The death of Brooke Astor and the controversy around her fortune reminded us of another great fortune, made a century ago in Wall Street, by a woman whose will was so iron-clad that no one but her two children ever got a cent of it, Hetty Green.
The press called her “The Witch of Wall Street.”The basis for the name was her irascibility and her personal hygiene. She stunk. In summertime the odor would be so foul that people working in the same bank office where she kept a desk would scheme to stay as far away from her as possible. Her long black dresses, decades out of style, would turn green and ragged from wear and filth. Her fingernails were crusty dirty. She went around for 20 years beleaguered by a painful hernia before she finally had to see the doctor. She was outraged by his fee for surgery ($150 – this was a century ago), but so desperate that she agreed. And later she tried to stiff the doctor, as was her wont whenever it came to paying for anybody’s services.
She was known as “the richest woman in America” or “the richest woman in the world.” Therein lay the real reason a lot of men thought she was a witch. She’d inherited almost $7 million from her father and her aunt in 1865. That was a great fortune, comparable to a hundred million in the buying power of today’s currency (there was little or no inflation, save for the time of the Civil War, from 1800 to 1929). Between the ages of 31, when she inherited, and fifty years later, when she died, she single-handedly (and really single-handedly because she trusted no one with her money) turned that into almost $200 million (or approximately $17 billion in today’s currency).
She was born Henrietta Howland Robinson in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1834, at the dawn of the Victorian age. Both her mother and father came from old, established Colonial families. Hetty’s great-grandfather went to sea at an early age, got in at the start of the American whaling industry, and eventually owned the country’s greatest whaling fleet. Her father, Edward Robinson, who joined the family whaling-ship business, was strictly interesting making money. Hetty once told a reporter, “My father told me never to give anyone anything, not even a kindness.” (ed.’s note: Doris Duke’s father James B. Duke was more humanitarian on his advice to his daughter and only child – he told her simply never to trust anybody.) With a father like Hetty’s it is no wonder that her mother often sought warmth and refuge in her sister Sylvia’s house. Edward Robinson, however, increased the family inheritance 20 times over.
In her youth, Hetty had been sent to a boarding school, but only briefly. She had little interest in any of it. She preferred being at her father’s side as he conducted his daily business in New Bedford. After dinner, the girl would spend her hours reading the financial pages from the New York and Boston papers.
She had been a goodlooking young woman. By 20, attempts were made to present her to society both in Boston and New York. Her father gave her a wardrobe worth $1200 (in the tens of thousands in today’s currency), but she sold the clothes and invested the money in the stock market. She relied on an unwitting cousin she was staying with in New York to buy her what she needed.
When she was 25, her long-suffering mother died. Her mother’s estate went to her father with none to her. Hetty wanted to contest the will but was afraid that confronting her father might jeopardize her future interest in his estate. The dilemma was compounded by father’s expressed desire – now freed from marriage and still handsome, virile and rich in his late 50s – to change his life. He sold his interests in the family firm and moved to New York where he joined a new shipping partnership. At the end of the Civil War, with prices inflating vigorously, Edward Robinson sold his share of the partnership for almost $5 million.
Hetty followed her father to New York, concerned that he might remarry and start another family, which could seriously alter her future inheritance. Coincidentally, her maiden aunt Sylvia Howland, the richest lady in New Bedford, was talking about re-doing her will and leaving the bulk of her estate to friends, relatives, and charity, and not to Hetty. Alarmed at the prospect, Hetty went to work on auntie, extracting her promise that she would never, ever, change her will (leaving everything to Hetty). Aunt Sylvia died two years late, however, and Hetty soon learned that Sylvia had indeed changed her will, seriously diminishing Hetty’s share of the $2 million estate. Coincidentally that same year Hetty’s father also died, leaving her $1 million outright and the income from a $5 million trust. She was 31 years old.
Despite her ample inheritance from her father, Hetty was outraged by Aunt Sylvia’s new will. She felt she should have been its absolute heiress and went to court over it. The courts turned down her claim. She sued, presenting an “earlier” will that turned out to be a forgery. The battle brought Hetty Green her first public (and unfavorable) exposure and was reported on in the press all over the country.
