Biographies & Memoirs



No matter what anybody else called her, Hetty Green always saw herself as simply a woman looking out for her rights. When it came to struggles on Wall Street, she rarely lost a battle. In court, however, her record was spottier, as the case of Aunt Sylvia’s will presaged decades earlier. Regardless, she could never resist a good legal fight. Her hatred of lawyers was surpassed only by her need of them. She went through batteries of lawyers during the 1890s, as complainant or respondent in dozens of lawsuits. She eagerly attended every hearing. Frequently one court case would spin off from another and yet another, like a fast-growing and pernicious vine of litigation. Sometimes she had to hire new lawyers to handle the case of an old lawyer suing to collect his fee from a previous case. And yet she obviously loved the process. Hetty would have been a formidable soldier. But women did not fight in wars. The courtroom was her battlefield.

Of all the legal cases she was involved with during the 1890s, whether as a plaintiff or a defendant, none occupied more time than her fight against Henry A. Barling, the trustee of her father’s $5 million estate. Barling had worked as her father’s clerk in New York shortly before Robinson’s death. He was, by definition, the kind of person Hetty was predisposed to hate—yet another man appointed to handle money that was rightfully hers. She believed Barling had mismanaged the trust, allowing investments to languish and wallow while creating for himself a life of luxury. She had a point. The principal in the trust had barely increased in nearly thirty years. The $350,000 Hetty received each year was roughly the same amount that she had received the year after her father died. Hetty’s lawyers charged that Barling squandered thousands of dollars each year in salaries for clerks, one of whom was Barling’s son. They charged that Thomas Mandell, a cotrustee from New Bedford, had drawn $80,000 in fees over two years, without once setting foot in New York, where the trust was being managed. They charged that Abner Davis, another trustee, had continued to draw thousands of dollars in fees years after being committed to a sanitarium in Connecticut. Barling, collecting generous fees as trustee, emerged from his clerk’s salary and New York flat to the life of a country squire, owner of a large house across the Hudson River in Highwood, New Jersey. Unfortunately for Mr. Barling, he spent much of his time in that fine home worrying about what Hetty Green might do next.

The dispute erupted in 1888, when the trustees decided to sell a 651-acre parcel of Chicago real estate Hetty’s father had purchased during the 1860s. The trustees claimed the time was ripe to sell at a profit. Hetty’s philosophy on real estate was simple, its wisdom borne out over and over in her experience. Hold on to property.

Hetty responded with a typically audacious move. In June 1889, when Barling was off on an extended vacation in Europe—paid for, Hetty no doubt fumed, with her money—she arrived at his New York office at 46 South Street in the company of several men from Chemical National Bank.

Hetty did all of the talking. She stood in the middle of the office and demanded that the clerks turn over all the securities on hand. As the clerks demurred, Hetty grew more loud and insistent. She had come for what was rightfully hers. With Barling gone, the clerks’ resistance crumbled. They turned over stacks of bonds and stock certificates, worth a total of $3 million. Nobody said a word as Hetty and her companions stuffed the securities into several large bags and marched out the door to a waiting carriage. When Barling, in Paris, received the news by cable, he immediately cut short his vacation and returned to New York. He went straight to the Broadway offices of Chemical Bank and demanded that the cashier return all of the securities and papers immediately. “This the cashier did with due gravity, but promptly, and now the executor is once more in charge of the affairs of the Robinson estate,” the New York World reported on June 9.

A reporter found Barling sitting on the verandah of his home in Highwood a day or two later, and asked if he intended to return to Europe to finish his trip.

“No,” Barling said nervously. “I shall be obliged, the way things look, to remain on this side, for the present at least, and look personally after the interest entrusted to me.”

All of that merely served as prelude to a series of suits and countersuits filed by both sides that became so entangled that a New York judge named H. H. Anderson was appointed to serve as referee, to attempt to straighten out the mess of accusations. For two years, the litigants filed into Anderson’s offices at 35 Broadway for a seemingly endless series of hearings whose arcane minutiae were leavened only by Hetty’s antics. Anderson didn’t appreciate the show, but the reporters did.

In the winter of 1895, Hetty set the tone for one day’s hearing by marching into the room, slapping Barling on the back, and exclaiming, in a hearty voice, “How d’ye do, Mr. Barling?”

Hetty’s attorney began questioning Barling about Abner Davis and why he would continue to receive commissions while living in a sanitarium following a mental breakdown. Barling tried to put a positive spin on the situation, calling the hospital “a retreat for those who want a rest of mind.”

