Biographies & Memoirs

FOURTEEN

THE HAT WAS “HETTY” GREEN

Hetty never minded being alone. In a way she had lived her entire life courting solitude. Independence was her pride and her strength. She had distanced herself from New Bedford, from Fifth Avenue, and for many years from her own husband. But that had been her choice. Now, in her mid-seventies, she found that she was not simply alone, but lonely. By 1908, Edward had been dead for eight years and Ned had been living in Texas for fifteen. Now Sylvia, her constant companion, had moved across the river to Manhattan and a life of quiet comfort with her new husband.

Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Astor Wilks lived at 440 Madison Avenue, his home, and spent their summers in Newport, Saratoga, or Bar Harbor. Their names appeared frequently in society columns; generally in lengthy roundups of the seasonal comings and goings of the rich. Hetty, long accustomed to the dominant hand in her relationship with Sylvia, now missed her company more than she would have guessed. In the months following the wedding, Hetty took rooms at the Plaza and the St. Regis Hotels, prompting speculation in the newspapers that she planned to move to Manhattan to be close to Sylvia. But each time, after a brief stay, she returned restlessly to Hoboken and her modest flat. In 1910, she suffered another loss with the death of her Skye terrier, Dewey. Dewey had been her companion for years—it was one of the few relationships in her life in which love could be freely given and accepted without the looming specter of money. The loss of this companion sent her into a tailspin of sadness that lasted for weeks.

At about the same time, Hetty began to acknowledge that she was growing old. All of her life she had considered herself physically indestructible, and her remarkable constitution generally supported this conceit. She attributed her ability to function into her seventies with the energy and sharpness of someone half her age to her prudent habits—moderation, frugality, and self-denial. Illness and health to Hetty had always carried a moral component—people who were sick were probably overindulging their desires, becoming soft, or else spending money they did not have and driving themselves to an early grave over worry. But maintaining her customary work pace was getting to be more and more of a challenge. In the spring of 1910, she turned to her son, asking him to tie up his affairs in Texas and come back to New York to help her with the business.

In Texas, Ned had become a big man in his own right. He had started with huge advantages, of course—but he had prospered, with imagination and style. A couple of thousand miles away from Hetty’s watchful eyes, Ned had developed into one of the most colorful characters in a state that never lacked for colorful characters. In fifteen years, his influence and persona had spread far beyond the relatively minuscule strip of track that constituted the Texas Midland, far beyond the town boundaries of tiny Terrell, or even Dallas. He was famous in Texas, not simply as Hetty Green’s son, but as Ned Green. He was a civic booster, political wheeler-dealer, playboy, businessman, and world-class sportsman. If he could never escape entirely from the shadow of his mother, Texas was the one place he could come closest.

In politics, he had thrown himself into the state’s Republican Party. In Texas as across most of the South, Republicans were vastly outnumbered by Democrats and were still widely resented as the party of Lincoln. Much of the white population viewed Republicans with a combination of disdain and suspicion, as the party of Yankees and blacks. It was the only party open to African Americans, who formed a large faction known as the Black and Tans. In opposition to them stood an all-white faction known as the Lily Whites, and power struggles within the Republican Party could be raucous. But the very underdog nature of the Republican Party created a perfect opportunity for an ambitious, affable young man with money to rise quickly within its ranks. He could circumvent the years of dues-paying and back-scratching that might be required to make his mark as a Democrat.

Ned aligned himself with the Black and Tan faction. In 1896, at twenty-eight, having been in Texas just three years, Ned was named state chairman of the Republican Party. Despite the party’s poor reputation in Texas, the position gave him a chance to flex his muscles nationally at political conventions, at which he arrived in style aboard his private railroad car. With a Republican, William McKinley, in the White House, the association with Republicans gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with national forces in politics. “Texans at the Waldorf-Astoria say there is no more popular man in the Lone Star State than Edward H.R. Green, son of Mrs. Hetty Green, who is accounted the richest woman in America,” the New York Times reported on August 29, 1899, during a national Republican gathering at the New York hotel. “Mr. Green, who is one of the Texas contingent at the Waldorf, is reported to have high political ambitions, and people from that state say he is spending money liberally in the hope of reaching the United States Senate via the gubernatorial chair.”