Not long before her father died, Hetty became engaged to a man 14 years her senior named Edward Green, an affable businessman from Bellows Falls, Vermont, who’d made his money in the Philippine silk trade. In 1867, two years after the death of her father, and during her fight for her aunt’s estate, Hetty married Green.
After it was proven that she had indeed forged Sylvia’s “earlier” will, the Greens fled to London to avoid the law. There she gave birth to her first child, a son named Edward Howland Robinson Green, later known as Ned, or The Colonel. Three years later in 1870,she gave birth to a daughter named Hetty Sylvia Ann Howland Robinson Green, known forever after as Sylvia.
The Greens, who’d signed a pre-nuptial agreement at Hetty’s insistence, keeping their fortunes strictly separate, lived very fashionably in London, spending, of course, only his money. In 1875, however, thinking the statute of limitations had run out on her potential will-forging charges, the family returned to Bellows Falls.
It was back in Vermont that Hetty soon began to show signs of self-neglect: the dirty hands and fingernails, clothes rarely cleaned and worn long after they’d begun to fall apart. And her penury: her children went to school in cast-offs. In wintertime, she lined her son’s jackets and shoes with paper. Her annual income was already in the mid-six figures (in the millions in today’s currency), yet she fought with everyone over money and how much she had to pay. Local shopkeepers dreaded her dirty hands on a piece of merchandise. Most damning perhaps was her meanness with her son. Ned had injured a knee in a sledding accident when he was nine years old. Hetty refused to get him medical attention because of the potential cost. The boy grew up lame until, in his teens, the leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated above the knee.
The return to the United States saw the beginning of Hetty’s great financial success. Still living in Bellows Falls, she’d take the train to New York – most times for just a day (a six hour ride each way), where she had great success as an operator on the Stock Exchange. Wall Street watched in astonished amazement as the rumpled and dirty little woman took large positions in the highly unregulated stock market, particularly in certain railroads (the hot stocks of the era), and made money almost every time. No woman had ever done this.
By 1881, Mr. Green, who was a speculator in the stock markets, had lost most of his $2 million fortune. That was it for him, as far as Hetty was concerned. She refused to assist in maintaining the household, and decided to move herself and her two children to New York where she could be closer to business.
The stock market had become only a minor interest in her financial affairs. Her main businesses were buying mortgages (she especially liked holding mortgages on churches and didn’t mind foreclosing when they couldn’t keep up their payments), and lending money to bankers and brokerage houses. Hetty was a woman a century ahead of her time. Today she would have been the hedge funds and private equity managers’ darling.
By that time in her career, she was regularly on the run from the tax collectors, for she also felt no obligation to give any of her money to the government. Her rooms in Hoboken protected her from the New York collectors and vice versa. For the next several years, mother and children lived in various cheap cold-water flats (hot water was an unnecessary luxury for people who didn’t wash anyway) and furnished rooms where their rents were never more than $22 a month.
The family was deprived of anything money could buy that would create comfort. When she went to the desk she kept in a Wall Street office, it was reported that she took her lunch – a can of oatmeal that she heated on a radiator in someone else’s office, and ate it dry. In a story in the New York Herald in 1888, it was reported that “Mrs. Green’s table expenses did not exceed $5 a week and her others were less than $4.”
By the 1890s, she was so famous by the that she was a household word across America, a synonym for “skinflint” or “miser.” The press followed her everywhere. The attention amused her; she liked it. “My life,” she said, “is written for me down in Wall Street by people who, I assume, do not care to know one iota of the real Hetty Green. I am in earnest; therefore they picture me as heartless. I go my own way. I take no partner, risk nobody else’s fortune, therefore I am Madame Ishmael, set against every man.”
But gibes at Hetty were also an elaborate male deflection of the remarkable truth: when the Big Boys needed cash, and quick, Hetty Green was a major source who came to the rescue. By that time in her financial career, she had increased her fortune six or seven times. She kept $20 million to $40 million (think a half billion in today’s terms) in cash at all times for quick loans. More than once the City of New York called on her to keep the city solvent. Hetty Green was one of the lenders in J.P. Morgan’s emergency operation to save the banks during the Panic of 1907, writing out a check for $1.1 million (50 times that in today’s marketplace). For payment she took short-term revenue bonds.