“A place for howling lunatics,” came a cheerful voice from the audience.

“Mrs. Green!” said Judge Anderson.

A couple of weeks later, Barling’s attorney, J. Evarts Tracy, said Barling’s books had always been open for Hetty and her lawyers to examine.

“No use lying,” came the voice.

“Mrs. Green!” said Judge Anderson. “I do not like to speak to a lady of your age in this way.”

“Oh, you needn’t mind me,” she responded. “I know I am in my second childhood, but you can’t muzzle—”

“Mrs. Green!” Anderson snapped. “You must not talk. I will keep order, and you have your lawyers to talk for you.”

When the proceedings were less lively, Anderson sometimes nodded off. Hetty, on the other hand, was always on alert, especially when reporters followed her out into the hall at the end of a long afternoon, looking for a quote. She rarely disappointed: “The referee on one day slept nineteen times, snored fourteen, and struck his nose on the desk three times. He wants me to stop talking, and I want him to stop snoring. He makes his noise with his nose, and I make mine with my mouth. It’s nearly the same, ain’t it?”

On June 14, 1895, as the lawyers, reporters, and others in the room organized their papers and headed for the door, Hetty quietly walked to a window, dropped to her knees, and folded her arms in prayer. The noise in the room stopped at once. Everyone seemed taken aback except for Sylvia, who often attended the hearings with her mother, and now looked on impassively.

Hetty stayed in that position for several minutes, moving her lips without uttering a sound. Then she got up, dusted off her dress, and headed for the exit. When reporters asked what she prayed for, Hetty declined to answer, took Sylvia by the arm, and left the room.

Hetty developed a particular distaste for Barling’s lead attorney, Joseph Choate, a prominent New York attorney who would later serve as United States ambassador to Great Britain. She took to making public pronouncements against him, one of which almost got her into trouble the same month. “Did you ever see such a set of buzzards?” she reflected on Choate and other lawyers on his team. “Why, it is sad to think of poor Irene Hoyt. Choate and the other buzzards got hold of her, and she is in an asylum now.”

Her words did not escape the eyes of Miss Mary Irene Hoyt, who on June 5 filed a $100,000 slander suit against Hetty. Editors, reporters, readers, and court observers could barely contain their glee at the prospect of a Hetty Green and Irene Hoyt squaring off in court. If Hetty was the most colorfully litigious woman in New York, Irene Hoyt probably came in second, having spent several years in a legal battle with trustees over the estate of her own father, steamboat magnate Jesse Hoyt. Choate had represented the trustees in the Hoyt case, so Hetty and Irene should have been sympathetic with each other’s causes. But Hetty’s mortifying statement put an end to any camaraderie.

The newspapers fairly licked their lips. “As both of these distinguished women are millionairesses, and as in times past they have demonstrated their undoubted capacity to make things interesting, a lively time may be expected when this slander suit comes to trial,” the New York Times predicted. Three weeks later, reporters did not mask their disappointment when the suit was suddenly settled out of court, the details kept secret. “The trial had been looked forward to as one of the events of the age,” the Times lamented.

Just when the Barling case looked as though it might drag out forever, Henry Barling obligingly dropped dead in April 1896. He had been handling the estate of Edward Mott Robinson for nearly thirty-one years. A short time later, Hetty triumphantly solved the mystery of her public prayer that had perplexed the reporters: “What I prayed for was that the wickedness of that executor might be made manifest to New York,” the New Bedford Morning Mercury quoted her as saying that August. “I’m a Quaker. In just a year after my prayer that executor was found stone dead in his bed.”

At long last, Hetty was in a position to assume direct control over the fortune she had always considered rightly hers. Six weeks after Barling’s death, Hetty persuaded a New York Supreme Court judge to name a more favorably disposed replacement for Barling: Ned Green.

Not all of Hetty’s lodgings were cheap tenements. While she avoided the high-priced rent of fashionable Manhattan hotels, she wasn’t altogether averse to comfort. Tops on her list of requirements were ease of access to lower Manhattan, and a management that respected her privacy. In December of 1894, she found both at Brooklyn’s Hotel St. George. Built in 1888 and located on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, just a few blocks from the famous promenade overlooking the East River, the St. George was one of Brooklyn’s newer and larger hotels, ten stories tall. In contrast to the Hetty legend of living in mean flats down dingy hallways, the St. George had a large, sunny dining room decorated by live pineapple plants—Hetty’s favorite fruit. She and Sylvia occupied a fifth-floor suite. They registered under pseudonyms (“Mrs. H. Gray” and “Miss Gray”). The owner, J. W. Tumbridge, and the head clerk, Frank Niblo, went out of their way to protect their privacy, telling inquisitive reporters that Hetty and Sylvia had checked out when they hadn’t.

