the meantime and while her husband did have money, he was much more risky and occasionally gambled and sometimes he would lose all of his money. Before she married him, her father did ensure that he wouldn't inherit any of Hetty's family's estate money. But they seemed to get along quite well despite their different views on money. But  mainly that was because Hetty insisted on keeping everything separate and keeping control of her own finances. She was such an independent on these matters that it's notable that she was referred to as "Mrs. Hetty Green" and not "Mrs. Edward Green" as women were called at that time. Eventually, they did divorce, over mostly financial issues, but they stayed such close friends that they often would live in the same building and eat dinner together.

Meanwhile, she bankrolled a bank and set herself up in an office there, where she bought and traded real estate and bonds and stocks, mostly railroads. Like Warren Buffet a century later, she'd revel in the market falling as that's when she'd buy--when everyone else was getting out. There were quite a few depressions/panics/recessions in that era, before FDIC insurance, and more than once Hetty bailed out banks and even the city of New York with loans. When the whole market threatened to crash and Carnegie and Frick and Rockefeller stepped in to save the day--some of the money was also Hetty's.

Now, while I find her a groundbreaking feminist, she did have her boundaries, such as that she didn't believe in women's suffrage. Also her daughter eventually was married to an Astor in a fancy, Gilded Age wedding. But I appreciate that she went her own way, did her own thing, and didn't let anyone's disapproval lure her from her path. She was most definitely the richest woman in America, in her own right, but she was also pretty much as rich as the wealthiest of the men you've heard of. The main reason you've not heard of her is that unlike Carnegie and Frick, she didn't set up an endowment of foundation, and so while her descendants did support a lot of charities, they spread her money around too thin, so her name wasn't associated with one thing in particular, and it eventually fell out of use. She's not the most likable person but she's still admirable. This biography was very readable and well-researched. I wished for more and better pictures than were in the insert, as most of them were simply pictures of the era, while photos and paintings were referenced in the text that sadly don't appear. But that's a minor complaint on an otherwise excellent biography.

I think I bought this book but I'm not sure. It's a hardcover, not an ARC, and I've owned it for several years. 

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