October 20, 2012

“I enjoy being in the thick of things. I like to have a part in the great movements of the world and especially of this country. I like to deal with big things and with big men.”

So said Hetty Green, who was known as the Queen of Wall Street and, less flatteringly, as the Witch of Wall Street, according to a new biography by Janet Wallach. Green, who was born in a well-to-do Quaker family in 1834, made her fortune during the Gilded Age by investing in railroads and lending money to America’s great cities, including New York and Chicago. When she died in 1916, she was worth at least $100 million, the equivalent of about $2.5 billion today, making her the world’s richest woman in her day.

Green was feared and loathed — as Wallach makes clear, the rules have always been different for women than for men, and a woman who made rather than spent wasn’t to be trusted. “I am in earnest,” Green once said. “Therefore, they picture me as heartless. I go my own way, take no partners, risk nobody else’s fortune.”

Wallach shows Green’s peculiarities: her fear that someone was out to kill her, her total lack of interest in the normal niceties of house and dress, her use of lawsuits as a weapon and her rage against those who she thought were out to take her money. Green even went so far as to push a housekeeper who then tripped and fell down the stairs, when she feared that the woman was angling for some of her dying aunt’s money.

But Wallach is out to humanize her subject, and that she does. She writes that it was Green’s affection-starved childhood that made her so crazed about money. “Money served as a substitute for her family’s love, a sweetener that satisfied her gnawing need for affection. She knew that money pleased her father; what she yearned for more than anything else was that her father be pleased with her.”


’The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age’ by Janet Wallach (Nan A. Talese )

Although Green famously didn’t spend money on a doctor for her young son when he injured his knee, and his leg later had to be amputated, Wallach also relates how Green once pulled out a gun to a businessman who made threats against the boy. “Harm one hair of Ned’s hair and I’ll put a bullet through your heart,” she said. And Wallach tells how, when a deliveryman fell from his cart in Paris, Green rushed to the wounded man’s side and cleaned him up with her handkerchief. The marchioness who employed the footman, having no clue who Green was, offered her a job as a superintendent in a hospital. Green was not offended. Instead, she thanked the marchioness for the compliment of a job offer.

Indeed, whatever Green’s faults, she was not a snob. She disdained self-indulgent socialites, saying to her daughter: “I want you to marry a poor young man of good principles who is making an honest hard fight for success. I don’t care whether he’s got $100 or not, provided he is made of the right stuff.”

Wallach’s book is also about how Green made her money, and aspiring investors might want to memorize her words as they do Warren Buffett’s. Green’s father, Edward Robinson, “made it a practice never to borrow,” and Green too was always a lender. “I buy when things are low and nobody wants them,” she said. “I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them. That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business.” She also said that “common sense is the secret of making money. Common sense is the most valuable possession any one can have.”

In telling Green’s story, Wallach also tells the story of America’s repeated busts and booms in a way that seems very relevant right now. She writes that New York of the 1850s “floated on bubbles of champagne,” but after the collapse of 1857 she quotes the Louisville Courier on the character of Wall Street: “Their houses are dens of iniquity. Their aim is financial ruin. Their code of laws is that of the gambler, the sharper, the imposter, the cheat and the swindler.”

Sound familiar? In 1894, the unemployment rate rose to 18 percent, but only a few short years before that, in Rhode Island, Wallach writes, “miles of imported marble wrapped the facades, lapped the floors, and coated the walls of the Newport ‘cottages’; vast lawns greener than money led to the sea.”

Wallach warns at the beginning that this cannot be a traditional biography because Green left so little behind — no diaries, no journals, no correspondence. Rather, the book is “an impressionist painting, a series of brushstrokes meant to shed light on a woman and her times.” That’s a perfect description, but the brushstrokes can be frustratingly vague and leave you craving a better picture.

One mystery is Green’s marriage to the businessman Edward Henry Green, who had made his fortune in the Far East before he returned to America when he was 44 and began courting Hetty Robinson, then 30. He stood by her side through all the lawsuits, but Wallach writes that he was a speculator and a philanderer, and the final straw came when a bank used her money to cover his losses. Green “bade him a fond farewell.” But they never divorced and spent more time together as they grew older, and she cared for him as he died.

Wallach also writes that Green, who said that “a girl should be brought up as to be able to make her own living, whether or not she’s going to inherit a fortune,” had no interest in the suffragist movement. Indeed, Green said, “I don’t believe in suffrage and I haven’t any respect for women who dabble in such trash.” She didn’t leave anything that would explain this seeming dichotomy.

Ultimately Green remains, as Wallach describes her at the end, an “enigma” — but a compelling one nonetheless. When she died in 1916, the New York Times wrote about her, “She had enough of courage to live as she chose and to be as thrifty as she pleased, and she observed such of the world’s conventions as seemed to her right and useful, coldly and calmly ignoring all the others.” If only we all could do the same.

bookworld@washpost.com

Bethany McLean is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair a co-author of “All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.”

THE RICHEST WOMAN IN AMERICA

Hetty Green in the Gilded Age

By Janet Wallach

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 281 pp. $27.95