Biographies & Memoirs

THIRTEEN

IF MY DAUGHTER IS HAPPY

Economics is complex enough to fill a thousand fat textbooks and as simple as the law of supply and demand. Through the ages, whether the commodity was tulips in Holland, gold in California, or cash on Wall Street, speculation has made millionaires and paupers, created and destroyed fortunes in the blink of an eye. But the most secure fortunes have always belonged to those with the discipline and foresight to stay out of the fray, those who supply speculators with the tools of their glory or ruin.

Stock values soared during the first years of the twentieth century, as the United States transformed itself from an economy based on agriculture and thousands of small, mostly local manufacturers to one driven by a new creature—the Large Corporation. In 1901, J. P. Morgan paid Andrew Carnegie nearly $500 million for Carnegie Steel—the highest price ever paid for a company—laying the cornerstone for U.S. Steel. The purchase set off a wave of mergers and acquisitions as would-be Morgans bought up strings of mills and factories to form one national colossus after another, with names such as United States Spinning, International Weaving, and American Steel and Wire. Some of these corporations were based on sound financing. But in many cases the deal-makers simply financed their acquisitions by issuing huge amounts of watered stock—stock whose value on paper vastly exceeded the actual assets of the company*

In their optimism, investors eagerly snapped up even the most heavily watered shares of major corporations, believing, as would Internet investors nine decades later, that values were destined to continue rising forever. With the exception of a brief downturn in 1903, the mania continued unabated until early 1907, when reality set in. It wasn’t just individual investors who were caught unprepared when the bubble burst. Many banks and trust companies had been speculators themselves, and had made reckless loans secured only by still more shares of inflated stock. Stocks began to slide in March, but the real catalyst for disaster came several months later, on October 21, when word spread that the venerable Knickerbocker Trust Company, one of the city’s largest, was in deep trouble. The next day, after a furious run, Knickerbocker shut its doors for good, leaving many of its seventeen thousand depositors searching in vain for their $35 million in deposits. Panic spread—within a week, six banks with combined deposits of $57 million were closed, and many more teetered precariously on the brink of failure. And the panic soon spread beyond New York, jeopardizing banks nationwide.

Hetty had avoided any temptation to join in the speculative fever. During the height of the boom, in November 1905, she told a New York Times reporter, “I buy when things are low and no one wants them. I keep them, just as I keep a considerable number of diamonds on hand, until they go up and people are anxious to buy. That is the general secret of business success.” She added, “I never speculate. Such stocks as belong to me were purchased simply as an investment, never on a margin.” Her words must have seemed hopelessly stodgy and archaic to speculators riding the crest of the wave. But by 1907 the wisdom of her investment methods was painfully clear.

When the bottom fell out, she expressed sympathy for hapless investors caught in the panic, telling a Times reporter during a trip to Boston that fall, “Can’t you see that watered stock is in everything? It’s ruinous … I mean the middle class. They’ve got a lot of this watered stock, and the water has been squeezed.” While others watched their fortunes float way on rivers of all but worthless stock, Hetty had the comfort of real assets—the bricks and mortar of her buildings, secure bonds, and tens of millions of dollars in cash that she was prepared to lend to buyers who met her standards.

In mid-1907, with the crisis drying up city coffers, New York mayor George McClellan announced a freeze in the hiring of new police officers, a halt in new government construction projects, and a freeze on salaries for the street cleaning department. As she had done several times before, Hetty came to the rescue, writing a check for $1.1 million, drawn on her Chemical Bank account, in exchange for short-term revenue bonds, paying 5.5 percent. Her money helped keep the government running.

This crisis in particular showcased Hetty’s ability to remain coolheaded while others panicked. Banks, which until recently had been passing out loans like party favors, now indulged their own deepest fears, often refusing loans even to sound, well-run companies needing cash for expansion. When they did lend, they accepted stock as collateral only at rates far below the stock’s actual market prices. After all, the banks reasoned, in these uncertain times the stock could collapse, leaving them holding scads of worthless paper. Faced with a Hobson’s choice of doing without needed loans or mortgaging themselves to the hilt to get them, many companies simply folded. Hetty remained one of the few sources consistently willing to lend money at or near the market value of the stock.