To help grease the skids of his political ambitions, Ned built a lavish and exclusive fishing club on the Gulf Coast, known as the Tarpon Club, around 1898. The club was situated on a flat, sandy island a few miles from Corpus Christi, one of a string of islands that forms a natural bank with one side facing open sea and the other forming a narrow, shallow inland waterway. A grand clubhouse rose off the flat sand on pilings and, at night, was a beacon that boaters could see for miles around. The house sat high enough that windblown sand would whip under the house rather than into the faces of members enjoying cocktails on the verandah after a day of hunting or fishing.

Guests shot ducks in the winter, and fished for tarpon, channel bass, jackfish, alligator gars, and kingfish year-round. If they didn’t feel energetic enough to venture out for their sport, members might simply sit on the verandah of the spacious clubhouse and pick off crabs with a .22 rifle. The large common rooms were decorated with a 175-pound trophy tarpon and other game fish, ducks, and game birds. The club was an immediate success, counting among its three hundred members President McKinley, ex-president Grover Cleveland, a host of senators and other politicians, and millionaires from as far away as New York, St. Louis, and Ohio.

Ned served on the board of directors of the Texas World’s Fair Commission in 1903, assigned with devising the state’s entries for the St. Louis fair. Ned and another commissioner abruptly resigned in protest when the commission decided on a star-shaped building for the Texas pavilion, which Ned considered tacky and playing to the stereotype that outsiders held of Texans. Ned said he could not be part of “a building that portrays Texas as a freak,” according to an article in the Times April 13. He added, “I want a building that will impress those who see it with the idea that Texas has dignity. This state has outgrown its shooting and cutting and sombreros and high-heeled boots. Caricaturists have hurt us by their exaggerated picturings. Stars belong in the heavens, to be looked up to, not on the ground, to be walked around in order to see what they are. It is a waste of money to erect such a building.”

In 1899, Ned had made what is widely considered to be the first car trip in Texas—a rugged trip across dusty horse trails from Dallas to Terrell. By 1905, he was an enthusiastic promoter, financier, and participant in the rapidly growing sport of auto racing. He had poured thousands of dollars into racing cars and was widely regarded as the most avid racer in Texas. On a cold, raw day in early 1905, three thousand spectators turned out, despite the weather, to watch five cars battling in the first 100-mile automobile race in history. Green was not just an organizer of the event—he was one of the five drivers. Using his one good leg to operate the pedals, he held a lead through much of the race. At the seventieth mile, with Green and competitor A. B. Wharton running neck and neck, a bolt on Wharton’s car broke and Ned cruised to victory. Two weeks later, the American Automobile Association recognized Ned’s time of 2 hours, 6 minutes as a new record for 100 miles. Crowds flocked to him at a car show at Madison Square Garden in New York that same month. He had attended the show in part to meet with a manufacturer to make a custom racer he hoped would be among the lightest and fastest in the world. “I want a racing car that will weigh within 1,400 pounds,” he told reporters. “What horse power? Well, that is immaterial to me. If the car is built for me I shall only stipulate that it be made to go fast, the faster the better, and I will leave the horse power entirely to the manufacturers.”

Ned’s crowning honor came when Governor B. B. Colquitt bestowed on him the honorary title of colonel. Ned wore the title proudly for the rest of his life. Colquitt was a Democrat, but he was a Terrell native and he and Ned had become good friends. At Colquitt’s inauguration, Ned proudly appeared in a uniform adorned with gold braid. Wherever he traveled, people called him Colonel Green or, simply, “The Colonel.”

