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Hetty Green in the Gilded Age

by Janet Wallach

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-385-53197-9
Publisher: Talese/Doubleday

The transporting tale of Hetty Green, who, after being rejected by her parents, learned business from her grandfather and amassed a fortune valued at $100 million in 1916.

Wallach (Seraglio, 2003, etc.) frequently points out that Green’s methods and philosophy of wealth were remarkably similar to that of Warren Buffett. She particularly notes the many references to her miserliness and how the same qualities were seen as mere eccentricity in men. Her Quaker background taught her how to be independent and make business decisions, and she never wasted her time and especially not her money on the foolishness of the Gilded Age. Green gave freely to charities of her choice but ruthlessly foreclosed when a note was due and unpaid. When her husband needed a bailout from one of his ill-advised speculations, she demanded his properties in return. She always kept a great deal of cash at the ready in order to quickly take advantage of a good buy, and she never bought anything until she had thoroughly investigated every aspect of it. She enjoyed the game of business, especially beating out her rivals. Green emerged from multiple financial disasters—e.g., in 1873, 1893 and 1908—richer than before, always buying as others panicked and selling when prices finally recovered. Her fiscal policies were firm, and she never waivered from them: Never use another’s money, never take on a partner, and avoid the pitfalls of leveraging, overborrowing and overspending.

The dearth of diaries and personal correspondence available to the author has not prevented her from writing a thoroughly enjoyable biography.