One such company was the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, which hauled coal east and west from Pennsylvania and carried seagoing passengers from the Great Lakes at Buffalo to the mouth of the Atlantic at Hoboken. In addition to its choice routes, the DL&W was a forward-thinking railroad—among the first to power its locomotives with cleaner burning anthracite (as opposed to soft bituminous) coal, ensuring its passengers a relatively soot-free ride. Hetty no doubt considered these factors as she extended loans to the company during the panic. On October 19, 1909, two years after the crisis ended, the New York Times singled Hetty out for levelheadedness that had helped save the railroad. “So great was her confidence in the intrinsic worth of the stock that she was willing to take the chance of wide fluctuations occurring during the panic. That she was right about the stock has been shown since the panic, for Lackawanna since October, 1907, has advanced several hundred points.”

J. P. Morgan, whose purchase of Carnegie Steel had helped touch off the wave of mergers, eventually played the lead role in bringing the panic of 1907 to a close. Shortly after the Knickerbocker closing, two of the city’s largest trusts—the Trust Company of America and the Lincoln Trust Company—appeared on the verge of collapse. Morgan stepped in, organizing one of the most extraordinary meetings in the history of Wall Street. With his private library on East Thirty-sixth Street as headquarters, a furious, daylong series of negotiations ensued, drawing around thirty of the nation’s leading bankers and industrialists. Calling themselves the Committee of Trust Companies, they hashed out a plan to rescue the two companies. Negotiations with the directors of the two trusts stretched on into the night. At midnight, a wagon from the Waldorf Hotel pulled up in front of Morgan’s library, and six hotel workers carried in a catered supper and urns of coffee. George B. Cortelyou, President Theodore Roosevelt’s treasury secretary waited in a hotel nearby. Although Cortelyou did not participate directly in the meetings, the Treasury, at Morgan’s request, had deposited some $35 million in national banks for the specific purpose of bailing the distressed trusts out.

Finally, at 3 A.M. on November 6, the Committee of Trust Companies announced a plan to save the trusts by assuming control of their stock. The bankers also decided to make millions of dollars available from the New York Clearing House (set up to clear checks drawn on the city’s largest banks) specifically to bolster banks during the threat of a run. The meeting marked the first step toward what would become, six years later, the Federal Reserve banking system, providing a measure of stability for the banking industry. The gathering included a lone woman. The Times reported that a woman wearing a black veil entered Morgan’s library at 6:30 P.M. and stayed for several hours. Although the woman was never positively identified, reporters were convinced that the woman was Hetty Green. Hetty was known to wear a black veil on the streets at times to give herself a measure of privacy. Perhaps Morgan and the other bankers invited Hetty to gauge her interest in the 6 percent bonds they planned to issue to establish the Clearing House fund. She would have been a logical buyer. At any rate, it is difficult to imagine any other woman of the time being called in by J. P. Morgan and his associates to discuss a national financial crisis.

As her financial power reached its zenith, so did the popular impression that Hetty was, despite her money, a desperately unhappy person. Her customary black dress, accented at times by the veil, gave her a witchlike appearance as she walked the streets of lower Manhattan. Some took to calling her the Witch of Wall Street. This notion of her unhappiness owed itself in part to the tenor of the times. How could a woman be happy whose thoughts were so dominated by business and finance? Her preoccupation with money must be covering for some huge gap in her domestic life. Certainly, nothing Hetty said supported the notion that she was unhappy. Virtually every public comment she made regarding her own life reinforced the idea of a woman living her life contentedly, according to a few simple rules. “I really have nothing to say,” she told a New York Times reporter in November 1905, “further than to be thankful for my continued health and interest in general affairs. I know of but very few people who are busier than myself or who are better trained to combine business with pleasure.” Asked if she planned to retire, Hetty responded, “Why should I give up work? I was never more capable of handling my affairs.”

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. One of the more cutting portraits came in January of 1908, when Broadway magazine published a particularly long and unflattering article describing Hetty as the “least happy woman in New York.”

The article, by a writer named Mabel Potter Daggett, began: “If you have been a part of the hurrying throng that daily jostles down lower Broadway, you may have seen her. Such a lonely little figure! A withered leaf, it seems strangely tossed in the great financial current. Follow this little old woman in rusty black and see her enter the Chemical National Bank. She is not the scrubwoman. The scrubwoman has no clothes of such ancient date as hers, the alpaca gown that has weathered many seasons, the black woolen cape that has shaped itself to the shoulders as they have bowed through the last ten years, and the tousled bonnet with its little bunch of flowers that faded with the millinery of many summers past.”