And, finally, there was the rather sticky situation of Ned’s live-in “housekeeper,” Mabel Harlow. Mabel’s true role in Ned’s household was an open secret that Ned’s friends and associates accepted with equanimity because of his overall affability and his generosity to the state and its citizens. Hetty had long known about Mabel, but as long as Ned remained in Texas he and his mother could quietly avoid the subject. For Ned, returning to New York meant the added headache of trying to keep Hetty and Mabel separated. He would not risk his mother’s wrath by marrying Mabel, but neither could he break with Mabel and end a relationship that had mellowed with the approach of middle age from one of purely sexual attraction (on Ned’s part, at least) to one based on mutual affection and need.

Nevertheless, at forty-two, Ned was nothing if not a dutiful son; when Hetty called, he and Mabel packed up and headed to New York. In July of 1910, Ned arrived aboard his private railcar and settled into a deluxe suite at the Waldorf designed especially for him, with living quarters and office. As workmen put the finishing touches on the suite in the stuffy summer heat, Ned stood in his shirtsleeves under an electric fan, talking to reporters. When they asked about his mother, Ned was characteristically kind, the Times reported. The decision to come to New York had been a natural one, he said. “I just dropped everything in Texas when mother wrote for me to come and relieve her of some of her financial cares,” Ned said. “Of course, I can’t look after all of her interests, they are so immense, but I can do my part in looking after some of the details.”

“My mother has improved wonderfully in the past few months,” Ned added. “After we have had several long talks she will go to Bellows Falls, Vermont, for a well-earned rest. I am very proud of my mother. She is one woman in ten thousand, although she will insist on working despite her years. I am big enough to do her share and mine, too.”

Having Hetty in Vermont would keep Mabel out of his mother’s field of vision. It would also absorb the shock of being back within shouting distance of his mother after so many years of relative autonomy. But as Ned acknowledged in his comment, it was wishful thinking to assume that Hetty would ease into some sort of sunny retirement of rocking in a chair and knitting doilies in Bellows Falls.

Hetty, in fact, continued her daily ferry ride across the Hudson to Wall Street, but gradually, with Ned’s gentle insistence, she began to slow down. In 1911, Ned and Hetty began discussing forming a trust company to handle her affairs. Ned would oversee the trust, which would relieve Hetty of much of the overwhelming burden of keeping tabs on all of her vast and far-flung empire. They called the trust the Westminster Company, after the Vermont county where Bellows Falls lies.

Among Ned’s first acts as managing director of the Westminster Company was to help Hetty shed some of her vast real estate holdings, either through outright sale or by ninety-nine-year lease. In particular, Hetty began unloading her substantial Chicago properties. By now, she owned some ninety separate pieces of property in the city, worth at least $6 million. The lots, scattered around the city, were increasingly difficult for Hetty to keep track of. Most of the lots remained largely undeveloped, because of Hetty’s long-standing policy of keeping the taxes low while allowing the property values to rise. By the early twentieth century, Chicago was on its way to becoming one of the world’s great cities, and was bursting at the seams. Property Hetty held that had been quasi-rural scrubland was now close to the downtown and developers and residents clamored for the space. Her tactics had endeared her to few people—save for the farmers who tilled her vacant lots—but her policy held true to her financial convictions.

Among the first major sales was the 480-acre tract southwest of the city in Gage Park. Ned negotiated a sale price of nearly a million dollars for the land. Cobe and McKinnon, the buyers, immediately announced plans to develop the area as houses, apartments, and businesses to meet the city’s swelling needs.

Then, Ned found a buyer for an 11-acre lot in the northern lakeside suburb of Winnetka, for $80,000. Over the next several years Hetty, through Ned, disposed of numerous properties through sale or ninety-nine-year lease. Developers, including her Chicago real estate agent, R. F. Lowenstein, snapped up the long-dormant property. In July of 1912 she sold the six apartment buildings on Sibley Street for $140,000.

