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The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in…

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age (2012)

by Janet Wallach (Author)

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10315117,210 (3.34)27
Title:The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age
Authors:Janet Wallach (Author)
Collections:Your library, Lifetime reading, Read 2010-2019
Tags:non-fiction, autobiography/biography/memoir, history, American, read in 2012, llll, tttt, pppp, mmmm, dddd, provisional-ddc

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The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach (2012)



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In the introduction to her biography of Mary Shelley, Muriel Spark states that she “ha{s} always disliked the sort of biography which states 'X lay on the bed and watched the candle flickering on the roof beams,' when there is no evidence that X did so.” I took note of this comment because I happen to agree with it. Unfortunately, this biography of Hetty Green is that sort of biography. Apparently there is a dearth of primary sources documenting Hetty Green's life. The author relied on secondary accounts from newspapers and the like. The biography was embellished with all sorts of little actions like skirt brushing and hair smoothing that aren't likely to be documented anywhere. The biography was also padded with lists of national and international news events that occurred at various times in Hetty's life. It made me wonder if the author had a YA audience in mind since most adult readers wouldn't need such long lists in order to understand the events in Hetty's life in their historical context. The reader for the audio version wasn't very expressive or engaging, and her voice magnified the book's flaws instead of diverting my attention from them the way a good narrator can do. Disappointing. ( )
  cbl_tn | Feb 6, 2016 |
I enjoyed the information about Hetty Green. She drew the disdain of her father and the ambivalence of her Quaker mother because she wasn't born a male. Due to her that neglect she was angry and acted out. However, she had an aptitude for finance and because of that, she gained the respect of her father and grandfather.

Throughout her life, she went through constant battles including enduring countless court dates contesting the will of her aunt's will, her husband philandering ways, her son's deteriorating leg condition, her daughter's solitude, and her growing paranoia on her enemies trying to poison her. Despite of all that, Hetty was on top financially. Her rules to success are tried and true: buy when others are selling, sell when others are buying, invest in land, live way below your needs. Indeed, Hetty Green was the richest miserly woman in America in the Gilded Age.

Had that been the entire novel, with sprinkles of the culture on New York through the Gilded Age, Wallach would have succeeded wonderfully and this would have been a four starred review easy! However, Wallach stuffed it with useless information about real estate, debutant life, and the allegorical meaning of Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Some of the information was very interesting and if Wallach wants to pen a novel about New York's Gilded Age, I would read it.

