Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack


Rating: (Recommended)




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A gap in my knowledge about past business leaders was closed when I read Charles Slack’s biography of Hetty Green, titled, Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon. The few who remember Green, who lived from 1834-1916, or who have read past accounts of her live, will get a different impression from this new biography. The daughter of a whaling financier, who wisely exited that market at its peak, Hetty became a canny and calm investor who lived simply and grew a vast fortune. Far from being the witch or miser reported in earlier accounts of her life, thanks to Slack we come to understand Hetty as a woman who found happiness in the world of finance and had no need to fritter her wealth on frivolities.


Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 10, “Thou Shalt Not Pass,” pp. 130-137:


Hetty would never have spent this money herself, but she left him pretty well alone in Terrell. Still, Ned’s reputation for being an affable soft touch concerned her, and when she learned that requests were pouring in from Texas politicians and others for free passes on Texas Midland trains, Hetty responded with characteristic wit. She printed up biblically inspired cards for Ned to pass out in response to the incoming requests:


Monday—”Thou shalt not pass.” Numbers xx, i8.

Tuesday—”Suffer not a man to pass.” Judges iii, 28.

Wed nesday—”The wicked shall no more pass.” Nahum I, 15.

‘Thursday—”This generation shall not pass.” Mark xiii, 30.

Friday—”By a perpetual decree it can not pass.” Jeremiah V, 22.

Saturday—”None shall pass.” Isaiah xxxiv, 10.

Sunday—”So he paid the fare thereof and went.” Jonah 1, 2.


Ned’s prominence naturally earned him invitations to the best Terrell homes and mothers plotted to fix their daughters up with him. But Ned preferred a more unrestrained life. He settled first in a hotel in Terrell, and then moved to the second floor of a two-story building. The large suite became known informally as Green Flats. Ned lived there with several other bachelors, and proceeded to build for himself a sort of backwater Xanadu. He threw frequent parties with women and drinking, and it was the sort of place that might well not have been tolerated in conservative Terrell if not for his prominent position and bankroll. During his early days in Texas, Hetty had kept Ned living on wages as slender as those he had drawn in Chicago. With his improvements the railroad prospered, and Ned was in a position to indulge and invest in his pleasures. At about the same time, a flame from the past—Mabel Harlow, the prostitute who had taught Ned the ways of life in Chicago—appeared, evidently by chance, in Texas. It was to lead to a long and colorful relationship.

About a year after moving to Terrell, Ned moved to Dallas. Dallas was close enough for him to keep tabs on the Texas Midland, but far enough away and in a large enough city that his arrangement with Mabel Harlow wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. He took rooms on the second and third floors of a brick building known as the Cullem and Boren Store, at the corner of Elm and Griffin Streets, in a business section of town. He outfitted the rooms as living quarters and installed Mabel Harlow as his “housekeeper” at $200 per month. While her skills with a duster and mop remain undocumented, Ned seemed satisfied with the arrangement, which they kept for years. It’s not clear when Hetty became aware of Mabel Harlow. She disapproved of the relationship, but as it became obvious that Mabel was not going to be just some passing fancy, Hetty grew to tolerate her— coldly—referring to her as “Mabel Harlot.” At least, Hetty reasoned, this extended fling would keep Ned away from the altar. Hetty may not have liked the idea of her son living with a prostitute, but it was better than having him married off to some respectable girl from Chicago or Dallas and giving her a legal claim on the fortune.

In the 189os, the Texas Midland Railroad counted among its directors one somewhat surprising name—Edward Henry Green, Hetty’s husband. Though Hetty had separated from Edward, the couple never divorced. From time to time, Sylvia and Ned visited him in New York and Bellows Falls and Hetty and Edward shared some holiday meals together. The Texas Midland directorship was a small bone for a man whose financial activities had once been so robust, and it probably served to help keep him paid up at the Union Club. Certainly, Edward had no money of his own left to invest with. He was broke, living out his once-grand life reading books in quiet studies and enduring one small humiliation after the next.

In September of 1893, at the time that Hetty and Ned were brawling with Huntington, Edward might have picked up a copy of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and learned of his own demise. “Mrs. Green has been a widow for many years and her daughter is about 20 years old,” the article stated. “Since the death of her husband Hetty Green has become a financier of unusual shrewdness. She has indicated by her actions that she has small faith in brokers and that if she wants anything done the best way is to do it for herself.”

Even those who knew she wasn’t a widow knew that Edward was out of the picture financially. In March 1889, the World noted that Edward “lost all his fortune in the crash of 1884, and since then he has received no assistance from his wife to rehabilitate himself He is still 6 feet and 6 inches in height, but his financial figure has dwindled almost to nothing. He comes down on the Street two or three times a week, but his flyers are of the most modest description.” Five years later, little had changed, except perhaps for girth, age, and lack of mobility “Her husband sometimes assists her in a purely advisory capacity,” the Times reported on Christmas Day in 1894. “He is seventy years old, weighs more than 250 pounds, and it is exceedingly difficult for him to get about. He spends most of his time at the Union Club.”

