49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2004
Hetty Green was an outsider, a woman in the man's world of Wall Street in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries who was estimated to be worth $100m at the time of her death, or over $1.5bn in today's money.
Hetty became incredibly wealthy by following the "buy low, sell high" rule ruthlessly in real estate, bonds, and stocks. She is remembered as a miser, pedant, and grouch but this reflects the prevailing attitude of the times, where a woman doing the "dirty" work of investing and wealth creation was generally looked down upon.
This short and tidy synopsis of Hetty's life and times makes for great reading, covering the period 1830 to around 1920. The book seems very balanced, finding much good to say about Hetty but she is not idolized and her rough demeanor and pushy personality are evident. After reading this, I am convinced that Warren Buffett would have found her a very tough competitor.
53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Hetty Green is commonly called the Witch of Wall Street and has the dubious distinction as being listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as a miser. While her frugality is well documented, a lot of her reputation for meanness is undeserved. Much of that is due to the fact that she was the only woman of that time who managed her own money and the fact that she was very successful in doing so. Unlike so many of her fellow superrich of the time, she did not flaunt her wealth, taking public transportation and living in a modest dwelling. Also, in direct contrast to many people of wealth and power, she did not care what others (her fellow rich) thought of her.
The most distinctive point regarding her life is the contrast between her and the male robber barons of her time. People such as Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan considered it their god-given right to exploit their workers and customers. Worker injury rates were high, work hours were long, and these men amassed massive fortunes on the backs of others. The fact that they spent millions for public works in their later years should not overshadow that fact. Furthermore, wealthy men often thought nothing of milking the public treasury and deceiving investors.
As Slack points out in great detail, Hetty was different, in that while she had a competitive fire that made her ferocious in her business dealings, it was reserved for her opponents. There were many times when she loaned money to public institutions at rates much lower than she could have otherwise earned. She single-handedly bailed the city of New York out several times, loaning money at an interest rate almost half the current rate. She personally financed the water works project of the city of Tucson, Arizona and she also loaned money to many churches. She was always fair in her dealings, as Slack puts it, "Although she could be ruthless in dealing with an enemy, she rarely if ever took the opportunity to kick a borrower when he was down." In no way could such a statement be made about the other, male icons of industry in the late nineteenth century. When the leader of one of her church debtors was in trouble and tried to shame her into forgiving the debt, many other church leaders rose to her defense, noting how much she had helped them and would continue to do so in the future.
Much has been made about how she refused to allow her son's leg to be cared for until she could find free medical care, and the delay led to it having to be amputated. As Slack so emphatically makes clear, this is false. Those who perpetuate the story have no knowledge of the primitive level of medical care at that time. Many doctors were incompetent and Hetty was aware of this. She was constantly shopping around for a cure, looking anywhere she might find one. The fact that her son Ned showed no animosity and followed so well in her footsteps is a tribute to her role as a mother and role model. While Ned did not share her tightness with a dollar, he was no incompetent spendthrift, becoming a powerful businessman in his own right. While he spent freely, it was from the income only and he did not touch the principal of his investments.
I am very glad that this book was written. I find it incredible that of all the very wealthy people of the late nineteenth century, Hetty Green suffers from one of the worst reputations. Although she had her faults, compared to what some of the others were doing at that time, she was a saint. Slack debunks many of the myths, although he pulls no punches, including what was most likely her attempt to commit murder. Hetty Green was the most powerful woman this country has had until very recent times and this is the story of how she lived her life. There is much to admire about the way she did it her way.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Having thoroughly enjoyed Charles Slack's marvelous 2003 offering "Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock The Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteeth Century", I was eager to read "Hetty" despite the fact that I had never even heard of her. She is a largely forgotten figure in American history. In his "Acknowlegements" at the end of the book, author Charles Slack recalls that he embarked on this project at the urging of his mother despite the fact that at the outset "I only had the vaguest idea of who she was talking about."
Hetty Green was the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson of New Bedford, Mass. Robinson made his fortune in whaling and his daughter Hetty exhibited a keen interest in business from a very early age. This was highly unusual for a young girl in those days but Hetty was determined to follow in her fathers footsteps. Hetty was raised a Quaker and as such she did not believe in showering herself with luxuries. Rather, she spent virtually her entire life scrimping and saving. This was certainly not necessary because Hetty Green would become by all accounts the richest woman in the world. She owned dozens of buildings in New York, Boston, Chicago and St.Louis. She owned warehouses and gold mines and was also a major player in the emerging railroad industry. She would be a force to be reckoned with on the American financial scene for more than half a century. And you did not cross Hetty Green as her archrival, the legendary industrialist Collis P. Huntington, would discover early on. At the time of her passing in 1916, her empire was conservatively estimated to be valued at more than $100.000.000!!!
Charles Slack is a marvelous storyteller. In "Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon" you will also learn about Hetty Green's personal life which in many ways was beyond bizarre. Yes, she did find time to marry and have two children, Ned and Sylvia. But in spite of her enormous wealth Hetty Green spent virtually her entire adult life living in cheap tenements in places like Hoboken, NJ in an effort to avoid the press and more importantly the taxman. But what made Hetty tick was clearly not her personal life. Rather, it was the business world that consumed her. "Hetty" recalls the remarkable story of America's first female tycoon. It is very well written and highly entertaining. Recommended!
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2005
I would make this book required reading for students of American History. One single page can interest the reader to do more research. For instance, the whaling industry in the 1830's, historical homes to visit, a view of Wall Street so long ago...
The writing is excellent and I am an avid reader of biographies. I am also a daughter of a Wall Street stock broker. I had heard of the infamous Hetty Green; the "Witch of Wall Street". And to think.. someone finally wrote a book...WOW!