Hetty was accustomed to getting around Brooklyn and into Manhattan using public transportation. With nearly a million residents spread throughout Brooklyn’s horizontal vastness, the electrified streetcars were the most reliable and efficient mode of transportation. They squeaked, popped, and clanked across a network so intertwined that dodging the cars in the street became an unofficial pastime, and, as every baseball fan knows, gave the local professional team its name, the Trolley Dodgers, later shortened to the Dodgers. During that winter of 1894–95, the city came to a virtual standstill when the trolley workers went on strike. Drivers and conductors of the city’s six trolley companies were looking for concessions that by today’s standards are remarkable only for their modesty—a 24-cent-per-day pay raise on salaries that topped out at a meager two dollars per day, and a reduction in the shift length from twelve to ten hours. A sort of tense peace prevailed amid the eerie silence during the first couple of days of the strike. But soon moods turned as ugly as the January weather. Angry mobs threw stones, bottles, and garbage at the legions of scab drivers and conductors, who poured into Brooklyn from around the country. Most of the scabs were themselves desperate for work following an extended financial panic of 1893.

Charles A. Schieren, Brooklyn’s mayor, took the side of management, calling out first the police and then the National Guard to quell protests and keep the trolleys moving. He said he just wanted to keep the peace. Critics noted that Schieren’s New York-based company manufactured electric belts used by the trolley companies. An occupying force of some seventy-five hundred federal soldiers turned Brooklyn into an armed camp. Many strikers and sympathizers were arrested. Two men died; one, a roofer, was struck from his perch by an errant warning fired over the heads of protesters. A second man was shot after he approached too close to a car stable and ignored warnings to stop. In the face of overwhelming power, and with hungry mouths to feed, the strike petered out a month after it began, with the defeated drivers and conductors returning to work.

But the strike had succeeded in stirring up passionate sympathy among many observers. Theodore Dreiser, who covered the strike as a New York reporter, immortalized it five years later in his novel Sister Carrie through the eyes of a conflicted scab named George Hurstwood. Hetty, too, came out on the side of the strikers. This may seem an odd position for a famous capitalist to take, but Hetty never sympathized with management. While the public didn’t quite perceive her this way, Hetty considered herself a populist.

“The poor have no chance in this country,” she told a reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at the time of the strike. “No wonder Anarchists and Socialists are so numerous. The longer we live, the more discontented we all get, and no wonder, too. Some blame the rich, but all the rich are not to blame.”

She added, “The law must be upheld, must it? Then why don’t they begin at the right end? Who begins to break the law? The great railroad magnates. There is Huntington. He and his railroads and the men about him have been grinding wealth out of the poor for years and years and defying the authorities. But the militia are never sent against him…. Let the poor man break the law and see how soon he gets into jail.”

Sylvia, Hetty’s quiet companion during these years, was entering her mid-twenties, a period of life when, in those days, a young woman not busy raising her own family might inspire sympathetic comments from friends and relatives and panic on the part of the mother. Not so with Hetty. Hetty perceived protecting her daughter and protecting the family fortune as synonymous. And so Sylvia accompanied Hetty everywhere, to court, to Chemical National Bank, to one apartment or hotel after another. Hetty and Sylvia frequently spent their summers at Bellows Falls. They would stay at the Tucker House sometimes; other times, when Hetty had rented the house out, they stayed at one of the downtown hotels.

Sylvia loved Bellows Falls. It was the one place where she had friends and felt a certain degree of freedom. She loved the rural setting, loved riding horses. She hated when the fading summer carried the first faint chill of autumn. It meant it was time to return to some claustrophic room in Brooklyn. A batch of letters from Sylvia to her childhood friend, Mary Nims, survives. The letters are written on cheap, plain stationery. Some bear the return address of the Chemical National Bank, 270 Broadway. Those mailed from Brooklyn bear no return address, as if she wished to blot out that portion of her existence.

