Biographies & Memoirs



Hetty disproved the prevailing idea that women were incapable of handling finances. Her skill, tenacity, and fearlessness made her a feminist long before that term became a rallying cry for generations. Her money gave her power over men and companies and financial markets, and yet she never proclaimed herself an example, or even an advocate, of women’s rights. And when it came to deciding which of her children would succeed her in handling the family fortune, her choice couldn’t have been more conventional; from the start, it was going to be Ned.

Hetty explained her position on women in business years later in a Harper’s Bazar article that ran under her byline in 1900. “Mentally, I do not believe woman to be inferior to man, save as she has become so by a mistaken course of training,” Hetty wrote. “A certain amount of business training would be an excellent thing for women, but it should be begun in their infancy.” She frequently cited her own training from reading the financial papers to her father and grandfather. “A mother will say to her boy, ‘Go out and play,’ while to the daughter of the house she observes, ‘Do this piece of sewing and I will give you a pretty ribbon,’ thus incidentally sewing the seeds of vanity, and imparting a restricted and wrong view of the value of things in relation to life and labor. The boy becomes broadened mentally and physically by his robust out-door life, while the girl’s natural inclinations are cramped to a narrow groove, which, after a time, becomes second nature to her.”

Judging by the plain, unfashionable clothes Sylvia wore as a child, Hetty spared her daughter the developmental problems associated with pretty ribbons. But neither did she encourage her daughter to “go out and play” in the sense of discovering the world and making her own decisions and mistakes. Sylvia did get a financial education—nobody spent more time with Hetty over the years; nobody had a better view of Hetty’s methods; nobody endured as many of Hetty’s homilies and maxims on the value of thrift and avoiding waste. But Sylvia remained a half-formed person, painfully shy, socially stunted, and lacking any great curiosity about the world and its inhabitants. When in Hetty’s presence, as she was most of the time, Sylvia was as unremarkable as a shadow.

Ned was different. Though Hetty intended for her children to share equally in the money she left behind, she expected Ned to act as shepherd of the fortune. And so as Ned entered adulthood Hetty prepared for him a trial by experience, thrusting him into positions where he could make business decisions, without jeopardizing too much real money, at least at the beginning. But before Ned could enter the adult world, he would have to face one particularly difficult and punishing trial, the matter involving his bad left leg.

The limp, the legacy of that childhood sledding accident, was now a defining feature of Ned’s life. Well over six feet tall, and stout, he moved about awkwardly—his one good leg bearing most of the pressure of carrying his large frame. Periodically, he reinjured the leg in falls, only adding to his troubles. In addition to experimenting with any number of poultices and other home remedies, Hetty took him to see a number of specialists. One, Dr. Lewis A. Sayre, recalled that a woman arrived at his office in New York with her son in tow, wearing old clothes and presenting themselves as charity cases. Dr. Sayre was a respected orthopedic surgeon who would leave his mark—quite literally—on untold millions of males in succeeding generations by being the first American physician to promote the idea of routine circumcisions of infant boys. Dr. Sayre said he took the boy to Bellevue Hospital and exhibited his mangled leg to medical students. But when someone recognized the boy’s mother and pointed out to Dr. Sayre that his charity case was in fact the son of a woman worth tens of millions of dollars, he refused to see either of them again unless she paid in advance. Hetty and the boy left and never returned.

She clearly loved her son with greater intensity than she hated doctors. Nevertheless, she preferred to pose as a pauper, a tactic she would use not just for Ned, but for her own care as well. On January 19, 1898, a prominent physician used Hetty as his primary example in a speech titled “The Abuses in Medical Charity,” given before the Medico-Legal Society at New York’s Hotel Marlborough. The physician, J. H. Brudenshaw, said Hetty, this time seeking treatments for herself rather than her son, arrived one day at the offices of an unnamed physician. The next day the New York Times, under a provocative headline reading, in part, “The Case of Hetty Green,” quoted at length from Brudenshaw’s speech. “That woman put on an old gown and worked upon the sympathies of the attending physician to such an extent that out of sheer pity he advised her to come to his private office, where he could give her better treatment and save her the trouble of the long waits. She gladly accepted, and for a considerable time came to the physician’s house, where he gave her the best of treatment absolutely free of charge.”