Daggett continued: “The shabby little old woman who has just passed from view is worth $60,000,000, even $100,000,000, some estimates say. She is Hetty Howland Robinson Green, greatest mistress of finance the world has ever seen. Seated atop of her huge yellow millions, a wrinkled old woman, the financial limelight of a continent plays about her as she directs the destinies of men and of corporations. There is power in the pen stroke of her aged fingers, the thin old fingers that are busy, busy all day long cutting coupons and signing checks. She has more ready money at her command than any other one individual. Wall Street waits on her coffers. To the old-fashioned mahogany desk comes a procession of bank presidents, hat in hand, railroad magnates, bowing low, and rich directors humbly making obeisance. Even the city of New York in need has brought its plea to her, its richest citizeness.”

Yet for all of her power, Daggett wrote, “Hetty Green is really a bankrupt to-day, bankrupt in desire! With money to buy all that the world has for sale, it holds nothing that she would like. She has mortgages strewn in acres from Boston to San Francisco. She owns railroads and steamboat lines, copper mines in Michigan, gold mines in Nevada, iron mines in Missouri, telegraph and telephone securities and government bonds, and in her safe is locked a pint of diamonds and one of the finest collections of pearls on earth. Yet the girl stenographer who takes her dictation probably has a lighter heart under a new spring gown, the butcher from whom she buys chuck steak at twelve cents a pound has a better Sunday dinner, and her neighbors in a Hoboken flat, when they go on a Coney Island outing, brighten the monochrome of existence with more of color than varies her drab days.”

Although Hetty had lived her entire life as a repudiation of what others thought or expected of her, she was not entirely immune to their barbs. She may have had Daggett’s description of her as a “shabby little old woman” in mind when, in a reflective moment, she turned to her friend Annie Leary one day and said, “Oh, Annie, am I really as awful as they say I am?” It could be, too, that Leary’s influence was rubbing off just a few of Hetty’s hard edges. Like Sylvia, Hetty was a periodic guest at Annie’s Fifth Avenue home, where she no doubt chided her friend for her extravagant living. Hetty and Sylvia had visited Leary in Newport in October of 1907, when Leary held a dinner in Hetty’s honor, inviting twenty-six guests. Her friend seemed determined that Hetty should enjoy her money more, live a little among the community of her peers.

Whatever her motivation, Hetty made news one spring day in 1908 by walking, not into another bank or brokerage house, but into an establishment altogether different: a beauty parlor. The salon she chose was on Fifth Avenue and was described by one newspaper as “a Mecca for dowagers with waning charms.”

She stepped cautiously into the salon where, beyond the reception room, women surrendered themselves to treatments such as mud masks, steam baths, and facial massages with exotic, scented oils. As Hetty glanced cautiously about the room, the attendant looked with equal caution at the odd woman wearing a long, worn, black dress and unfashionable bonnet.

“What do you do here?” Hetty asked. The attendant, quickly assessing the woman’s needs, offered a program of twenty-one sessions, stretched across several weeks.

Hetty said, “What do you charge?”

“Three hundred dollars,” the attendant said.

Hetty may have reached for a chair for support as the calculations whirled in her head: Three hundred dollars … how many months’ rent in Hoboken or Brooklyn? How many rides on the ferry? She considered for a moment. Then she lifted the skirt of her dress, reached into a pocket, and produced a wad of bills. She counted out six $50 bills and handed them to the surprised attendant.

“I’ll pay for this now,” she said.

Minutes later she was being whisked to a backroom, where she held her face before a steam bath as long as she could stand it, then sat still as thick layers of black mud were applied. The attendant advised her to relax her muscles and let all of her thoughts and cares drift away.

But there was another reason for Hetty’s sudden awakening to personal refinement—Sylvia, at last, had a beau whom Hetty considered worthy of her daughter’s hand in marriage. Hetty had been through a number of scares regarding Sylvia’s suitors over the previous several years. A procession of Europeans with impressive-sounding titles had come looking for a union that would exchange lineage to this or that royal house for cold American cash.

In early April of 1900, Sylvia had been briefly linked with one Francesco Serrano y Dominguez, otherwise known as the duke de la Torre. The duke had traveled from his native Spain in order to study American military methods. Annie Leary introduced Sylvia to the duke, and within six weeks rumors were spreading around town about a romance between the two, with open speculation that Sylvia was on her way to becoming a duchess. “The Duke is tall and distinguished looking,” the Times reported on its front page on March 19. “He speaks English badly.” Despite his lineage, the duke was said to get by on an income of about $4,000 per year—hardly enough to support an ambitious young man in a style befitting his title. The newspaper reported that the duke was planning a trip to Mexico, during which he would stop off in Texas and pay his respects to Ned, in advance of a June wedding.

