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Hetty Green

by David Westheimer


Its gotten to where there are as many women as men plying the internet and more and more women  are CEOs, managers, entrepreneurs, marketers and traders.  Youd think from all this a name or  two would emerge as financial empire builders.  But as far as I know it hasnt happened yet.  Except maybe Oprah Winfrey, who is supposed to be worth more than half a billion  But Oprah Winfrey or no, there is one name that shines like a beacon among women traders.

Hetty Green.

And she flourished a hundred years ago.

Hetty Green lived in a cold water flat in Hoboken, wore the same shapeless black dress for days on end, seldom bathed and when her son hurt his leg severely would not pay to get a doctor.  She was the Epitome of Parsimony, the Princess of Penury. They called her the Witch of Wall Street.

And when she died in 1916 at 81 she left an estate of more than $100 million.

In the Twenties, when I was a child, Hetty Green was still a household word.  Even small children knew her name and fame.  Hetty Green was a synonym for miser.  There have been books written about her and as late as August 1997 there was a long story about her in Biography Magazine by Miranda Spencer in, appropriately, the Eccentrics section. 

She was born Henrietta Howland Robinson in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1834. Her father was Edward Black Hawk Robinson, part owner of a fleet of whaling ships.  As a child she followed her father on his business around the wharves and every day she read newspaper business news aloud to him.  She learned about stocks and bonds and how the market worked.  When she was ten she was sent to a strict Quaker school on Cape Cod where, to quote Spencers Biography Magazine article, she was instructed on the evils of vanity and luxury and the virtue of thrift.  She was there three years before returning home to work as bookkeeper for her father, Black Hawk Robinson, who taught her never to owe anyone anything, not even a kindness.

At 16, after three years among coarse, profane sailors, she was sent off to a finishing school to be made a lady of.  After three years of that, although she came out and went to New York to mingle in society, it didnt work out.  She went home less impressed with her foray into society than she was with having made money in the bond market investing her $1,200 spending allowance.  It was already obvious she was more interested in making and hanging onto money than in social position.

After some years as more an investing dilettante than debutante,  she hooked up with her father in New York.  He had left the moribund whaling business to invest in precious metals and securities.  That was the life for her.  At 29, Hetty decided her true home was Wall Street. 

Her father sickened and on his death bed told her, I have been poisoned.  You will be next.  She believed him and started sleeping under a mattress in a storeroom closet and eating hard-boiled eggs (which couldnt be poisoned).  She slept with a pistol on a string at the end of her bed.

Her father left her a million dollars, in those days a vast sum, and a four million dollar trust fund.  An aunt who had helped raise her died two weeks later and instead of leaving Hetty her two million dollar fortune, as she had promised, changed her will  and left her only $65,000 a year in interest.  Furious, Hetty went to court to get it all, introducing  a new will, in Hettys handwriting (she claimed her aunt had dictated it to her and signed it).  The Howland Will Case took five years to settle and piled up legal fees of $150,00, a staggering sum, but brought her a settlement of over half a million, which she invested in bonds.

Her strongest supporter was one of her fathers business acquaintances, Edward Henry Green, himself a wealthy investor.  So in 1867 she married him.  They moved to London and lived there in a hotel almost seven years.  She had two children, a son, Ned, in 1868 and in 1871 a daughter, Sylvia, keeping her business skills honed speculating in American dollars.  Through it all, she proved to be a strict but doting mother.

In 1874 they moved back to the US, to her husbands home town of Bellows Falls, Vermont.  There, increasingly rich through her investment, she haggled with shopkeepers over prices, reused envelopes and layered her clothes with newspapers in cold weather.  She and her husband commuted regularly to New York to be closer to their investments.  She was better at accumulating money than he was.  When he tried to make a large withdrawal from their bank account and was refused because he already owed the bank half a million, Hetty kicked and screamed but finally paid his debt and switched her account to another bank.  And dumped him.

She profoundly distrusted lawyers and doctors and sometimes tried to work them for free advice.  When billed, she tried to stiff them.  In 1882 Ned, then 14, dislocated his knee while sledding.  Instead of taking him to a hospital, she tried home treatment and free clinics.  In the end, his leg had to be amputated.  Her husband paid the doctor bill and Ned never blamed his mother.

By 1900, when the average family income was $500, Hetty had seven million a year. After she left Green she grew even thriftier and shrewder.  She and her daughter, who lived with her until she was 38, lived on as little as $5 a week in a series of near-hovels, often under an assumed name.  She leased a Hoboken apartment in the name of her dog. 

Although she kept Sylvia with her, she let Ned, who had grown into a large, friendly man, go off on his own, sort of.  She made him promise not to get married until he was middle-aged and saw to his business well-being.  Sylvia, a shy, six-footer, escaped her mother at 38 in a marriage to a 57-year-old business man with Hettys consent, after he signed a pre-nuptial agreement giving up all claim to Sylvias fortune.

Left alone, aging, she got stingier and more eccentric.  She went to her bankers offices every day, often in the same clothes day after day, sunbathed and smelly (she munched raw onions for her health), but nevertheless always welcomed.  Employees liked her and she liked them.  She worked at any desk she could find or even on the floor, surrounded by stacks of her securities.   Her usual lunch was oatmeal, cooked on an office radiator.  She lived with her dog in a Hoboken apartment.  Though she did not waste money on food for herself, she fed him steak. 

Near the end of her life she moved into the New York apartment of one of her few friends, who lived as elegantly as Hetty lived meanly.  They got along but after a screaming match with her friends cook, she had the first ot three strokes.  She died in July, 1916, at 81.  Shed had herself baptized an Episcopalian so she could be buried back in Bellows Falls in her husbands family plot.  Her flower-bedecked coffin was transported there in a Pullman car.

Her son, Ned, spent his inheritance freely on yachts, luxurious homes and female companions.  When he died, he still had 125 million dollars.  It went to his sister, Sylvia.  And when she died she left her fortune to distant relatives, friends and charities.

Hetty Green must have whirled in her grave.


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