Sylvia writes to thank Mary for a bottle of perfume at Christmas, to send her regrets for not having stopped in to see her before leaving Bellows Falls. The letters are full of a sort of muted longing, and not a great deal of joy. “Please accept many thanks for the lovely photograph and calendar,” she wrote from Brooklyn one January. “I would have thanked you before but have been sick in bed. I am just going down to my meals…. Papa is about the same. Mother as busy as usual. Ned is still in Texas, so you see we do not change much. Hoping this will find you all well. Do tell me what all of you are doing.” She enclosed a photograph of herself, saying, “I hope to have some better pictures taken as soon as I get a little stouter. I have got so thin since I came down [to New York]. I wish I could stay in the country all the year round as country life seems to agree with me.”

Despite her inherent awkwardness and shyness, and her mother’s best attempts to keep predators at bay, Sylvia still attracted her share of admirers. The millions she stood to inherit sharpened her appeal for any number of suitors, legitimate, scheming, and lunatic. Articles about Hetty made their way overseas, and when one mentioning Sylvia and her presumed millions appeared in a Berlin paper, hundreds of letters arrived from would-be German suitors, about a quarter of whom directly proposed marriage. One persistent fellow, named Kaufman, claimed to be poor but well-born, a generational link or two removed from European royalty. If the Greens would but forward him a draft for 1,000 marks, this Prince Charming promised to board the next available steamship for New York and throw himself “at the feet of this esteemed angel, Sylvia.” If Sylvia should fail to be duly impressed, Mr. Kaufman vowed (upon receipt of another 1,000 marks) to purchase a second ticket for a steamship bound in the other direction, thus to rid Sylvia forever of this heartfelt intrusion. The letters might have amused Sylvia or flattered her, had she read them; but Hetty took charge and turned some two hundred of them, unopened, over to her lawyers.

A bit closer to home, and more unsettling, was the case of one Thaddeus McDonald, who burst wild-eyed into a Washington police headquarters, claiming that Hetty Green was trying to break up his engagement to Sylvia, and had threatened to kill him. “I’m going to marry her daughter,” McDonald told the officers on duty. “And the mother has conspired against me. She has men and women after me all the time.” The man claimed to have written “a bushel” of letters to his beloved, although he conceded he had yet to receive a response. McDonald believed his life was in peril and demanded police protection. He turned out to have recently emerged from an asylum in Newark, New Jersey.

Not all of the suitors were frauds or lunatics. Hetty’s friend, Annie Leary, attempted to bring Sylvia out from Hetty’s shadow, to introduce her into society and free her from her seclusion. At her home on Fifth Avenue, and in Newport, Rhode Island, where Annie maintained a cottage, she continued to hold dinners and dances on behalf of Sylvia, inviting eligible sons of other wealthy families. Sylvia rarely spoke up or engaged the attention of potential suitors. Still, her family’s money proved to be an aphrodisiac, even in circles where people had plenty to begin with. But Hetty, who trusted no one, trusted least of all the “idle rich,” and would let young men get only so far before she clamped down.

The New York Tribune in December 1894 reported that an unnamed suitor, described as “a young man well known in fashionable clubs, the son of a conspicuous banker,” had attempted to woo Sylvia. According to an “informant,” the young man had shown a good deal of attention to Sylvia at Newport. The reporter described Sylvia as “plain, quiet, intelligent,” and showing a “decided preference for the young man with whom her name has been connected recently.”

Hetty, who had remained behind in New York, got wind of the budding Newport romance, and called Sylvia home, cutting her vacation short. When Sylvia arrived back at the Brooklyn hotel room that she and her mother called home, Hetty told her:

I’ve found out something about the young man who has been waiting on you at Newport, Sylvia. I find that your young man is very nice and proper, but if it wasn’t for his father, the world wouldn’t know a thing about him. He has never earned a dollar and doesn’t know the value of money. Now Sylvia, I’ve kept my eyes open all these years, and I want to say right here and now, that you shall never marry a society man with my consent. I want to see you happily married and in a home of your own, but I want you to marry a poor young man of good principles, who is making an honest, hard fight for success. I don’t care whether he’s got $100 or not, provided he is made of the right stuff. You will have more money than you’ll ever spend, and it isn’t necessary to look for a young man with money. Now you know my wish, and I hope I won’t hear anything more about your young man at Newport, who knows just about enough to part his hair in the middle and spend his father’s money.

The authority on which this remarkable speech was rendered, verbatim, in the Tribune, is unclear. The “informant” who provided the details would have had to have an incredibly keen ear and good memory, not to mention unusual access to what one assumes would have been a private conversation. And yet the words are Hetty through and through, from the matter-of-fact directness to the witty quip at the end, to the barely concealed contempt for a young man who had inherited a fortune and failed to seize the reins and increase the fortune through hard work, as she herself had done.

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