A friend of the physician visiting the office one day recognized her as “Hetty Green, the richest woman in all this land.”

“The physician could hardly believe his own ears,” Brudenshaw continued according to the Times. “He went out and questioned Mrs. Green. At first she totally denied her identity, but when confronted with the man who knew her, she was compelled to admit it. The young physician promptly rescinded his charity and sent a bill to her for $600, which she was compelled, though much against her will, to pay.”

At any rate, Ned’s bad left leg progressively deteriorated. In July of 1888, Dr. Charles McBurney, an eminent surgeon, removed it above the knee in an operation performed at Roosevelt Hospital in New York. After recovering from the operation, Ned was fitted with a cork leg. The operation, of course, gave a grim permanence to Ned’s affliction. But the procedure at least stabilized his condition, allowing him to move ahead with his life and take his place as his mother’s budding protégé.

In the days when he followed his mother along the canyons of Wall Street, Ned had daydreamed about the important financial positions he would one day inherit. “I sometimes thought that it would be nice if mother would make me president of the Chemical Bank of New York. But I had vague ideas concerning the future,” Ned told journalist James Morrow in a syndicated newspaper article published after Hetty’s death.

If Ned’s ideas were vague, Hetty’s plans for the boy were anything but. She saw bank directorships in his future, but first, he would have to learn business from the ground up. It is to Hetty’s immense credit as a mother—and, perhaps the most persuasive argument against the stereotype of her as uncaring or neglectful—that she never allowed him to use his bad leg as an excuse for inactivity or failure. Had she been a weaker or less attentive parent, she may have allowed Ned to wallow in self-pity as she went about her business. Not even Hetty’s most ardent detractors produced evidence that Ned blamed his mother for the lost leg, and when Morrow asked him to name the most important lesson he had learned from his mother, he replied, without hesitation, “Self-reliance.” That is, of course, a weighted term, and it comes from a man whose rise in business was liberally greased by his mother’s money and influence, and whose moves she would often orchestrate. Nevertheless, he would have to prove himself to his mother in a long apprenticeship.

Ned’s first job was as a clerk and handyman for the Connecticut River Railroad Company. Based in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Connecticut River Railroad provided regular service to Bellows Falls and offered express service for tourists between New York City and the White Mountains. Hetty was both a regular passenger and an investor. “She wanted me to learn railroading,” Ned told Morrow, “and the only place to learn that business is on a railroad, down on the ground among the men.” Artificial leg and all, Ned found himself patrolling a stretch of track for $10 per week, cutting weeds and helping repair track.

His next stint was with the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, based in Cincinnati. In 1890, Hetty gave him a new assignment, in Chicago, helping look after her interests there. Among his early tasks was to manage some mortgages she held that had recently fallen in value. “Get the exact sum due on each mortgage, interest and principal, fixed in your mind,” she told him. “If anyone is fool enough to offer you the full amount, take it. If you are offered less, tell the man you will give him the answer in the morning. Think the matter over carefully in the evening. If you decide that it will be to our advantage to accept the offer, say so the next day. In business generally, don’t close a bargain until you have reflected upon it overnight.”

As Ned left for Chicago, his mother gave him a package of papers, telling him to guard them on the train at all costs. Figuring that he was transporting some vast sum in negotiable bonds or other securities. Ned barely slept on the journey, keeping the package under the mattress in his berth as he lay awake. When he reached Chicago and delivered the package to the appropriate office, it turned out to contain wads of expired fire insurance policies. The delivery was simply, Ned recalled with a laugh, Mother’s way of testing his reliability.

