Friday, October 19, 2018
Home > Fun > Why Wall Street’s ‘witch’ was actually a woman to be admired

Why Wall Street’s ‘witch’ was actually a woman to be admired

American businesswoman and financier Hetty Green
Hetty GreenGetty Images

When President Theodore Roosevelt approached John Pierpont Morgan for advice during the Panic of 1907, the banker responded by calling a secret meeting of Wall Street’s best and brightest. Over the next three weeks, reporters stood watch as

New York’s tycoons went in and out of Morgan’s home in the dead of night, hashing out a plan to save the economy.

But one of Morgan’s visitors didn’t look like the others. For one, she was a woman — and she arrived wearing not a sharp suit but a shabby netted veil and dark widow’s rags.

The mysterious figure, rumor had it, was none other than Hetty Green. The richest woman in the world, Green, then in her 70s, was a whaling-heiress-turned-Wall-Street-operator. She had her own desk at Chemical Bank downtown and was compared to titans such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

She had local politicians and railroad execs groveling at her feet, begging her for cash. And she ended up bailing out a bankrupt New York City no less than three times, including for more than $1 million during the 1907 meltdown. (On interest, of course; she was no dummy.)

“By the time I was 15,” Green once boasted to a reporter, “I knew more about these things than many a man that makes a living out of them.”

Yet despite her accomplishments, Green, who died in 1916, is remembered, if at all, as the “Witch of Wall Street,” a cantankerous crone and tabloid villain ridiculed for her penny-pinching and greed: She forged her dead aunt’s signature to try to get more money from her will (allegedly)! She refused to pay a doctor to take care of her son’s broken leg (so the story goes)! She wore tattered clothes, scrimped on heat and packed her lunch (all true)! Guinness World Records still lists her as the “world’s greatest miser.”

That perception is changing, however.

Green is one of about a dozen rabble-rousers featured in “Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism” at the Museum of the City of New York through Jan. 6.

The show includes such feminist firebrands as suffragette Susan B. Anthony, civil-rights advocate Elizabeth Jennings Graham and illegal birth-control provider Madame Restell.

Curator Marcela Micucci said it’s about time the long-lampooned Green join their ranks.

“She wasn’t all that different from the other women in this exhibit,” Micucci told The Post. “They all were relegated or ostracized for being too outspoken, too political, too successful, too masculine. They were all stepping out of this box of 19th century womanhood that society was trying to place them in. Hetty was no exception.”

As for the rumors of Green’s churlish ways, they have been greatly exaggerated.

“I do not think she was like that at all,” said Janet Wallach, author of “The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age.”

“If you read her interviews with reporters at the time, she was much more likable, intelligent and sympathetic than history would have you believe,” she added.

Henrietta Howland Robinson (later Hetty Green) was born in 1834 to a prominent Quaker family from New Bedford, Mass. The only child of a sickly whale-oil heiress and a “Napoleonic” businessman, little Hetty learned about money early. At 6 years old, she would read the financial pages aloud to her grandfather, and her father would take her to business meetings and dealings at the docks.

She opened her first bank account when she was 8. “She was brought up with this very strong message from her father, that her job was to protect and preserve the money that she had,” said Wallach. “Money was how her family expressed their love.”

When she was a teen, her aunt, Sylvia Howland, dismayed by her niece’s disheveled appearance and salty language that she picked up at the docks, sent Hetty to school to learn manners and how to dance. It worked — mostly. For her society debut, she spent just $200 of her $1,200 clothing budget on actual clothes and invested the rest in bonds. (Her satin-trimmed gowns and gloves were pristine — but underneath, her stockings were torn and dirty.)

Still, when she arrived in Manhattan to look for a husband in the 1850s, the papers dubbed the ringlet-haired brunette “a belle of New York society, ardently sought by numerous lovers not only for her wealth but also for her beauty.”

She so charmed the Prince of Wales at one ball — introducing herself as the “Princess of Whales” — that he asked her to dance twice. “She had a howling wit,” said Topher Russo, a relative of Hetty’s from the Howland side who lives in Baltimore. “It’s something that runs in our whole family. We’re very, very independent people who go our own way, and that was the way Hetty was, too.”

But tragedy struck in 1865. Her father and aunt died in quick succession (her mother had passed away in 1860), and — gasp! — they didn’t leave Hetty all their cash. Worse, most of the money they did give her — $7 million total — was put in a trust, to be managed by other people.

“Hetty regarded it as a slap in the face,” said Wallach.

First, she tried to bribe one of her father’s executors. Then, she tried to convince a court that the million dollars her aunt had left to various friends and charities rightfully belonged to her, producing a second will with a signature that many believed she had forged.

“She was brilliant, but she could be petty,” Russo told The Post.

