Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon, by Charles Slack

When I was a child, I remember looking at this photograph of the woman who topped the list of the world's greatest misers in The Book of Lists: Mrs. Hetty Green, AKA 'the Witch of Wall Street'. She is remembered largely for her eccentricities and parsimony, but this biography revealed a much more complex and competent woman, and one for whom I now feel tremendous respect.  Hetty Green has crossed my path in  a number of ways through the years, and I'm glad to finally know of her from a more sympathetic source.

The first thing Mr. Slack points out is that Hetty's financial acumen started very early in her life. Her father first made his fortune in the Massachusetts whaling industry (as my ancestors had), and when his vision began to fail, he called upon sharp-witted little Hetty to help him
Perhaps the only thing about Black Hawk Robinson that could be described as weak was his eyesight. And so from a young age Hetty read the financial news to her father, and to her maternal grandfather, Gideon Howland, a partner in the firm. She read shipping statistics, tariff news, currency debates, the latest on securities and investments, and trade news from New York. She absorbed everything. By the time she was fifteen, by her own reckoning, she knew more about finance than many financial men.
The Robinsons were Quakers, and with this came stern discipline, principles, and self-sufficiency.
Looking back on her childhood many years later, Hetty would recall, “My father taught me never to owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness." ...
They refused to doff their hats to other men, saving this as a sign of respect for God, and dressed in conspicuously plain garments. These habits made the Quakers seem exotic and strange, but at heart theirs was a rather simple and lovely idea—that God lives within each person. They sought a closer communion with their Maker by stripping away the bureaucratic layer of priests, bishops, ministers, and other holy middlemen represented by organized religion. They met as “Friends,” each individual sharing his or her experiences with God. Detractors misconstrued this as a Quaker claim that every individual was God, hence free to ignore Scripture if so moved. In fact, Quakers adhered closely to the established scriptures, and members could be evicted for straying too far in their personal beliefs.
The New England Quakers' work ethic paid off, but their success created a bit of conflict, and this clash of values explains so many of Hetty's lifelong contradictions:  She was a woman of great industry, but she never used her wealth to buy herself a life of comfort and pleasure. It just wasn't the Quaker way.
...first at farming, then at fishing, and finally at whaling. As their fortunes rose, they lived a peculiar contradiction of their own making. They believed in humility, thriftiness, hard work, plain dwellings and furnishings, and modesty in both dress and behavior. They had no idea what to do when, applying these godly virtues to whaling, they found themselves becoming as rich as sin...
... Hetty's accumulation of money and her seeming inability to enjoy spending it, her arch disapproval of those who did spend their money, her ability to claim poverty and humility while hording a fortune of epic proportions—all of these things can be traced back to that small world, at once drab and colorful, of the New Bedford Quakers.
I was not raised a Quaker, but I was raised by parents who had grown up during the Great Depression, and they taught me from a very young age to save money. For security. For a rainy day. A penny saved is a penny earned. I received my first coin bank as a gift before I started school, and I vividly remember counting its contents and adding to them every coin that came to me. I also remember opening my first bank account when I was too small to see over the counter. My mother never paid me a half-dollar not to bite the dentist, but Hetty and I had plenty in common as little girls. 
If most children’s natural inclination is to spend any booty immediately on candy or toys, Hetty showed no such urges, even as a child. Chances are that the half-dollar she earned at the dentist’s office went into a box in her room for safekeeping. She received an allowance of $1.50 per week, but, unlike other children with money in their pockets, she showed no desire to spend it. When she was eight, she later claimed, she marched down to a local bank, savings in hand, and opened her first account.
Most portrayals of Hetty are of a grim, humourless woman so consumed with the accumulation and hoarding of wealth that she had no friends nor social skills. Before her marriage, when she was still living in her parents' home, she attended a ball at which the guest of honour was the Prince of Wales. Hetty had no qualms about speaking to him.  She simply introduced herself as "the Princess of Whales".