Both Sylvia and the duke discreetly declined to answer any questions about their reported romance. Hetty, clearly annoyed with the whole idea, did not decline to comment. “This is the first I ever heard of such a thing. It’s just one of them lies they are always starting about me and my children,” she told a reporter who knocked on her door in Hoboken.

A year later, in the spring of 1901, Sylvia was linked romantically with one Charles Francis Seymour, earl of Yarmouth, who, despite that fancy title, was hungry and unemployed and seeking his fortune as an actor when he arrived in the United States in June 1899. The earl, who went by the stage name Eric Hope, had parlayed his title into introductions at Newport to the As-tors, the Vanderbilts, and other leading families—and it was at Newport that, again through Annie Leary, he met Sylvia.

The newspapers pegged the earl for a gold digger, and one day a particularly strident article appeared in the New York Telegraph, including the following line: “Speaking of Dukes and such things reminds one that the Earl of Yarmouth is in dire straits these days. The Earl is hard up.” The article also intimated that any young American heiress in search of a title might pick up the earl at a bargain rate.

The earl sued for $25,000, claiming that the article “caused great damage in his profession and brought this plaintiff into public scandal and ridicule in his said profession.” An unrepentant Telegraph responded that “it was generally understood in the United States of America that Earls and other English noblemen without means had been fortunate by reason of their titles in marrying rich American heiresses, and that by reason of the conduct of said Earl, it was the general belief that he was in search of an heiress.” The defendants added that the earl “then was and still is shopworn and damaged in reputation.”

Sylvia was subpoenaed by the defense, apparently to confirm the newspaper’s allegations that the earl was aggressively seeking to marry an heiress. But she was never called to testify. The earl, whom a sympathetic jury awarded $2,500, publicly apologized for having indirectly involved Sylvia in the case. The earl later married an heiress in Pittsburgh, bestowing on her a royal title in exchange for a life of leisure, thanks to an industrial fortune.

Having thus been linked romantically to a duke and an earl, all that remained was for Sylvia to find herself a handsome prince. This came about three years after the earl had left the scene, in the person of Prince Don Giovanni del Drago, of Rome. Here’s how the Times explained the prince’s claim on the Italian throne: “The del Drago family is an ancient one of Rome. They are related collaterally to royalty, as the great-grandmother of Prince Giovanni was the daughter of Maria Christina, Queen of Spain, by her second husband, the Duc de Rianzares. Consequently Prince Giovanni is a cousin several times removed of the present King of Spain, whose great-grandmother was also Maria Christina, he descending from the King, Prince Giovanni, from the Due.” But this romance proved to be just as short-lived as the others, and in 1909 the prince married American Josephine Schmid, the widow of a beer magnate, whose husband had left her some $10 million. At the time of the wedding, Josephine was fifty, the prince, twenty-seven.

In 1908, Sylvia was in her late thirties, at the time an age of confirmed spinsterhood. By then, even the newspapers had pretty much stopped speculating on possible matches for her, and potential suitors had drifted away. It was generally assumed that she would spend the rest of her life—and the millions she stood to inherit—alone. It was then that she met (again, through her angel, Annie Leary) a man so painfully proper, so mild, so inoffensively correct, that not even Hetty Green could object. His name was Matthew Astor Wilks. Wilks was a great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, who had made a fortune in the fur business. Matthew Astor Wilks was a relatively minor heir, and not one who showed any particular ambition or skill in business—he “has never done any very active work,” a newspaper reported. But he had enough of a fortune (about $2 million) that he could not rightly be suspected of gold-digging. When not at the family compound in Gait, Ontario, Wilks lived in fashionable comfort at 440 Madison Avenue and was a member of most of the best clubs, including the Knickerbocker, Metropolitan, Turf and Field, Fencers, Badminton, and the New York Yacht Club. He spent much of his time at Edward Green’s old haunt, the Union Club. Moreover, he was fifty-seven years old—two decades Sylvia’s senior, so it was highly unlikely that one of Hetty’s worst fears would be realized—that one of her children would marry, and die before the spouse, sending all those millions of hard-earned dollars into the greedy arms of another family. If the odds played out, Sylvia would outlive her intended by years.