While Edward sank ever deeper into obscurity, Hetty continued her surge into national prominence, aligning her fortunes with one of the nation’s most powerful and visible banks. From its squat, columned, Greco-Roman facade to its roster of second-~ and third-generation blue-blood directors, the Chemical National Bank, located at 270 Broadway, bespoke solidity, security, and sober, conservative prosperity. These were all qualities that Hetty craved after the Cisco failure, and demanded of the institution she would entrust with the guardianship of her millions. Founded in 1824, the bank was an offshoot of the New York Chemical Manufacturing Company, which a year earlier had begun manufacturing nitric acid, blue vitriol, refined camphor, and other industrial chemicals, as well as paints, dyes, and drugs.

In 1844, the bank was reorganized as independent from the manufacturing company, but retained the “Chemical” in its title. It prospered from the start. The shareholders list represented the cream of New York finance and society—Cornelius Vanderbilt, Anthony Drexel, Russell Sage, and a long list of Roosevelts were among the shareholders and depositors. Annie Leary, Hetty’s closest friend, did her banking there. Like Hetty, the bank established a reputation for maintaining large cash reserves in good times and bad, and for keeping its head when everyone else lost theirs. When the financial panic of 1857 prompted banks to stop payments in gold, the Chemical earned national respect for being the only major bank that publicly vowed to continue using gold until its reserves ran out. After an initial run, the bank’s reserves actually increased as depositors, impressed by the show of confidence, switched their assets to Chemical.

The cashier during the 1857 crisis, thirty-one-year-old George Gilbert Williams, was a rising young star who had started as an office boy. By the time Hetty made her first deposit in 1885, Williams had been an employee for more than forty years, and president for eight. By then, his personal reputation for hard work, thrift, and financial sobriety were so intertwined with the bank’s reputation that many people looked on him as the physical embodiment of everything the Chemical National Bank was and wanted to be.

It required a special individual to deal with Hetty in any business or legal relationship, let alone to serve as her banker, and Williams was more than up to the task. Furthermore, Williams and Hetty seemed genuinely to like and respect one another. Williams exhibited a rare mixture of deference and toughness that Hetty found appealing. He was a dapper, fastidious man with a high starched collar, thinning gray hair, kindly eyes, and a Victorian beard-and-mustache combination that cascaded over the lips, reducing his mouth to a mere hint of a line. He was a man of firm and unchanging habit. Each day regardless of the weather, he eschewed carriages and walked the several miles from his home on West Fifty-eighth Street to the Chemical Bank. Each summer he rented the same room at the same hotel in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn (The Oriental), from which he emerged at precisely six o’clock in the morning for a swim in the ocean, before catching the ferry to lower Manhattan.

Like Hetty with her Robinson ancestors, Williams had descended from an old Rhode Island family, including Roger Williams, founder of the state, and William Williams, who signed the Declaration of Independence. But to Hetty, his greatest attribute was his unwavering, almost obsessive politeness. In his professional dealings, Williams exhibited a level of courtesy that even then was considered old-fashioned. To Williams, politeness was more than just kindness; it was sound business. “Politeness pays,” he would tell his employees. “A grain of politeness saves a ton of correction. No institution is too important to ignore the laws of courtesy” Williams no doubt had his largest depositor in mind when he said, “I have observed that many a tattered garment hides a package of bonds and that gorgeous clothing does not always cover a millionaire.”

Hetty was a shrewd enough judge of character to know the difference between those behaving out of conviction and those simply being obsequious in the presence of wealth. And because Williams, in essence, was Chemical National Bank, his insistence on comportment infiltrated every layer of the bank. “It is the invariable rule of the Chemical National Bank that every employee, from the humblest clerk to the highest official, shall be courteous to everyone,” he said. This philosophy created a welcoming atmosphere for Hetty that went above and beyond merely stroking a major depositor. The employees at Chemical went out of their way to accommodate Hetty and to avoid raising eyebrows at her unorthodox habits. They made no issue about her old clothes, or about her ways of economizing, which at times included arriving at the bank with a metal pail containing dry oatmeal, to be mixed with water and heated on a radiator for lunch, so as to avoid a restaurant tab.

The employees of the bank created a protective environment for Hetty. At times she used an office, but she declined offers for permanent office space for fear that the tax collectors would try to pin her to New York for tax purposes. Often she sat at a desk in the back and the tellers created a sort of shield for her from the prying eyes of the public and from reporters who more and more frequently came around in hopes of finding a story.

The bank also supplied Hetty with assistants to help with everything from clipping coupons as they came due, to supporting her in negotiations over securities, to simply keeping tabs on her ever-expanding holdings.