Among her downtown holdings, worth a total of around $3.5 million, the Howland Block at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe was particularly valuable. The lone structure on the property was a dated, five-story building, but for years, developers had been pursuing Hetty, through her Chicago agents, to sell or lease the land for development. Acquired through foreclosure some thirty years earlier, the lot remained untouched, rising in value to $1,625,000 by 1911, according to the Chicago Board of Review. A developer leased the property from Hetty long-term at $65,000 per year. In short order she sold or leased numbers 183 through 187 Wabash Avenue, valued at $325,000; the plot on Wabash, near Harrison Street, worth around $200,000; the lot with 80 feet of frontage on Michigan Avenue, worth an estimated $1 million; and the houses at 211 and 213 Monroe Street, worth $157,000.

The headquarters of the Westminster Company consisted of three offices on the sixth floor of the Trinity Building at 111 Broadway in Manhattan. Administrators of the estate of millionaire Russell Sage operated in a suite in the same building. Sage, who died in 1906, had been a friend of Hetty’s. Hetty still put in full days. She occupied a Spartan office furnished with an old roll-top oak desk and three chairs. Often her days consisted of sitting next to enormous piles of coupons for bonds coming due. Patiently, steadfastly she worked her way through mound after mound of coupons, cutting with a pair of large shears. She kept a grindstone nearby for sharpening the shears when they became dulled by the ceaseless tide of her wealth. Ned appeared regularly at the offices, as did Walter Marshall, his personal secretary from Texas, whom he had brought to New York. Keeping track of daily office operations was a small, wiry man named Wilbur Potter, who dutifully and quietly supervised a small staff of clerks.

Hetty still appeared at the offices early in the morning and stayed until evening. Her millions in cash and her willingness to lend made her a sort of one-woman Federal Reserve, whose decisions on interest rates were followed the way investors today await word from Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. “Hetty Green Cuts Rates,” the Times reported on January 7, 1911, when she made a loan of $325,000 at 4.5 percent to the Roman Catholic Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, between East Eighty-third and Eighty-fourth Streets. “This is the lowest rate of interest at which a real estate mortgage has been made in this city for many months,” the article stated.

In fact, Hetty often lent money to more than thirty churches at rates well below the going market. These churches benefited from the low rates, but Hetty would not give them a free ride. Several years earlier, in 1903, the Fifth Presbyterian Church of Chicago defaulted on a $12,000 loan. The pastor made the mistake of trying to shame Hetty into forgiving the loan. He arranged for pastors at other Chicago churches to denounce Hetty from their pulpits as a ruthless financier, and wrote to Hetty threatening that she would not get into Heaven if she foreclosed. Hetty wrote back: “As long as you’re in a threatening mood, you had better climb up on your cornerstone and pray for my soul because I am going to foreclose.” A number of pastors leapt to Hetty’s defense. The Reverend M. P Boynton, of Lexington Avenue Baptist Church in Chicago, told reporters, “To expect the holder of a church mortgage to cancel it upon the grounds of Christianity, after the money has been lent in good faith, is nothing less than a hold-up.” The New York Times agreed on its editorial page of February 29, 1903: “If churches … see fit to borrow money in the regular way from persons who make a business of lending it, there is no imaginable reason why they should not pay their debts.” Within a year the site of the Fifth Presbyterian was being occupied by the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church.

Lending money to churches at a low rate of interest is not the same thing as an outright gift, of course. If she did give portions of her vast wealth away, she did so anonymously. “One way is to give money and make a big show. That is not my way of doing,” she told her friend, C. W. deLyon Nicholls, in a Business America magazine profile in May 1913. “I am of the Quaker belief, and although the Quakers are about all dead, I still follow their example. An ordinary gift to be bragged about is not a gift in the eyes of the Lord.”

There was another reason, of course, for keeping any acts of generosity a secret—if word got out, she would be besieged by requests for more. She was not alone in this fear. A New York Times article on anonymous philanthropy in November 1913 stated: “Often the donors are controlled not by modesty but by a desire for self-protection against the thousands of letters that follow widely heralded public giving. The same article identified Hetty as the likely anonymous donor of $5,000 for relief efforts for victims of major floods in Dayton, Ohio, the previous spring. “In this connection the question has been raised if Mrs. Hetty Green is not accustomed to give generously in secret.”

