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The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age

The Richest Woman in America: The Life and Times of Hetty Green - Janet Wallach 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, an end to slavery, 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.