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Hetty Green
February 5, 2012 9:46 PM   Subscribe

Best known for the (exaggerated) tales of her miserliness, Hetty Green was arguably the greatest female investor in history. During the 1907 Bankers' Panic, her loan of $1.1 million helped keep New York City solvent. Her estate - greater than that of J.P. Morgan's - was valued at more than $2 billion in today's money.

A sympathetic biography is Charles Slack's Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon:

In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society's.
posted by Trurl (18 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well exaggerated maybe, but I remember her being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the world's biggest miser". Maybe not so much of a distinction though. There can't be all that much competition for that title.

Fascinating back story Trurl. There is more to this American woman than I knew. Thanks for putting this up.

In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society's.

I can admire for someone who lives by her own rules, but when I see that those" own rules" include things like "Don't owe anyone anything, not even a kindness" and my admiration becomes downright parsimonious.
posted by three blind mice at 2:31 AM on February 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


What a horrible, horrible person. She didn't build, or manufacture, or create: all her "investments" were sharp purchases made when other people were desperate. She didn't like a particular judge in Chicago so she exerted financial pressure in order to have the judge transferred away. For all her professed piety, she did everything she could to avoid helping the poor. She hated paying taxes so badly that she continually moved between different houses in order to avoid establishing residency. She took her son to a free charity hospital after he broke it sledding. Gangrene set in, and it was amputated. Horrible, awful person.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:41 AM on February 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


Trurl: "In the end, her principal crime seems to have been that the rules she chose to live by were her own rather than society's."

Well there's also this other crime (via her Wikipedia page):
When she heard that her aunt Sylvia had willed most of her $2 million to charity, she challenged the will's validity in court by producing an earlier will which allegedly left the entire estate to Hetty, and included a clause invalidating any subsequent wills. The case, Robinson v. Mandell, which is notable as an early example of the forensic use of mathematics, was ultimately decided against Hetty after the court ruled that the clause invalidating future wills, and Sylvia's signature to it, were forgeries.
posted by vanar sena at 2:42 AM on February 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Is this 1%ism or empowering? I'm confused.
posted by michaelh at 4:36 AM on February 6, 2012


The REAL Mr. Burns?

Is this 1%ism or empowering? I'm confused.

Clash of Metafilter memes!
posted by gjc at 5:06 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


What a horrible, horrible person. She didn't build, or manufacture, or create: all her "investments" were sharp purchases made when other people were desperate.

Horrible person she may be, the person who holds onto her money so tightly that it's actually there when it might be needed can also be the lender of last resort:

"During the 1907 Bankers' Panic, her loan of $1.1 million helped keep New York City solvent."

She most certainly (albeit inadvertently and perhaps even regrettably) helped some poor and middle-class people by that act of avarice. There are times that the economy needs people like this. Pity that the world is seemingly better off without them.
posted by three blind mice at 5:35 AM on February 6, 2012


A vivid account of Green and her family can be found in Arthur Lewis' The Day They Shook The Plum Tree.

Green's son Ned had a leg amputated when he was young when Hetty refused to take him to a doctor (at that point her wealth was already considerable), instead dragging him to free clinics who were unable to effect a cure.

Once Hetty was gone, Ned resolved to spend her money and did so, accumulating (among other things) astonishing collections of valuable stamps and jewels. He delighted in using his wealth to cause stress, as when he would ship priceless stones via standard post in beat-up cardboard boxes, then demand that the Post Office track his priceless package IMMEDIATELY even though it was still in transit, causing wild scenes of panic and anxiety within the post office. This was Ned's idea of a good time.

To his credit, Ned is responsible for saving the Charles Morgan, the last surviving whaling ship, which is now displayed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic CT. For years Ned kept the Morgan, stuck in a sand bar, within view of his estate.

When I was young I saw Ned Green's touring automobile which was then in the collection of the now-defunct Automobilorama at Harrisburg. The limousine had a special feature: a porcelain toilet next to the rear seat. This was so that Ned would not be inconvenienced while on the road. Needless to say, there was a direct drop from that toilet to the road.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:19 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


I wish we still called these things "Banker's Panic"s. Really puts the blame in the right place, and on the right frame of mind.
posted by DU at 6:21 AM on February 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


When banks weren't federally insured, the panic was hardly confined to just bankers.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:35 AM on February 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


If a man did what she did, we'd hail him.
posted by Renoroc at 7:06 AM on February 6, 2012


I think we have a new edition of Monopoly in the works here. We just need her to wear pearls and hold opera glasses.
posted by Fizz at 7:19 AM on February 6, 2012


Renoroc: "If a man did what she did, we'd hail him."

Really? Like who? The robber barons built railways, mills, buildings, newspapers, even entire industries. They founded universities and charities. They still get called robber barons. What did she build?
posted by vanar sena at 7:32 AM on February 6, 2012 [8 favorites]


Another great post, Trurl!

kinnakeet's comment about Hetty's son Ned reminded me of a movie I saw on TCM recently. What I didn't know at the time I saw it was that the script was based on Hetty Green's exploits. Check out Mother's Millions sometimes: stars May Robson.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:41 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


She most certainly (albeit inadvertently and perhaps even regrettably) helped some poor and middle-class people by that act of avarice. There are times that the economy needs people like this. Pity that the world is seemingly better off without them.

three blind mice, I'm pretty sure there are other, better ways to save the economy than Hetty Greens.

I'll take 10 Bill+Melinda Gates, in her place... or 5-7 Warren Buffetts.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:48 AM on February 6, 2012


To be fair to Hetty,maybe if Ted Turner had very publicly pointed out that she had spent decades not giving to charity, she would have had a change of heart.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:53 AM on February 6, 2012


Hetty Green,
Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone drab,
(you know what I mean)

-Calamity Song, The Decemberists
posted by Danf at 11:27 AM on February 6, 2012


Considering she was anti-social all her life, maybe she suffered from OCD as well as other mental problems? Or maybe her skills at trading bonds were a sign of Aspergers? It's a little too easy to just write her off as eccentric, cheap and mean. Here's a piece on her from 1905's National Magazine.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:45 PM on February 6, 2012


It's easy because we have facts in place - like lawsuits and business practices.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:01 PM on February 7, 2012


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