Ned’s arrival in Chicago caused a stir far greater than most twenty-two-year-old men could make. He was at once greeted as an important figure, a player, a man who might leave a big mark on the city of broad shoulders. He spent his days in an office on the eleventh and top floor of the Owings Building, a downtown skyscraper owned by his mother. Despite his youth and lack of business experience, he was quick to make ties in the new city, as visitors streamed in to introduce themselves. Hetty was already well known in the city as a landowner. Ned told people that he liked Chicago and planned to stay. His head swelled with his first rush of importance as a man of affairs, a man about town. Within a few weeks of his arrival he was gregariously announcing big plans.

“Chicago will soon have a private bank, or rather a trust company, backed by an immense amount of money,” the New York Times reported in a dispatch from Chicago in November 1890. “Mrs. Hetty Green, known widely as the richest woman in America, and her son, E.H.R. Green, will be at the head of the concern.”

The article quoted Ned as saying, “Arrangements are practically completed for the new business, or rather the new form of our old business.” He added, “Ours will be a mortgage business. We will loan money on securities and nothing more. We will loan it at a reasonable rate of interest and borrowers may take up their paper at any time. Ours will be a sort of private bank. It will be conducted on the principle of the Chemical Bank of New York.”

At twenty-two, Ned spoke like a seasoned professional. “My mother and myself will have the controlling interest, for we never invest in anything unless we have control over it,” he said. “Others interested will be the Chemical Bank of New-York and Baring Brothers of London. San Francisco capitalists will also be interested. The nominal capital will be about $300,000, but the reserve will reach to about $150,000,000. The Chemical Bank of New-York is conducted on a similar plan. Its capital is small, but its reserve reaches about $30,000,000. This bank will be made, I think it is safe to say, one of the foremost financial institutions of America. Final details will be settled soon.”

He finished this confident and boastful statement with a promise that must have warmed the hearts of civic boosters in Chicago. “We have decided to make the city of Chicago our home, and we will open an institution in keeping with the future high rank Chicago will hold as a financial centre [sic].”

It’s not clear whether Ned spoke on Hetty’s authority, or was simply indulging in grand dreams. Soon, however, the talk of the new bank quieted down. A gregarious young man, Ned loved to be quoted in newspapers, and genuinely liked reporters. By the next summer, he had begun to imagine himself as a budding newspaper mogul. The New York Times reported on July 16, 1891: “It was rumored to-day that E.H.R. Green, son of Mrs. Hettie [sic] Green, intended to buy a newspaper in Chicago.” According to the story, three newspapermen—two from New York and one from Chicago, had approached Ned about the possibility of starting a large daily in Chicago. The paper would devote a page to New York news and a page to Boston news, in addition to local coverage. Ned did not identify the men, but said they were prominent journalists who were tired of drawing salaries and wanted to own their own paper. About the same time, an attorney had contacted Ned saying that someone could buy the Chicago Times for $300,000 to $400,000. “Whether the attorney was an authorized agent of that paper or not, I don’t know. But if it is for sale, we shall make the paper a proposition,” Ned said.

The newspapermen had asked Ned to put up sufficient funds to construct a building and furnish the presses, type, and staff. “I told them if they could show me that there was any money in the scheme I would go into it. The New-York parties have gone back East to see if they can secure aid. They will return next Saturday, and a meeting will be held in my office to see how the land lays.”

Ned’s high talk about becoming a newspaper mogul was at variance with the reality of his position as his mother’s apprentice, and the plan quickly died. Hetty was determined that he would learn to economize. She kept him on a strict allowance—enough to live on but hardly more. She had suggested that Ned stay at the Auditorium Annex, where rooms cost six dollars per night. According to James Morrow, Ned’s plan to put a little spending money in his pockets by moving to less expensive rooms at the Clifton House backfired when his mother learned of the move. She wrote to him: “I notice that you are not staying at the hotel I suggested. It is all right, but I have reduced your daily allowance $3. You are not to have any more spending money than the amount decided on originally.”

Though Ned liked Chicago, liked the reception he received and the feeling of being an important man of affairs, Hetty had other plans for him. In 1893, she sent Ned, now twenty-five, down to Texas to see about some railroad matters. Specifically, it was time for her to exact some long-awaited revenge on Collis P. Huntington.