I grabbed the book off the shelf at Barnes & Noble and was not dissappointed. Excellent writing. So well written.. Three cheers for the author. I am grateful that somone wrote a book on this incredible woman. Now I know more about her. Facinating...
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2005
Hetty Green was heir to a fortune but what she did with that inheritance is a significant example of capitalism run amok during the late 19th, early 20th centuries. She turned that modest inheritance into hundreds of millions of dollars. Had she been a man, in my opinion, she would have come to us--through the decades--as powerful a name as Morgan, Carnegie or Rockefeller. Instead, she is remembered, if she is remembered at all, as an eccentric old lady, at best, and a ruthless miser, at worst.
Thankfully, Charles Slack's HETTY, The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon offers us a look at the woman beneath the austere black dresses. At times ruthless, at times vindictive, Hetty Green could also be compassionate and sentimental. While she was not exactly an ideal wife or mother, her husband and children never villified her; in fact her children, in public at least, only said kind words for her (even though her son could have legitimately accused her of costing him his leg).
What ultimately comes across though is a strong, looming sense of loneliness. To me, she seemed isolated as a child, isolated as a young adult, and in later years, as isolated as her Aunt Sylvia. In the end, money couldn't buy her love. It couldn't even pay for a friend. Charles Slack, however, doesn't want you to think of this as some sort of penance. She was surrounded by what little family was left, and by his account, left this world peacefully. Mr. Slack actually makes it seem she preferred it that way. And I believe he's right. This was a fascinating biography of a woman who deserved one.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Slack has given us the first cut of a remarkable life.
How many biographies exist for John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gould and the others? This book opens up a whole new unexplored territory. Stack provides a platform for future biographers and their field is fertile.
Why was Hettie forgotten? Was it lack of self-memorialization in libraries and museums? Wrong gender? No progeny to carry the name/flame? No Newport mansion for tourists to visit?
What made her tick? The distant father? The need to succeed/prove? Protestant ethic? Loneliness?
What of Mr. Green, a man so adventurous in early life? How did he FEEL when his wife so publically demonstrated her financial independance (in Victorian America)? What did he do in the years following this.. and how did he relate to his children?
What of the son who honors his mother in public, leaves Texas to assist her, but marries Mable "Harlot" so soon after his mother's death.
Why has this not been a DocumDrama already?
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 5, 2006
Hetty Green lived in an era where the character of the American tycoon was emulated in the enormous mansions lining New York's Fifth Avenue. Hetty broke this mold in every way imaginable. Most importantly, by being the richest woman in America, she operated daily in an atmosphere dominated by men. Author Charles Slack provides a proper tribute to a woman mostly forgotten amongst the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Carnegies that came into prominence during her lifetime. Slack's treatment of Hetty's life is both fair and entertaining. At the time she was mostly known as miserly and mean-hearted but Slack offers a full-sided view of a complex woman who lived a very simple and unusual life for someone of her means.
Unlike most women of the time, Hetty Green learned the economic ropes by reading the financial papers to her father and grandfather, both in the whaling business. She later uses her inherited fortunes to make her mark on Wall Street. Slack's ability to focus on her character and not on the specifics of her business dealings makes this a highly pleasurable and manageable read. She was often unpredictable and spent most of her life living in small tenements as opposed to mansions. Her penny-pinching philosophy led to many a great Hetty story, most of which Slack dutifully collects and includes in his novel. Her death, portrayed in later chapters, leaves the impression that our world is missing one of the true great aristocrats of its time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2005
Charles Slack takes a refreshing look at a significant American financier. If not the target of a collective smeer campaign by her competitors (and a complicit media looking for another heady Hetty story), Hetty Green has at the very least not received her due as an American financial titan--until now. Slack ably makes the case that Green knew her stuff and stuck to her guns. No smoke and mirrors here and no apologies. Just a woman--granted sometimes fascinatingly eccentric--who knew how to create wealth and took great pleasure in doing it. Slack writes elegantly.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2011
Hetty Green was my cousin. My great grandmother, Martha Jane Howland, shared a common grandparent with Hetty. Apparently, the various branches of the family were close bc there are lots of family pix at the time taken in New Bedford, where Hetty resided when young.
I think people are wired a certain way. When I read this bio of Hetty I was struck at how similar she was to a very close relative of mine, also descended of the same Howland branch as Hetty. Hetty had a monomaniacal love and focus on money. It defies credulty, and yet I have seen it first hand. This love of money supersedes all logic and love.
Recommend this book. Hetty was crazy? Certainly wired differently. She did have the clarity to see Colis Huntington for what he was. I have read countless books on my cousin and this book tells the whole story in a very objective way. It was only after reading countless other books on Hetty that I realized what a complete and well done store house of info on Hetty this book is. My only complaint about the book is it seems not to capture the multidemensions to Hetty's personality. She was very witty and bright and shrewed, but very unpolished and crude and rudely aggressive. This book seems to stress the latter set of qualities.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2011
I enjoyed this read very much, and reached the 50% mark on my Kindle the first night. My lone complaint with this biography, and it is a substantial one, is that Hetty Green comes across as a one-dimensional person throughout the book. We are told over and over again that she was greedy, cold, cheap, short-tempered, and had no use for proper hygiene. The author does not relate any stories that represent the positive side of the subject's personality. It seems to me that a woman who lived into her eighties must have had good days when she was warm, giving, and caring. Certainly, no person is so locked into personality traits that they can't manifest other traits from time to time. Although it would have been nice for Hetty's personality to have been fleshed out in greater detail to allow for some positive attributes, let me reiterate that the book was well written and is certainly worth the Kindle price of $9.95.