By ROGER W. SMITH
Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon
by Charles Slack
Ecco, 272 pages, $25.95
Henrietta Howland (Robinson) Green was, at the time of her death in 1916, believed to be the wealthiest woman in America. She left an estate valued at $100-200 million and ranks roughly in the top third (a few places behind Bill Gates and slightly ahead of Warren Buffet) on a list of the one hundred wealthiest Americans. She is the only woman on the list.
Her shabby black attire and strange off-putting ways earned her the sobriquet “the witch of Wall Street” and a reputation both in her own day and ever since as the quintessential miser. For years she maintained an unofficial office at the Chemical National Bank at 270 Broadway to which she commuted from a cheap apartment in Hoboken when she could have lived luxuriously among the rich.
There is, Charles Slack acknowledges in this well researched and written biography, at least a grain of truth in most of the unflattering tales and legends about Hetty. But Mr. Slack digs deeper and tries to distinguish between the truth and fiction in them. He does a good job of assessing Hetty Green as she really was: course, unpretentious, sometimes mean and vindictive to business rivals, not callous (as was often alleged) but caring and nurturing as a parent, and quite attractive in her younger years.
Regarding Hetty’s supposed unhappiness and loneliness, the common belief that she was filthy rich but had an unfulfilling life (she lived separately from her businessman husband for many years but remained on good terms with him), he points out, perceptively, that “independence was her pride and strength” — in other words, much of what put people off about her was her way of maintaining a sense of selfhood. He notes that her business judgment and timing were brilliant and her financial maxims sound: “buy cheap and sell dearly,” “never speculate on Wall Street,” and, above all, don’t panic when others do.
Mr. Slack does not dwell, wisely (since it has been thoroughly covered elsewhere), on a central event in Hetty’s story, the famous Howland Will Case, involving the estate of her aunt Sylvia Ann Howland, which Hetty in effect lost and in which she came off badly (having, it would seem, committed forgery). He does, however, make excellent use of court transcripts to throw light on her selfishness and manipulative behavior as attested to by members of her aunt’s household who testified against her.
The use of chapter “source notes” rather than footnotes, which was probably done to save space, makes it hard to verify where much of the material, including quotations attributed to Hetty and various detractors, comes from. Is this a new trend in nonfiction book publishing? One hopes not.
One gets the feeling that the publisher had a fixed page length in mind for this book. A longer book would have given the author a chance to spend more time straightening out the tangled strands of Hetty’s life (just keeping up with her peripatetic life trajectory is a daunting task for the biographer) and to give more weight to events and observations that he has been forced to treat less than fully at times. I think that would have made Hetty’s importance as a biographical subject clearer to the reader. This book does provide valuable insights into the reasons behind Hetty’s financial success, something prior biographies have not done as well.
Mr. Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Maspeth, Queens who last wrote for these pages about Walt Whitman.