As the court case over her aunt’s will dragged on, Hetty, 33, married. Her new husband, Edward Green, was a gregarious 44-year-old millionaire from Vermont who had made a fortune in trade. Hetty’s litigious activities and radical-for-the-time insistence that they keep their finances separate did not deter him. The couple wed in 1867, moving to London.

While Edward worked in a bank, Hetty bore two children, Ned and Sylvia. She also invested the annual income she received from her trusts — buying thousands of shares of US railroads — and watched her wealth swell. By the time the family came back to America seven years later, she had earned a reputation as a shrewd money manager. The day she arrived on Wall Street to open an account, downtown brokers ran from their desks to catch a glimpse of her.

When her train came into Bellows Falls, Vt., where Edward grew up, the townspeople waited at the station — but nearly fainted when they saw her unfabulous, uncorseted outfit.

“Hetty Green didn’t flaunt her wealth at all, and the public felt cheated by that,” said Micucci.

“Not to give in to the trappings of the Gilded Age, and provide entertainment with fancy clothes or parties, was just anathema to life in this period.”

She also defied convention when, in 1875, after finding out that her husband had been dipping into her coffers — losing $700,000 — she kicked him to the curb. (The two, however, would remain lifelong friends and never formally divorced.)

“She was furious,” said Wallach. “He used her money as collateral on very risky loans, and that was crossing the line.”

The same day she paid his debts, she headed downtown to Chemical Bank. She got her own desk and a job as an investor. She was 51 years old and starting her new life as a wage-earner on Wall Street.

Green is often considered a pioneer of value investing, famously practiced by current-day billionaire Warren Buffett. (The Berkshire Hathaway chairman once joked that Green would “disapprove” of his company’s “lavish headquarters,” with its entire floor boasting 20 employees.)

“She had nerves of steel,” said historian George Robb, author of “Ladies of the Ticker,” about women on Wall Street. “So in times of financial panic, when everyone was trying to dump shares, she bought them cheap. And when everyone was buying, she sold.”

Hetty Green with her daughter Sylvia at home in Hoboken, New Jersey, circa 1903.
Hetty Green with her daughter Sylvia at home in Hoboken, New Jersey, circa 1903.Getty Images

She also invested in lots of real estate and had no qualms about taking advantage of others’ hardships, foreclosing on people’s mortgages and scooping up property in the wake of a disaster — such as after the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 and San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake.

“She was always looking for an opportunity,” said Robb.

Yet she took care to distance herself from rapacious robber barons, such as Carnegie or Henry Clay Frick. When the government threatened to send troops to stop striking railroad workers in 1895, for example, Green said it should arrest railroad magnate C.P. Huntington instead, since he had “been ringing wealth out of the poor for years and defying the authorities.”

After suing a corrupt insurance company, she gave a rousing speech outside the courthouse, promising that if those villains “ever tried to rob a poor woman again . . . I would come no matter where I was and fight for [her].”

And it wasn’t just p.r.: Unlike many of her rivals, Green did not employ workers at slave wages (she argued that she paid the men who worked in the buildings she owned well), steal public land, outsmart stockholders, pay off government officials or speculate with other people’s money.

“Some populists and progressives admired her for that,” said Robb.

Still, she had her small indulgences, and sins. She reportedly fed her beloved dogs steaks.

When her daughter, Sylvia, announced her engagement, Green took a room at The Plaza and spent hundreds of dollars on a facial to make a good impression on Sylvia’s future in-laws (although she quickly resumed moving from cheap boardinghouse to cheap boardinghouse to avoid property taxes).

Then there was the that she pulled a gun on robber baron Jay Gould after he made some boisterous threats. As one reporter said at the time, “No broker or operator who is not very new at the business ever attempts to get the better of Mrs. Green.”

History hasn’t been very kind to Hetty Green. Unlike her rivals Carnegie and Rockefeller, she didn’t set up foundations or build museums, although she did quietly give money to Barnard College and Johns Hopkins Medical School, on the condition they admit women.

By the time she died at 81, Green had accumulated more than $100 million, about $2.4 billion today — all of it going to her two children. (Neither Ned nor Sylvia had children, and the two bequeathed their millions to various charities and nonprofits.)

In 1929, about a decade after her death, a magazine called The Mentor published an article about her titled “The Witch of Wall Street,” which painted her as a bitter, friendless, greedy old hag.

The characterization stuck. And unlike other successful Victorian businesswomen, said Robb, she was not rediscovered or rehabilitated by feminist scholars in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Her rapacious capitalism was at odds with second-wave feminism,” he told The Post.

But that’s changing. Wallach’s sympathetic 2012 biography was a first step, and by putting her alongside more “woke” women rebels in its new exhibit, the Museum of the City of New York hopes that visitors will be inspired by her moxie.

“She was a wife and a mother, but she was also a businesswoman, and she did things on her own terms,” Micucci said. “Plus, knowing that she had the money to basically hold New York City’s fate in her hands — that’s pretty cool.”