Squirreled away

How not to save millions of dollars. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Today’s newsletter runs about 800 words, and it ends with a small fortune. But, it's not a "get rich quick" story.

Its protagonist wound up quite wealthy, but I hope you won't be inspired to imitate her—even though a lot of misguided people called her an inspiration.

Her name was Sylvia Bloom, and she worked for 67 years as a secretary at a Wall Street law firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where she’d been one of the first employees.

She rode the subway each morning and went home each night to the modest Brooklyn apartment she shared with her husband.

During that time, it was later revealed, Bloom accumulated a total of $9 million. She spent almost none of it, and she lived such a quiet, parsimonious life (she died at age 96, in 2016), hiding it all away, that nobody had any idea of her wealth.

Nobody, apparently, including her husband, with whom she shared that modest apartment all those years (rent-controlled, by the way, which is kind of a big deal in New York). He died in 2002; he’d been a city firefighter and a teacher, and worked a side job as a pharmacist.

Bloom's niece, Jane Lockshin, who said she learned of her aunt's wealth only just before her death, explained the strategy to the New York Times:

"She was a secretary in an era when they ran their boss's lives, including their personal investments. So when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him, and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a secretary's salary."

I think this is the place to mention an uncomfortable question, which is whether her strategy might have been 100 percent legitimate.

As Ira Stoll noted in Reason, at least one lawyer at Bloom's firm pleaded guilty to "insider trading for misusing confidential information about one of the firm's clients."

Stoll doesn't want to go so far as to call this illegal, so I'll just use his characterization: the strategy of drafting off her bosses' trades "poses potential legal and moral complexities." 

Set that aside. In death, the bulk of Bloom's fortune went to a worthy cause, funding college scholarships for New York kids. Lockshin is the treasurer of the largest beneficiary.

“She was a child of the Depression and she knew what it was like not to have money,” said a colleague who worked with her at the law firm. “She had great empathy for other people who were needy and wanted everybody to have a fair shake.”

As the Times pointed out, these kinds of stories make news from time to time: the unassuming, almost painfully frugal person, usually living on a salary, who leaves behind a fortune that nobody imagined they could possibly have had. Among them:

  • Donald and Mildred Othmer, who left $750 million when they died in 1995 and 1998 respectively. (They'd entrusted their investments to an old family friend whom they'd first met in the 1960s, named Warren Buffet). 

  • Grace Groner, a Chicago-area secretary woman who left $7 million (mostly the result of a single $180 investment she'd made in 1935 and never touched), and

  • Leonard Gigowski, a Milwaukee bachelor and corner grocer named who left $13 million to a scholarship program. 

There are similarities: unmarried more often than not; almost universally childless. Not that everyone has to get married or have kids to find happiness, of course, but it's striking.

The news often breaks not with their death, but with a later story of an outsized and unexpected charitable gift--much appreciated by the beneficiary. And, the stories usually include anecdotes of almost comic frugality.

In Bloom's case, the Times says she refused to pay for taxicabs, to the point that on 9/11, she insisted on walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and then waiting for a bus to take her home.

All of which leads me to ask a single question: Why?

Why live so frugally? Why work so hard to accumulate the money? Why not give it away during your lifetime, if charity and good works are the ultimate goal?

If Stoll is onto anything with his insider trading conjecture: Can you imagine potentially taking legal risks for which people go to prison—only to squirrel the money away and never do anything with it until after your death?

I keep thinking of a song from 1988 by the band, The Godfathers: Birth, School, Work Death. (Good song, still; the video doesn’t really hold up in my opinion.)

Anyway, read about people like Bloom and the Othmers and Groner and Gigowski. Study their investment strategies. Take the lessons. But I don’t think it’s worthwhile to copy them. 

If you make money: spend it, invest it, donate to charity—heck, give it to random people whose lives you might change in a meaningful way.

But, if you ask me? Do it while you're still around, so you get to see what happens.

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time

  • It’s been 8 years since the Senate confirmed a nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. President Biden on Wednesday nominated a former ATF agent who has been the head of a gun control-advocacy group for the post. It will be really interesting to see if this nominee can break the eight-year streak, going back to President Obama’s second term. (WashPost)

  • Barbers are thrilled that people did such a bad job cutting their own hair, as business is now surging. (WSJ, $)

  • Tiger Woods is thanking first responders and others who saved him after his accident February 23. Police say he was doing between 82 and 87 miles an hour (speed limit: 45) when he crashed into a tree. They say they think he mistakenly stepped on the gas, instead of the brake, when he realized he was losing control. Somehow, he’s apparently not even getting a speeding ticket. (TMZ)

  • “One in three COVID-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 mostly American patients were diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months, suggesting the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems, scientists said on Tuesday.” (Reuters)

  • I thought this was a very balanced and interesting story about a 9-year-old boy from Guatemala whose parents sent him (illegally), with an older cousin, to the United States. The cousin was caught and deported, and the boy wound up in foster care. His parents don’t even speak Spanish (never mind English) and live four hours away from the town with the closest Internet connection, but wanted to bring him home. He’s back now with them, in a very rural Guatemalan village, sharing a bed with two siblings and living in a one-room, dirt-floor shack. (WashPost)

  • Heartbreaking video of another 10-year-old boy, abandoned by the group that brought him over the border, and tearfully asking Border Patrol for help. He was taken to a child detention center in Donna, Texas, one of 19,000 kids in custody. It will take roughly five weeks before he’s released to family here in the U.S., according to reports. (WashPost, ABC News)

  • NASA released what seemed like an amazing photo: a yellow-hued rainbow on Mars. Alas, it was just a lens flare. "Rainbows aren't possible here,” NASA explained. "Rainbows are created by light reflected off of round water droplets, but there isn't enough water here to condense, and it's too cold for liquid water in the atmosphere." (Business Insider)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: © 2015 Wade Tregaskis (CC license). I’ve written about Sylvia Bloom before at Inc.com. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. (Want to see all the things I’ve gotten wrong? Click here.)

And of course, please share Understandably! Can you think of someone who might be drinking his or her coffee right now without it? Thanks in advance!

Share Understandably

Finally, if you liked this post, please click that little heart icon below. Comments are always welcome, and if you reply to this newsletter, it will go straight to my inbox. As this has all grown over the past few months, it’s become harder to respond to everyone, but I do read everything that comes in, and I reply to as many as I can.

Leave a comment