When her father died, he seemed to give way to convention, as if he'd forgotten that he'd reared a daughter who was every bit as fiscally savvy as he. His only heir, Hetty found her bequest held in trust for her, managed by others.
But she was a woman, and Robinson followed the conventions of the day and kept some 80 percent of his fortune in trust for her, so that she would not fritter it away. Hetty could interpret the will as nothing other than a deep and burning insult. She would carry anger over her father’s will throughout her life, transferring her rage from her father to the men he had selected to administer the trust.
Mr. Slack makes sure to point out at the end of the book who was the more competent financial manager. At the time of her death, Hetty was the richest woman in America, and only a small portion of her wealth had been inherited.
The trust of Hetty’s father had barely increased in value in all those years. Hetty’s own money, meanwhile, had exploded in a literal embarrassment of riches.
Although known for her miserliness, Hetty did give generously to certain charities, but very quietly. If she became known as a philanthropist, she knew she would be overwhelmed by demands.
For her efforts on behalf of Catholic charities, in particular to help the children of poor Catholic immigrants, she would be named a papal countess.
I found it interesting that she chose Catholic charities, being a Quaker herself, but Hetty was above all pragmatic. If she felt the Catholic charities got the job done most effectively, that's where her donations would go. (I believe Hetty and Rose Kennedy -- who was actually a Catholic -- are the only American women ever given this title.)