Hetty did put up a bit of a fight when word of the romance began to leak. She claimed to know nothing about it. But by the spring of 1908 she was clearly growing resigned to the fact that her only daughter would soon be wed. Perhaps at Sylvia’s insistence, in early May Hetty surprised everyone by abandoning her Hoboken apartment and taking up residence across the river in a spacious second-floor suite at the Plaza Hotel, overlooking Central Park. Perhaps Sylvia and Annie Leary, working in tandem, convinced Hetty that Hoboken was no way for the mother of a millionaire bride-to-be to live. In May, Hetty even hosted an elegant dinner for twenty in honor of Sylvia and Wilks at the Plaza. The ten-course meal, with wine, was served in a special suite known as the “state apartment”—a large drawing room, a dining room decorated in green and gold, flanked by a series of dressing rooms. When Hetty stood with Sylvia to receive their guests, she wore, not her customary frumpy black dress, but a black satin gown trimmed with old point lace. Sylvia wore a gray dress that set off a string of pearls. The party was widely seen as confirming the engagement between Sylvia and Wilks, although no announcement was made. Guests took home their embossed place cards as souvenirs of one of society’s rarest events—a party thrown by Hetty Green.

Guests, hotel staff, and curious reporters were as stunned by Hetty’s appearance as they were by the fact that she was splurging on a party. By June, though, she abruptly checked out of the Plaza, tiring, perhaps, of the expense or of the attention that her comings and goings always drew. She and Sylvia moved into a modest but decent two-room apartment in a boardinghouse on Madison Avenue. They would stay just a month or so, before joining Annie Leary in Newport, and then heading on to Bellows Falls for a summer visit.

In August, Hetty returned to Hoboken, taking another apartment in the same building at 1309 Bloomfield Street where she had lived before. Rumors of the impending marriage between Sylvia and Wilks grew and swirled through the fall. Hetty, Sylvia, and Wilks continued to guard the plans like a state secret, but their reticence only fueled the speculation. In early February, Katherine L. Wilks, Wilks’s sister in Ontario, sent an announcement to family friends:

Mrs. Hetty Green, New York, announced the engagement of her only daughter, Miss Sylvia, to Mr. Matthew Astor Wilks of New York, eldest son of the late Matthew Wilks of Cruickston Park, Galt, Ontario.

But Hetty herself made no public announcement to her own acquaintances, and when this one inevitably made the society columns, Hetty’s only response was to vigorously deny it and to question where the Wilks family was getting its information. Reporters camped outside her building at all hours, determined not to be scooped. At one point, the city posted a police officer in front of the building to keep reporters at bay. Rumors flew regarding the date and location of the wedding, and whether, perhaps, the couple had already been married, in secret. These rumors were in part fostered by Hetty herself, who, for all of her stated dislike for reporters, seemed to enjoy the cat and mouse game, and brought her customary wit and ingenuity to it.

Hetty knew that reporters were plumbing her neighbors in the building for information, and that neighbors were natural gossips and could not resist spreading information, especially if reporters were offering cash for tips. The building’s dumbwaiter was a natural conduit; the women of the building would exchange gossip with those on other floors. Hetty, aware of this, began holding informal daily briefings near the dumbwaiter, to be sure that her messages were spread around.

“Mind you, although I say I’d like to kill all reporters, I wouldn’t murder them. But, oh! I would like to pull their hair a little bit now and then.” That comment duly made the papers, as did her answer when a neighbor asked when the wedding might occur.

“When? Now, I will tell you a secret, and you mustn’t breathe it to a soul,” Hetty said. “Just to spite some people, Sylvie and Mr. Wilks and I went over to Morristown last Wednesday and—exactly! It was our own business and nobody else’s. My, but Sylvie looked fine in her new gown, but she caught a dreadful cold wearing it.”

The New York Times reported on page one the following day, under the headline “Wilks Already Wed to Silvia [sic] Green?”:

According to neighbors of Mrs. Hetty Green, reputed to be the richest woman in the world, who lives at a flat at 1309 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken, Mrs. Green confided to them yesterday that she had outwitted the newspapers in concealing from them the fact that her daughter, Miss Silvia [sic] Green, had already married Matthew Astor Wilks, great-grandson of the original John Jacob Astor.