And this was important, for Hetty’s wealth was rapidly becoming a financial empire. In addition to her heavy holdings in government bonds and railroads, she was becoming a real estate owner of epic proportions. She owned dozens of buildings in block after block in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Boston. Some of the property had come to her through her father’s estate, but most she acquired through foreclosures on mortgages she held. This was a direct result of Hetty’s large cash holdings, and her ability to act as a one-woman private bank. She rarely, if ever, bought a property outright on the open market. Once she owned a property, she held on to it. She rarely improved vacant lots with buildings, or improved buildings by renovating them. To do so would only add to her tax exposure, not to mention the cost of construction. It made more sense from her perspective to leave a property alone and wait for development to grow around it.

In Chicago, she owned property from the Loop to the northern suburbs, from the shores of Lake Michigan to undeveloped land southwest of the city. She owned the Howland Block at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe, with nearly 200 feet fronting on Dearborn. The lone structure was a dated, five-story building, but the property was growing more valuable by the year. She also owned numbers 183 through 187 Wabash Avenue, another plot on Wabash near Harrison Street, and 8o feet of frontage on Michigan Avenue, and houses at 211 and 213 Monroe Street, and six apartment buildings on Sibley Street.

Among her largest holdings was a 480-acre tract southwest of Chicago in an area known as Gage Park. Hetty had acquired the property under foreclosure in 1877 for less than $200,000, and kept the land largely undeveloped. She leased some of it to truck farmers, who raised cabbages, cucumbers, and tomatoes for sale at local markets. Schoolboys from the area earned pocket money on vacations by helping farmers work Hetty’s fields. One of these boys, Frank Mikulecky, recalled years later that the only building on the property was a lonely brick house sticking out like a sore thumb from the scraggly fields on South Western Avenue, the eastern boundary of her land. Mikulecky, remembered Hetty living “incognito” in this forlorn house when she visited Chicago.

She owned apartment buildings in St. Louis and Boston. Hetty owned mines in several states, including the famed Central Eureka Mine in Sutter Creek, California, which by itself earned Hetty some $12 million in gold and quartz production. She held mortgages on high-grade property. In New York, she held mortgages ranging from warehouses in lower Manhattan to mansions along Millionaire’s Row on Fifth Avenue—where she herself refused to live. Among her holdings was a $400,000 mortgage on the Stern House on Fifth Avenue near East Sixty-seventh Street— one of the grandest homes in the district. One day, when Hetty visited a swank Fifth Avenue real estate office, a clerk looked at her unfashionable black dress and homely hat and figured she must be applying for a house-sitting job the office had advertised. “No more caretakers needed!” the clerk barked, preparing to usher her out. “I am Hetty Green,” she said. “I came here just to talk over a loan of half a million dollars your firm wanted to borrow from me for a customer.”

Municipalities around the country were coming to see Hetty as a reliable source of funding for civic improvements. In 1900, for example, the rapidly growing city of Tucson, Arizona, desperately needed to modernize and expand a water system that as recently as the end of the Civil War had relied on wagons carting water from nearby springs at five cents a bucket. The city turned to Hetty, who purchased the $110,000 bond issue— making possible a modern water and sewer system.

More than once she bailed New York City out of a pinch. It is staggering to think of a major city coming to a single person, hat in hand, but such was the scope of Hetty’s fortune. Despite her reputation as a miser and a hard-nosed dealer, Hetty usually offered rates that were more than fair. Although she could be ruthless when dealing with an enemy, she rarely if ever took the opportunity to kick a borrower when he was down. That was bad business, she always said. In 1898, she lent the cash-strapped city $1 million at a rate of 2 percent, well below the prevailing rate of ~ to 3.5 percent. In 1901, she advanced the city another $1.5 million. “Hetty Green is smart,” an anonymous New York finance official told a reporter from the Times in July 1901. “During the summer months there is not much demand for money in Wall Street. She loans New York City a million and a half, and just when the money market gets active in the fall the money comes back with good interest.”

Hetty traveled frequently to survey her properties in cities around the country. Sometimes she traveled with Ned or Sylvia, but often she traveled alone, invariably by day coach rather than in a more expensive sleeper car. In an age when women rarely traveled unaccompanied, Hetty fearlessly traversed the country. She carried with her a black reticule that became the stuff of legend wherever she went. Reporters frequently speculated that the bag was ever stuffed with millions of dollars’ worth of bonds, a claim Hetty denied. One item she did carry in the bag was a ring of keys, fifty or so of them— keys to many of her properties. They jangled in her reticule the way that charms might have jangled in the bags of other fifty-something women of the era.


While Hetty may have had some peculiar personality quirks, such as some of those described in this excerpt, thanks to Slack her expertise as a financier rings strong on these pages, as does her joy in living. Those who read Hetty will find a well-told story of a remarkable and successful woman.


Steve Hopkins, February 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2005 issue of Executive Times


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