I suspect the reason Wallach went off on random verbose tangents is because there really isn't information on Hetty Green. I tried looking up information and I found three reputable sites with the same information. That explains why she would rephrase Hetty Green's rules 70 times within a chapter. It must have been tough for her to come up with with the recommended page count with such scant information on the source material. I can't fault Wallach. She did the best she could but I can't forgive her either. ( )
  Y2Ash | Apr 16, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I have been fascinated with Hetty Green since reading her biography THE DAY THEY SHOOK THE PLUM TREE many years ago. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age adds a fresh look at Hetty. A look into the life of a 19th/20th century woman who despite her sex and how women were viewed at the time, amassed a huge fortune. The book is well written and worth a detour. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Jan 2, 2014 |
Hettie (alternately Hetty) Green was born into a family that rejected her. Her father, convinced that he was having a son, was terribly disappointed. When his son was born, 9 months later, only to die, he was bereft, as was her mother. She was further rejected and was sent to live with her grandfather.
Hettie had a very strict and rigid Quaker upbringing, and she learned the lessons well, exhibiting the values and standards of the Friends, for most of her life. She was frugal, moral and honest, if not always kind, in the way she lived and conducted her affairs. She remained a Quaker until very late in her life when she converted, was baptized, became an Episcopalian like her husband, and was buried next to him.
She worked hard to gain the love and respect of her father and did succeed, eventually. She found it easy to make money. Her philosophy worked. She was bright and she proved herself worthy of taking over the family business, at a time, in the mid 1800’s, when there were few rights for women and fewer men who gave them the respect that was due an intelligent, accomplished woman, who was expected to do nothing more than shop, embroider, conduct social affairs, and matters of the home. Business skills were unnecessary and thought of as inappropriate for females.
Hettie, however, rose to become a powerful businesswoman with great influence on everything she undertook. Although her business prowess was admired, she was often mocked for it, even though a man with the same skills and success would have been praised for his acumen.
As a young girl, in order to find a suitor, her aunt enrolled her at a fine school for dance, in Sandwich, a town in Cape Cod, MA. There she learned proper decorum and how to conduct herself with grace and charm. However, she was often portrayed as disheveled, never really concerned with vanity or appearance. She was educated intellectually at Friend’s Academy, a Quaker school, where her father’s financial and moral lessons were enhanced.
Hettie married Edward Green, a man of considerable reputation and wealth. They lived in England for several years and Hettie bore two children, Ned and Sylvia. Both her father and her aunt, who stepped in after the death of her mother, and with whom she was extraordinarily close, disappointed her by not trusting her to take care of her own money, leaving their estates in a trust for her, instead, despite the fact that she had proven herself far more capable than many a man. She had hoped for and, indeed, they had promised, to provide her with financial freedom.
Hettie’s life was a roller coaster of financial investments in stocks, railroads, property, and mortgages; marital concerns, social engagements, lawsuits, grudges and revenge. The road she traveled was often bumpy, but her indomitable spirit carried her onward to become the most prominent and wealthy woman of her time, withstanding all the arrows of that period.
She lived during a century of trauma, the Civil War was raging, she witnessed history with the birth of The Emancipation Proclamation, the writings of Karl Marx, bank failures, stock market crashes, (sounds like today!) the beginnings of the woman’s suffrage movement, the demand for equality, and even the assassination of two Presidents, Lincoln and McKinley. In a man’s world, she was far more successful than men! She survived each crisis on top of the heap.
Her father foresaw the end of the whale oil market, he saw the coming age of railroads, he was an astute businessman and investor, and Hettie took after him. However, she was always a penny-pincher until the end, always given to plain taste in clothing and lifestyle, not very interested in charity, but always interested in making more money.
Always remembering how she was given short shrift in the wills of her family, she wanted to make sure her own children were well provided for and could be independent. She succeeded. She held sway over their choices and decisions without mercy, and as a result, Sylvia did not marry until the age of 38, and Ned kept company with someone for years that his mother would not accept, whom she called Miss Harlot instead of Miss Harlow.
Hettie was nothing, if not outspoken. As a result of her interference, neither child produced an heir to either carry on the name or inherit the fortune. It was doled out piecemeal to many beneficiaries, and the Robinson/Greene family dynasty died with the death of her children.
A remarkable woman, whose main interest was simply making money (and she sure made a lot of it before she “shuffled off this mortal coil”, at the age of 82, as the richest woman in America), comes to life and lives on in the pages of this book, thanks to the research and very authentic presentation of her, by Janet Wallach, the author. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Feb 27, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
What a disappointment.....I got an ARC of this one through ER, and really found it hard to get into. It was well written, and researched. It's the story of Hetty Rowland Robinson Green, born to money, sent off to boarding school, raised by the Quakers, inheriting money, thinking she'd married money, etc etc etc. This woman had access to and manipulated obscene amounts of money throughout her lifetime.

The book tells that story in cumbersome detail. At times, I felt I was reading a Biblical roll call of stock deals, (i.e., x begat y, y begat z, z begat a and b, etc etc etc). Yes, it was a biography, and the author was obviously feeling bound to explain in excruciating detail all the lawsuits, stock transfers, secret midnight withdrawals, etc that kept Ms. Green as rich as she was. I even tried listening to the audio, but that was even more boring.

One of the things that was fascinating was her propensity to move constantly. Supposedly it was to avoid having a fixed address and thereby being able to avoid paying taxes.

I was bummed that my Advance copy only contained one illustration. Half of the interest in this reader's mind was the crazy outfits she wore when one day she'd appear disguised as a servant, and that night appear at a dinner party in satin and jewels. It would have been nice to have been able to see some of those pictures. The ARC simply has two empty pages labeled "Illustration Credits".

