Gilded age

I’ll be taking a bit of time off as we approach July 4. But I didn’t want to risk this week passing without comment, because it will mark the date, 104 years ago, that Hetty Green departed the bounds of this Earth.

Don’t know her? I’m sure some readers will prove to be exceptions, but frankly it’s also part of the point.

During America’s Gilded Age, from say sometime in the 1870s or so to 1900, Hetty Green was known as the wealthiest woman in America.

Born Henrietta Howland Robinson, she came from a family that had “made millions with their whaling fleet and shipping interests” in New Bedford, Massachusetts, according to a biographer. So, she started out with an enormous head start in life, inheriting the modern equivalent of about $100 million.

She grew her fortune aggressively through investments to what in 2020 would be about $2 billion—potentially even more, because she was aggressive and effective at hiding her ownership of property to avoid tax.

Hetty was quite famous in her time, and three points stand out:

  1. First, that she increased her fortune purely by investing, not by building a business or an industry herself. One fairly recently account calls her the “cantankerous grandmother” of value investing.

  2. Second, that she was a woman accumulating all this money during a time when women couldn’t vote, and before in many cases they could even own property in their own names.

  3. Third, she was known for her financial acumen, but probably even more so for her reputation for being incredibly thrifty, to the point of discomfort.

Popularly reported examples of her thriftiness:

  • Refusing to heat her apartments in New York City;

  • Eating only cold food to avoid paying for cooking fuel;

  • Telling her maids only to clean the dirtiest parts of her clothing so as to reduce costs;

  • Trying to get a medical society for the poor to treat her son’s illness for free; and

  • Living with a painful hernia because she refused to pay for an operation to treat it.

Of course, Green’s reputation for extreme thriftiness and the fact that she was a woman might not be unrelated — meaning I’m not sure whether her miserly reputation was exaggerated, but I can easily see it being portrayed in the press that way because of her sex.

Unfortunately, the newspaper accounts are mostly what we have to go on.

“Not so different from the modern Warren Buffett,” wrote Green’s biographer and defender, Janet Wallach, in 2013, pointing out that he’s legendarily frugal in his personal life—living in the same home for decades. “But as much as the press smiles at Buffett’s habits, they smirked at Hetty’s behavior.”

“Just because I dress plainly and do not spend a fortune on my gowns, they say I am cranky or insane,” Green complained at one point.

But, it stuck. She was even named “The World’s Greatest Miser” by the Guinness Book of World Records—although she was more popularly known as “the Witch of Wall Street.”

Hetty married a fellow millionaire in 1867, Edward Green (requiring him to sign a prenup), and they had two children. They separated eventually — although never actually divorced, and reportedly reconciled to some degree in latter years.

She died after a series of strokes at age 82, leaving her wealth divided between her two children, who reportedly enjoyed being rich more than she did. Neither of them had children or other heirs of their own, however, and ultimately most of the Green fortune wound up going to charity.

Just like that, she was gone — forgotten, I suppose, except for occasional email newsletter mentions and the like. Obviously, I’m not exactly holding her up as a role model here—maybe more of a cautionary tale.

I’m all for building wealth. But it’s a sad story when people don’t remember there’s a lot more to life.

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