This biography made clear that Hetty acquired much of her wealth by a studious, steady and conservative programme of investing. Hers was hands-on money management, and men of finance -- both her peers and her enemies -- admitted great respect for her ability.
“Mrs. E. H. Green is well known, by reputation at least, in Wall-street,” the Times reported. “She is believed to be the richest woman in America, a title earned by her own business sagacity, energy, and watchfulness.” The article added later: “She has lived a frugal life, exercised extraordinary keenness in her investments, and by embracing every good opportunity that the stock market afforded she has more than quintupled her inheritance. Old Wall-street operators give Mrs. Green credit for having as intimate a knowledge of railroad securities as any person they know.”
I had read accounts of the humble lodgings in which Hetty chose to live with her two children after her estrangement from her husband. Less kind accounts suggest that she forced them to live in squalor, but it wasn't that grim. They simply moved around from one simple apartment to the next. As with so many other aspects of Hetty's seemingly eccentric behaviour, there was an excellent reason for this nomadic roaming.
In order to collect personal property taxes, collectors first had to establish proof of residency. By paying monthly rent and moving frequently, Hetty preserved the ability to deny that she lived in any given city or state whose tax collectors became too persistent. During the course of her life she would be a resident of Bellows Falls, New Bedford, New York, and New Jersey, all of them and none of them at the same time.
Having accumulated so much wealth, it's only natural that Hetty would be distrustful of others' motives. Fortunately for her, she seems to have been emotionally and functionally self-sufficient. Her suspicions, however, meant that her daughter married very late in life -- much too late to bear children -- because Hetty scared off what she feared to be gold-digging suitors. She herself had very few close acquaintances, and perhaps only one friend, Annie O'Leary. At times, later in her life, she said things that suggested a deep paranoia and fear for her life, but generally, Hetty was just a stolid, self-reliant individual.
The friendship with Annie notwithstanding, Hetty lived her life convinced that, as a businesswoman, if not as a woman, she was fundamentally and completely alone. Nobody else would watch out for her interests. She mistrusted all forms of alliances and cabals. Where other investors sought the safety of numbers, the soothing ring of consensus, Hetty felt most comfortable on her own, trusting her own judgment and instincts. She was a free agent in the truest sense of the term, and anyone going into a deal assuming he had Hetty Green in his corner, or that she could be pushed, harassed, or cowed into going along with a crowd, learned difficult and expensive lessons to the contrary.
Hetty found one bank in New York that she trusted to hold her wealth, and the courtly banker, Mr. Williams, set up a desk for Mrs. Green at the back of the bank. She went there nearly every day to attend to her business. It might be tempting to refer to Hetty as ruthless, but that does not mean she was unethical. Quite the contrary, she insisted upon honourable behaviour, and this banker's values suited her to a tee.
To Williams, politeness was more than just kindness; it was sound business. “Politeness pays,” he would tell his employees. “A grain of politeness saves a ton of correction. No institution is too important to ignore the laws of courtesy.”
His staff knew better than to raise their eyebrows or titter as Hetty came into the bank each day, often wearing frayed and unfashionably old clothing.
They made no issue about her old clothes, or about her ways of economizing, which at times included arriving at the bank with a metal pail containing dry oatmeal, to be mixed with water and heated on a radiator for lunch, so as to avoid a restaurant tab.
Although Hetty's philanthropy may have been a secret to the common man, her peers -- both in government and finance -- turned to her to avert a range of bankruptcies and collapses. Her wealth acted as an independent branch of the national treasury.  During one looming crisis, all the nation's wealthiest men met secretly in New York to discuss an emergency bail-out. One woman, dressed all in black, was seen slipping into the building. No one was certain that it was Hetty, but who else... ?
At any rate, it is difficult to imagine any other woman of the time being called in by J. P. Morgan and his associates to discuss a national financial crisis...
[She became] a sort of one-woman Federal Reserve, whose decisions on interest rates were followed the way investors today await word from Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. “Hetty Green Cuts Rates,” the Times reported.
 Journalists dubbed Hetty 'the Witch of Wall Street' during her lifetime, and many went on at great length about her niggardly and unhappy life. They could not comprehend that anyone might possess such wealth, fail to spend it, and still be happy. To me, her contentment makes perfect sense.
This notion of her unhappiness owed itself in part to the tenor of the times. How could a woman be happy whose thoughts were so dominated by business and finance? Her preoccupation with money must be covering for some huge gap in her domestic life. Certainly, nothing Hetty said supported the notion that she was unhappy. Virtually every public comment she made regarding her own life reinforced the idea of a woman living her life contentedly, according to a few simple rules. “I really have nothing to say,” she told a New York Times reporter in November 1905, “further than to be thankful for my continued health and interest in general affairs. I know of but very few people who are busier than myself or who are better trained to combine business with pleasure.” Asked if she planned to retire, Hetty responded, “Why should I give up work? I was never more capable of handling my affairs.” 
In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society’s.
Hetty enjoyed managing her money, and she continued very actively as she aged. I love this image of finance in the days of paper coupons and stock certificates.
Hetty still put in full days. She occupied a Spartan office furnished with an old roll-top oak desk and three chairs. Often her days consisted of sitting next to enormous piles of coupons for bonds coming due. Patiently, steadfastly she worked her way through mound after mound of coupons, cutting with a pair of large shears. She kept a grindstone nearby for sharpening the shears when they became dulled by the ceaseless tide of her wealth.
After her death, at least one commentator passed what seems to me a fair judgement.
The most perceptive assessment may have been this: “Probably her life was happy. At any rate, she had enough of courage to live as she chose and to be as thrifty as she pleased, and she observed such of the world’s conventions as seemed to her right and useful, coldly and calmly ignoring all the others.”
I am an alumna of Wellesley College, a women's college in Wellesley, Massachusetts (also the alma mater of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and many other luminaries who have achieved greater heights than I).  The grand brownstone administrative hall at the center of the campus with its gothic arches, leaded windows and square carillon tower is Green Hall. I remember learning that it had been built with funds donated by Ned Green, Hetty's son. At the time, I blurted out something about what little I knew of Hetty -- namely her infamous miserliness -- and was greeted with blank stares by my classmates, none of whom had ever heard of her. It was often wrongly reported that Hetty's children disbursed her entire estate in a frenzy of charitable giving, perhaps as a way to make up for the deprivations they'd suffered as children. This, as it turns out, is rubbish.
Because of this connection with Wellesley, Ned in 1923 talked his sister into joining him in a $500,000 donation to the college. They agreed to give $50,000 each per year for five years, toward the construction of an administration building. The building, with a tower rising 185 feet high from Norumbega Hill, was constructed of brick and Indiana limestone; it was and remains the most prominent building on campus. It also bears the distinction of being the only edifice or monument to Hetty Green. It is called Hetty H. R. Green Hall.
It grieves me that I never in my Wellesley years or since heard this glorious building called anything but Green Hall. It was only by coincidence that I learned of its' connection to the Green family, and I never once heard Hetty's name mentioned in conjunction with it. Wellesley is a women's college; its mandate is to educate women to think and live independently and boldly, and Hetty Green was nothing if not a role model for strong, self-reliant women. If I had my way, this book would be required reading for every freshman during the orientation period. 

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.