The ceremony, according to the statement attributed to Mrs. Green, took place in Morristown, N.J. last Wednesday. Mrs. Green said her daughter wore a wedding dress upon which they had been at work for several weeks, and had caught cold as a result. Mrs. Green also described the cake of which the wedding party partook after the ceremony. Efforts to confirm this yesterday were unsuccessful owing to Mr. Wilks’s reported absence from town and Mrs. Greens reticence.

The newspapers sheepishly recanted their stories a couple of days later when they re-reported Sylvia’s wedding, this time for real. The scene was, in fact, Morristown, New Jersey, where Hetty and Sylvia had occupied a boardinghouse during one of their frequent moves. To keep the actual date as secret as possible, they had sent no formal invitations. Just before nine o’clock on the morning of February 23, a cab pulled up in front of the building. Hetty and Sylvia emerged and dashed for the cab without a word. Reporters and other curious onlookers scrambled to follow the cab on the short ride to the railroad station, where at precisely 9:20 a special reserved car took them and other members of the wedding party on a short trip to Morristown. Sylvia and Wilks were married at noon at St. Peter’s Protestant Episcopal Church. The simple ceremony, performed by the Reverend Philemon F. Sturges, included no bridesmaids. Curiously, Ned does not appear in the newspaper accounts. Perhaps Hetty had told him to stay away, in order to put off speculation. The wedding party was small, not quite filling the front pews of the church. If anything, they were outnumbered by the reporters and curious onlookers who filled the back pews.

During the ceremony, Hetty sat in the front pew, near the center, wearing a black silk gown with white point lace. Sylvia did not wear a traditional white wedding gown. Instead, she wore a rather plain brown dress, festooned with a white feather boa wrapped around her neck, and a hat with a sheer black lace veil, and a white flower and feathers on top.

After the ceremony, there was a reception at the Morristown Inn.

“Mrs. Green, despite the many stories to the effect that she did not altogether approve of the match, seemed in excellent spirits,” the Times reported on February 24. “Even though she would not make any statement about the marriage, she did not seem to object when newspaper photographers shot the wedding party in front of the hotel. She stood in the front line with Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Astor Wilks.”

A formal picture from the wedding survives. It appears to have been taken outdoors, perhaps on the porch of the inn. Except for the bridal bouquet gripped in Sylvia’s white-gloved left hand, it might have been taken at any function. Little about the clothing bespeaks the nuptials that have just taken place; but more, the camera betrays almost no trace of emotion, of joy, at the occasion. Hetty, to the left of the camera, sits straight-backed and fully upright, her hands by her side, her head thrown back and chin raised, a stony expression on her face. Wilks stands in the background, wearing his formal dark coat, a hand on the back of either chair, his distinguished-looking face framed by a bald dome on top and bushy mustache hanging over his unsmiling mouth, and the only pictorial evidence that he is the groom rather than the father of the bride is the slight tilt of his head toward Sylvia. Sylvia is the only one who betrays any emotion, but barely; there is a ghost of a smile on her face. Under the veil and her spectacles one sees, not a full smile, but something in the eyes that indicates a sort of happiness. The picture seems a symbolic as well as actual portrait of this odd family—Hetty, proud, stoic, strong; Sylvia, wan, with some emotion struggling to escape, an expression not of outright joy on her wedding day, but of contentment.

For Sylvia, the transformation from Miss Green to Mrs. Wilks would mean an end to the cheap flats of Hoboken and Brooklyn, listening to her mother’s carpings on the foolish expenditures of others, an end to day coaches, pinching nickels, suffering through her mother’s hagglings, and empty hours at the Chemical National Bank. She had missed several stages of marriage—the happy optimism of newlyweds, when the whole world is bright and full of promise; the chaos of children; and the solidification of a marriage from a giddy romance into a partnership. Instead, Sylvia and Wilks entered into matrimony by going straight into the comfortable if slightly dowdy stage of marriage, where long silences are tolerated without worry, a time when retiring comfort displaces romantic expectations. For Sylvia, still two years shy of forty, the marriage to the fifty-seven-year-old Wilks would always be middle-aged. There was no question of children.

When asked on her daughter’s wedding day whether the marriage made her happy, Hetty replied: “I am happy if my daughter is happy.” Only on Hetty’s death seven years later would a final piece of the puzzle regarding this marriage be put in place. The revelation came through her will, which bestowed $5,000 on Wilks for having agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement disavowing any claim on the fortune.

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