By the time Hetty and Collis Huntington had crossed paths during the Cisco crisis in 1885, Huntington was sixty-four years old and one of the most successful and feared businessmen in the United States. The sixth of nine children from a small town in Connecticut, Huntington set out for California in 1849 along with hordes of other gold seekers. But it didn’t take him long to recognize that for every man who struck gold, thousands more came away with their dreams as empty as their pockets. Most came from the East without experience or equipment, and Huntington realized that, whether they were destined to strike it rich or, more likely, to fail, just about all of them needed picks, shovels, boots, pots and pans, and tents. In the boom-town of Sacramento, staging area for mining expeditions, Huntington took on a partner, Mark Hopkins, and opened a hardware store that thrived from the start.

Surveyor Theodore Judah approached Huntington, Hopkins, and California merchants Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker in 1860 with a plan for a rail route pushing east from Sacramento across the mountains. The four became financial backers of the new project. Eventually, they shunted Judah aside and became known as the Big Four (a term used with equal parts derision and respect) as they pushed the formation of the Central Pacific, the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. Huntington, forceful, fearless, and ruthless, emerged as the Big Four’s leader. The transcontinental hookup was just the start. A new railroad, the Southern Pacific, would, under Huntington’s leadership, spread across California and the southwestern states. Huntington spent much of his time in Washington, D.C., alternately bullying and currying favor with congressmen to earn extraordinarily favorable land rights that essentially turned thousands of California farmers into vassal servants of the railroads—farming land deeded to the railroads, and paying usurious rates to ship their produce.

Novelist Frank Norris had Huntington in mind when he wrote The Octopus, his classic novel about an all-powerful California railroad and its domination and abuse of the local population. For his climactic scene, Norris drew upon a real incident known as the Mussel Slough Tragedy, in which a group of farmers clashed with a coterie of railroad and government men who had come to evict a wheat farmer from his land. When the shooting stopped, seven men from both sides lay dead. Although Huntington was nowhere near the scene, enraged farmers and their sympathizers had no trouble in establishing the true villains behind the violence—the Southern Pacific and its ruthless leader.

A man who, tellingly, would identify himself only as “a citizen of California,” submitted an open letter to Congress during the 1890s, calling Huntington “a persistent intermeddler without proper warrant in Government affairs, an unscrupulous dealer in threats and promises amongst public men, a constant menance to sworn servants of the people in their offices of trust, a tempter of the corrupt and a terror to the timid who are delegated to power, a remorseless enemy to wholesale legislation, [and] a constant friend to conspirators against the common welfare for private gain.”

Unlike the villainous railroad agent in Norris’s book, who suffocates in a loading car under an avalanche of wheat, Huntington just grew stronger as he moved from one scandal and controversy to the next. By the late 1880s, he had moved to New York, and was furiously working on pushing the Southern Pacific across Texas. Many men, strong and tough in their own right, hated Collis Huntington almost as much as they feared him. He was a physically imposing man, two hundred pounds, with a large head and piercing eyes. He knew he was intimidating and he used this quality to his advantage whenever it suited him. He was known as a vindictive man who never forgot a slight.

Hetty Green was not impressed. To Hetty, Huntington was no empire builder. He was the man responsible for the principal humiliation of her life, a time when she had come the closest to losing control of that which gave her life purpose and meaning. She blamed Huntington for mismanaging the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, and for the bond shenanigans that she felt had caused Cisco to go under. Because of Huntington, she had been forced to beg and plead before that impertinent Lewis May. Because of Huntington she had had to write out a check for several hundred thousand dollars, an act that felt like tearing a chunk out of her own flesh. If people thought Huntington could hold a grudge, they hadn’t seen Hetty.

In the wake of the Cisco disaster, long before Ned began his apprenticeship, Hetty had bought as many of the damaged bonds of the Houston and Texas Central as she could. By 1887, she owned $250,000 in first mortgage bonds and about $1 million in general mortgage bonds, enough to be a thorn in Huntington’s side for any plans he might have for the railroad.

