The Richest Woman in America

UnknownThe Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age
by Janet Wallach
2012/ 304 pages
Rating 7 /biography

Hetty Green is a fascinating character – at least I’m fascinated.  She was born very well off and was the only child and grandchild to inherit the family wealth.  Lacking a son,   Hetty had been groomed for finance by her father but when he died the money was put in a trust.  This infuriated her.

Then her mother’s sister died with a very questionable will and Hetty challenged that one in a court case noted even today for its reliance on handwriting experts.

And Hetty became determined to control her own financial destiny.  She bought cheap,  held on to what she bought and sold dear.   When anyone got the better of her she took them to court or out-financed them – her goal was to win.

This was during the Gilded Age when money was being made hand over fist,  especially in railroads.  The days of Carnegie,  Huntington and Chase and she was one of them – a wheeler-dealer on Wall Street,  lending and buying and making millions of dollars.

The trouble Hetty got into was that she didn’t live up to her role –  what was her role? She was a woman!  So she had two strikes against her.   First,  she succeeded in a man’s world and second she didn’t spend her money like the other millionaires.   Her reputation, in those days of “yellow journalism” depicted her as a miserly old millionaire dressing in rags and terrorizing one and all.

Those stories were mostly spread to sell papers.  Hetty was raised a Quaker and to them in those days,  wealth was a sign of righteousness and ostentation a sin or worldliness.  Also,  this was simply the way she wanted to live her life.  She was a bit paranoid,  worried that people wanted to kill her for her money – she was not totally without cause in those ideas.   She carried a gun for awhile.

The other side of  Hetty,  the one somewhat revealed by Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack is emphasized in Wallach’s book.  This other side is that she cared deeply for her children,  the working poor (including unions), the churches,  New York City,  and her friends (her few friends).  She stayed with her husband through his drinking and philandering but when their bank used her funds to cover his losses Hetty drew the line.  No more money.  But they did not divorce and were buried together.

She sent her son Ned to Texas to learn the railroad business and he became very successful but enjoyed flaunting it.  She kept her mouth shut for the most part –  much of this was his money.  But when it came to his low-life girlfriend she drew the line.  No marriage at all to that one.

She was very suspicious of anyone who wanted to marry her daughter Sylvia and there were penniless dukes around and many a title was bought into an American magnate family by marriage.   In her late 30s Sylvia married an older man,  the  grandson of John Jacob Astor,  and even he had to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.

The two books are different – see the subtitles.  Slack’s book tends to focus on the financial and legal aspects and I really wanted a bit of a psychological portrait as well.  The idea that Hetty substituted money for love is very easy to see.


But Wallach’s book focuses on the environment of the times as well as the psychological.  I’m personally fascinated by the “Gilded Age,”   the era of unregulated millionaire capitalist greed next to millions of starving immigrants;  the era of rampant corruption from the US President down to the NY neighborhood gangs;   the era of boom to bust and back again in the economy.    Although the focus is there –  I still think the book skims that complex material.

Wallach’s book also  gets a bit too much into Hetty’s  debutante years and early married life –   “What was it like for the girls who were waiting to see the Prince of Wales,”   and “How did Hetty live in England or on the cruise ship?”  (Very well, thank you.)

In Wallach’s book as in Slack’s,  there is an author’s note about sources which are abundant and varied – but none from Hetty or her children.  Neither book uses individualized “source notes” but these books are definitely not for historians.  If the reader wants more info about any specific aspect the notes and bibliographies are fine.

To Hetty it appears, love is money – give me money it means you love me – withhold money and you don’t trust or love me. Her mother and grandfather had withheld her inheritance by putting it into the hands of trustees. Her father was likely to do so. Sylvia was denying Hetty love and respect when she withheld the key to her personal papers, gave to others in the will, spent money on her household needs, withholding love from Hetty. Wallach gets much closer to this kind of analysis than Slack does but I thought she tended to work around it.   (This is probably due at least in part to the fact there is no primary source material from Hetty herself.)  .

In a family that equated righteousness with money, what was she worth without wealth? (Locations 933-934)..

Bottom line, with the exception of a few startling revelations (to me),   much of  the info is basically the same,  different anecdotes but the same idea.   Wallach is much more sympathetic to Hetty than Slack.   Apparently there are a lot of sources which vary widely. Perhaps Hetty herself was not so consistent. Also, In Wallach’s mind the basic issue here was that Hetty never felt loved so she used money as an alternative. It compensated her and with her Quaker views made her feel feel righteous and powerful. Both books provide a side to Hetty I hadn’t known.


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