Slack (Nobel Obsession, 2002, etc.) paints an un-disparaging portrait of the woman best known, though little heard of today, as a mean old rich lady.
Before Enron’s and Tyco’s overreaching malefactors, before Martha Stewart or Leona Helmsley, back in the Gilded Age of the fabled robber barons, Hetty Green (1834–1916) drew an outsized amount of public attention. Once a pretty Quaker heiress from New Bedford, she attained notoriety as “the Witch of Wall Street,” in control of hundreds of millions invested in mines and mortgages, government and corporate bonds, railroads, and real estate. Green’s business acumen and sharp practices were legendary, but Slack gives equal attention to her fabulous lack of people skills. From her youth, she was contemptuous, unkempt, and unclean. When a broker’s collapse cost her $500,000, she seemed to declare war on the world, often resorting to extravagant commercial litigation and specious will contests, though she despised lawyers as much as anyone. Green had few friends other than the obliging president of Chemical Bank, where she was the largest depositor. She hung her bonnet and black reticule in Chemical’s back offices, sometimes (to save the cost of lunch) bringing with her a bit of oatmeal to be warmed on a radiator. Parsimonious and tax-averse, she avoided New York’s fabled “millionaire’s row” on Fifth Avenue, moving from rooms in Brooklyn to flats in Hoboken. Slack describes Hetty’s exacting relations with her feckless husband, her affable, outsized Texan son, her meek wisp of a daughter, and her little dog too. With the passing of the old lady’s children, who left no heirs, the fabulous fortune swiftly dissipated. It’s a cautionary tale too soon forgotten—Arthur Lewis’s excellent The Day They Shook the Plum Tree is now four decades old—and Slack offers an exemplary retelling for a new generation.
Instructive account of a cash-crazy financier whose wealth could never exceed her dreams of avarice. (8-page photo insert, not seen)