Ask me to name the Gilded Age’s richest millionaires, and like any U.S. schoolchild inculcated in the glories of capitalism, I can give you the list: J.P. Morgan. Andrew Car-NAY-gee. John D. “I’m a Notorious Skinflint and No You Can’t Touch My Brown Paper Lunch Sack” Rockefeller. All dudes.
Hetty Howland Robinson Green was not a dude.
Hetty Green was, however, one of the richest people to come out of the Gilded Age and possibly the country’s first female self-made millionaire (though, like every other “self-made” millionaire of the time, she did have considerable help in the form of daddy’s seed money). Born in Massachusetts at the height of the whaling industry, only-child Hetty used to read the business news to her father and grandfather each day. This early education, combined with a bred-in-the-bone Quaker simplicity bordering on self-imposed penury, gave Hetty the education and moral compasss she needed to turn a paltry few hundred thousand into hundreds of millions in cash before she died.
Unlike her Gilded Age cohorts, Hetty Green did not spend her twenties selling defective guns to the Union Army or hiring all of Pinkerton’s to break up steelworker strikes. Rather, she spent those years hoarding the money her father sent her to buy dresses and in wrestling with her aunt Sylvia over the contents of Sylvia’s will – a battle that Hetty would eventually lose, despite almost certainly forging a codicil to her aunt’s will.
Regardless, Hetty took the money she had – and not a dime of her husband’s, who spent it all and died broke himself – and spent her life using it to make more money. While the rest of Wall Street was panicking over bad railroads and watered stock, Hetty was calmly buying real estate in Chicago and other cities, clipping bond coupons, and loaning millions in cash to institutions she considered good investments. The most notorious of these? The City of New York, to which Hetty Green loaned over $1 million dollars on several separate occasions to keep public amenities like firefighters and street cleaning running until the stock market got busy again as it did each fall. (The millionaires running several midwestern states, such as Michigan, might do well to take a leaf from Hetty’s book. But I digress.)
Hetty’s personal life, meanwhile, left everyone speculating as to whether she was morbidly depressed or a real live witch. Although she was worth hundreds of millions, Hetty never gave up her Quaker roots, preferring to dress simply and to live in inexpensive Brooklyn flats and cheap boarding house rooms than among the wealthy whose bank accounts she put to shame. Her habits and outfits – for Hetty, black was always the new black – earned her the nickname “The Witch of Wall Street.” If she was a witch, Hetty certainly managed to conjure up the Benjamins.
Charles Slack’s biography of Hetty Green paints a portrait of a woman who, while not entirely likeable, is always strangely compelling. Hetty Green had an enviable business sense and the strength to manage her own financial affairs at a time when women could not vote and most, if not all, of their property belonged to their husbands from their wedding day onward. Above all else, Hetty Green lived her life on her own terms. It is a damned patriarchal shame that this clever and honest woman has been erased from our nation’s history books. Hetty is a small and noble step toward bringing her back.