As part of a reorganization plan, Huntington stiffed remaining bondholders. He proposed to exchange existing bonds with new ones that would pay 2 percent lower interest and run fifty years instead of five. Bondholders grumbled, cried foul, but had little practical recourse. They could give in, or, Huntington intimated, the Houston and Texas Central would fail outright, and the investors could use their bonds to paper the walls of their parlors.

One bondholder made it clear that she had no intention to go along with Huntington’s proposal. “C.P. Huntington and his friends among the bondholders of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad Company had a meeting yesterday whereat a reorganization scheme was endorsed. Mrs. Hetty Green, however, was an absentee,” the Times noted on December 16, 1887. “She owns something over $1,000,000 worth of the company’s bonds and Mr. Huntington’s offer doesn’t suit her. The Huntington contingent say they do not care whether Mrs. Green assents or not; they can go right along and reorganize the company without her. Other big men have talked in just this way about Mrs. Green in times past, but somehow she usually contrives to come out ahead whenever the fighting notion strikes her.”

Wall Street observers licked their lips at the prospect of a battle between Hetty and Huntington. “Wall street men, usually very gallant where women are concerned, have no very great liking for Mrs. Green and her close business methods,” the New York Worldreported on May 27, 1887, “but on the other hand they are not particularly in love with Mr. Huntington, whose genius for driving a bargain is a matter of common fame; so they will watch this contest with impartiality, but with intense and lively interest.”

A committee of increasingly nervous bondholders met over several months to try to hash out a compromise that would earn better terms than what Huntington had proposed. Hetty sent as her representative William J. Quinlan Jr., cashier for the Chemical National Bank. The bondholders, not content to deal just with Hetty’s representative, made several pilgrimages to see her at the bank, hoping she would join them in reaching a compromise before the railroad failed.

Whether Hetty gave her outright promise or merely intimated that she would go along, the committee members believed they had a unified front. They hashed out a compromise with Huntington, essentially going along with his demands. Amid rumors of the agreement, Houston and Texas Central stock rose to $40 per share, its highest level in ages. That was good news for Huntington, who had scooped up loads of shares at around $10. But no sooner had the bondholders announced the resolution, in May 1887, than Hetty made an announcement of her own. She had changed her mind. Was that not, she said sweetly, a woman’s prerogative? If Huntington and his crowd wanted her cooperation, they would have to come directly to her.

As word spread of Hetty’s refusal—presaging more months of haggling and delays—the stock sagged like a leaky balloon, back down toward $10. Huntington, who had broken more than a few tough men on his climb to success, watched in cold fury as the value of his securities sank and his broad plans for Texas stalled, all because of this … woman.

The bondholders, meanwhile, professed themselves to be stunned by Hetty’s duplicity. “Members of the Committee … use a stronger term than ‘changed her mind.’ They say she ‘deliberately broke her promise,’ and while disinclined to make a public attack upon a woman, did not disguise their disgust at her conduct,” the World reported the following Friday. “Her action, it was declared, was indefensible, and Mrs. Green’s action two years ago in withdrawing her half-million-dollar deposit with John J. Cisco, which many believe was the immediate cause of the failure of that old-established house, was recalled.”

What did Hetty care? If being noble and honorable meant getting swindled by Collis Huntington, the other bondholders could keep their nobility and honor. Edward Mott Robinson hadn’t waited around, like other sentimental fools, while his fortune trickled away with the demise of the whaling industry. His daughter wasn’t about to go down with the bondholders. Just as she had during the Georgia Central takeover battle a year earlier, Hetty had maneuvered herself into the position she wanted—the third point on the triangle, watching everybody sweat. She prolonged the negotiations with Huntington’s representatives for another eleven months. At last, in April 1888, she consented to the reorganization. Just what Huntington was forced to yield was kept a tightly held secret. The World noted: “It was generally believed that she had carried her point.”

But all of this had been merely a prelude. Now that Ned was full-grown and trained, he was ready to head for Texas. Together, they would make some real trouble for their adversary.

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