There isn't a lot to say....if you like detailed biographies of interesting women, you'll probably like this book. Just because she was rich, and seemed to exercise a high degree of moral and ethical judgment in how she spent (or rather loaned) all this money, doesn't necessarily make her interesting to me. Yes, she bailed out the city of New York on numerous occasions by loaning them millions at 5%, but perhaps if she'd established a legal residence and paid some taxes, the city might not have had to borrow!!!

At the end, she certainly did prove that women are as capable as men of amassing and managing wealth.
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My Symphony
(A favorite poem of Hetty Howland Robinson Green)

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
And refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly,
Talk gently,
Act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
Await occasions,
Hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.
--William Henry Channing
To Bob
First words
Author's Note: Hetty Green left no diaries, jounals, or correspondence, no personal jottings to serve as a key to her enigmatic ways.
Prologue: A pack of reporters swarmed around the woman who emerged from the heavy doors of the courthouse.
Chapter 1: The rancid smell of whale oil pervaded the air and perfumed the purses of New Bedford, Massachusetts,in 1841.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385531974, Hardcover)

A Letter from the Author

As famous as Hetty Green was for her miserly ways, her son was known for his high-spirited living. While Hetty watched her pennies, Ned Green splurged on lavish homes, luxurious yachts, jewels, and presents galore for his friends.

From his boyhood, his father nourished him with a gentleman’s grace, while his mother nurtured him with business training. Larger than life, at six foot four and 250 pounds, and lame from childhood accidents, Ned combined his father’s affability with his mother’s shrewd investing abilities. Considerate and congenial, he was liked by almost everyone who knew him.

As a young man he painted houses in Chicago, learning what was involved in managing the suburban homes and downtown office blocks his mother owned. Sent to work as a section man for the Connecticut River Railroad, he shambled along the tracks, learning every aspect of the enterprise. When Hetty sent him to Texas to buy a bankrupt branch of a railroad, he turned it into the most successful short line road in the state.

But while his mother’s philosophy was to accumulate her money so she could pass it on to the next generation, Ned’s theory was to enjoy it as much as he could while he was alive. Yet he always kept an eye out for a good investment, increasing his fortune and his spending power along the way.

In 1893, shortly after Ned arrived in Texas, he sent his mother a childlike note begging for money to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. He had obtained free passes for the railroad, but he needed two hundred dollars for his hotel and daily expenses. The resulting visit proved to be worthwhile.

Ned stopped by the United States pavilion where postage stamps were on display. Soon after he started acquiring commemorative issues and developed a collection so rare it was considered second in the world only to that of the King of England. Ned’s unique sheet of “Jennies” are still sought after today. The stamps marked the inauguration of airmail service between Washington, New York and Philadelphia. But the picture was printed upside down. The mistaken image sent the one-seater airplane into a nose dive, but the value of the airmail stamps soared. Ned paid $20,000 for the sheet of one hundred stamps. Now they are worth tens of millions of dollars.

In addition to being a philatelist, Ned was a numismatist. His rare coins included a set of five nickels minted in 1913. That year all nickels were supposed to have an Indian Head, but in a mistake, the Bureau of Engraving created a few coins engraved with a Liberty Head. In 2007 one of those coins sold at auction for five million dollars.

Ned owned a fleet of cars including a Pierce Arrow and three electric/gas hybrids. His boats included the whaling vessel Charles W. Morgan, once owned by his grandfather and now owned by the Mystic Seaport, and the yacht United States, which he refitted at a cost of one million dollars. His vaults held piles of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires. He built lavish homes around the country and, on the grounds of Round Hills where his Quaker ancestors gathered at a spare wooden farmhouse, he built a huge stone mansion with an eight hundred foot wharf. There, he developed a cutting edge radio station that served as a research laboratory for aviation, meteorology, electricity and communication, and was used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. Navy.

Obeying a promise he made to his mother not to marry until he was in his forties, Ned wed the love of his life after his mother died. Although he and his wife were fond of children and generous to those they knew, the couple produced no heirs themselves. His fortune was later dispersed to several hundred family members and dozens of individuals and institutions.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:44 -0400)

A captivating biography of America's first female tycoon, Hetty Green, the iconoclast who forged one of the greatest fortunes of her time.

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