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.”
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.”