Hetty kept her children close to the nest and demanded they practice the same frugality. Sylvia, however, brought out Hetty’s maternal instincts. It was for Sylvia that she left Hoboken for a few days in 1908, taking rooms in the newly opened Plaza Hotel, to give her daughter a dinner. She wanted Sylvia to find a husband, which she finally did, in Matthew Astor Wilks, a great-grandson of John Jacob Astor I. Wilks was at least 25 years older than his fiancée. Hetty gave her daughter a proper wedding, which took place the following year in Morristown, New Jersey.
When her son Ned came of age, he was sent to Fordham where he got a law degree. After the boy passed the bar, she sent him to Chicago to manage her real estate investments there. He was paid next to nothing so he too had to live in cheap flats and hotels. After he had passed his mother’s tests in Chicago, however, he was sent on to Texas to breathe new life into a railroad Hetty had bought for a song.
In Texas, Ned was successful, and it gave him an independence that his mother had to acknowledge. It also gave him access to large sums of cash that he spent on the good life. In Chicago he had met Mabel Harlow, a prostitute who was his first sexual experience. He moved Mabel to Texas and set himself up in hotel suites where she supplied the girls and Ned supplied the customers, the rooms, and the champagne.
Hetty was so worried about her son marrying and bringing someone into the family who might make a claim on her fortunate that she extracted from Ned a promise “not to marry.” So Mabel became Ned’s companion, his procurer, and remained with him for the rest of his life. Hetty tolerated this arrangement because in her mind it insured the agreement she had with her son.
Ned Green became his mother’s son, a master at protecting her assets. Recognizing this and now in her mid-sixties, Hetty brought him back to New York to oversee her financial affairs. She tolerated his extravagant lifestyle, which included a large suite at the Waldorf-Astoria (the original, built by the Astors, which stood at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue). Later Ned moved to two townhouses on West 91st Street and Central Park, where he and Mabel lived quietly and discreetly.
After his mother’s death, Ned would marry Mabel (with a pre-nup giving her $1500 a month for life). He spent his multimillion dollar annual income on luxurious estates in Florida, New York, and Massachusetts, and kept a coterie of “protégées” or “private secretaries” – pretty young teen-age girls who were given $100,000 trust funds and schooled to attend Wellesley (while visiting Ned and Mabel on weekends at the big house overlooking the water in Dartmouth, Massachusetts).
Hetty Green worked daily until her mid-70s, living in smaller lodgings after her children moved away. When she was 77, she contracted pneumonia. Papers all over the world reported that the Witch of Wall Street was near death. She fooled ‘em, however, and survived: the witch who would not die. However, she did move into her son’s second townhouse (and agreed to pay him what she’d paid for rent in the previous rooming house she’d lived in). The illness, however, left her noticeably weaker.
On July 3, 1916, just a few months short of her 82nd birthday, Hetty Green died in her son’s house on West 91 Street. Her estate was estimated to be close to $200 million at the time – or an estimated $17 billion in today’s dollars. (J.P. Morgan’s estate at the time of his death three years before was approximately $80 million.) She had spent her entire life in pursuit of money. She bought nothing for herself or her children. She gave nothing away. She just watched her fortune grow and grow at the expense of virtually everything else in her life except her beloved little dog Curtis, whose name she sometimes used on her front door to throw tax agents off her trail.
Her son Ned spent his inheritance extravagantly and made some generous contributions. His estate in Dartmouth, Massachusetts (house still standing on the promontory overlooking the sea) was used by MIT scientists for experiments including a prototype atom-smasher and his powerful radio transmitters, built by Dartmouth College and financed by him, were used in the late 1920s to keep in touch with explorer Richard E. Byrd’s Antarctic expedition.
Hetty’s daughter Sylvia Green Wilks lived in New York. Shortly after the death of her husband in 1926 (after fifteen years of marriage), she moved from her house at 440 Madison Avenue to 988 Fifth Avenue into two lower-floor apartments, using the third floor for her home and the fourth floor to store her excess furniture. When her brother “the Colonel” died in 1937, she inherited almost all of her brother’s estate. Reclusive and eccentric Sylvia Green Wilks died in 1951, leaving an estate of $90 million after taxes, almost all of it was distributed to schools, hospitals and charities. Hetty Green, the woman who loved money, had been avenged: her daughter gave it all away to strangers.