Breaking her own rule of talking about one’s gifts, Hetty told Nicholls: “I have done one deed of which I am proud. I have helped a school for boys to the extent of between three or four hundred thousand dollars.” Hetty told Nicholls the unnamed school was in New York State, and that she had bought the land during the panic of 1907, at a steep discount. “The buildings were put up at a time when the poor urgently needed employment.”

When confronted with reports of charitable acts, she was quick to deny them. In 1904, rumors surfaced that Hetty had given $500,000 to the Nurses’ Home in New York City, and another $50,000 for a nurses’ settlement home. When reporters arrived at the Chemical National Bank seeking comment, she sent a terse written reply out to them: “It’s a chimera; it’s absurd; there is not a scintilla of truth in it; it’s all a dream.” When Annie Leary announced plans to build an art school on Fifth Avenue, opposite Central Park, newspapers reported that Hetty would donate $500,000 to pay for the site. Neither Hetty nor Annie ever confirmed the reports.

In 1911, Nicholls organized a contest among society ladies to trim Easter hats to be given to poor girls. The women gathered at the Madison Avenue home of a wealthy woman named Mrs. George Kemp, a friend of Hetty’s. Hetty was not only a sponsor, she helped judge the entries. Among her favorites was a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of flowers and a large green bow—a color that the contest participants christened as “Hetty green.”

In the annals of philanthropy, a hat-trimming contest is a minor event, to be sure. But Hetty’s participation made it news. Just as everything she did made news. By now, she was so familiar to Americans that she was becoming a popular icon. She seemed to be everywhere. Her name cropped up in popular songs, one of them, written in 1905 by Sidney S. Toler, titled “If I Were As Rich As Hetty Green” (Each day I’d give the poor a thousand dollars / A diamond ring to every little queen—/ O you bet your life that I would go to the limit / If I were just as rich as Hetty Green). Another song, “At the Million Dollar Tango Ball,” written in 1914 by James White, included the lines: Given by the millionaires at Wall Street Hall / John D. Rockefeller sold the tickets by the score / Andrew Carnegie was taking tickets at the door / Hetty Green was Dancing Mistress of the floor / Vanderbilt was playing every rag encore.

In 1912, a trotter named Hetty Green finished sixth in a field of seven at the Detroit’s Grand Circuit horse races. That same year, a wealthy slumlord in New York, Mrs. Pasquale Spinelli, was murdered. She had been known as “the Hetty Green of Little Italy.” At the Thirty-ninth Street Theater in Manhattan in 1914, in a play called Too Many Cooks, a character named Albert Bennett told his fiancée that he loved her and not another character named Minnie, with these words: “If Minnie was as beautiful as Lillian Russell and as rich as Hetty Green … I’d laugh in her face.” A few months later, the New York Sun reported (erroneously, as it turned out) that Hetty planned to buy the Chicago Cubs.

To the public, Hetty was ageless and timeless—people could not remember a time when Hetty could not be seen bustling along the streets of lower Manhattan. It seemed as if she might live forever. And she was determined to give that impression, working long days and weekends, ever minding her fortune. But she was beginning to contemplate her death, and in a quiet way to make preparations. In 1911, she made up her will, a straightforward document passing everything along to her children. A year later, she made another arrangement. One Saturday in July of 1912, Hetty spent the morning, as was her custom, in the offices of the Westminster Company. She worked until a man, the Reverend Augustine Elmendorf, arrived at the building. Ned was there, too. The three of them got into Ned’s chauffeur-driven car, and Ned ordered the driver to take them across the river to Jersey City, where the Reverend Elmendorf was rector. Jersey City was the next town over from Hoboken. When the car arrived at the church, located at the corner of Arlington and Claremont Avenues, the little party entered the rectory. The occasion had been kept a strict secret, to keep the ever-curious reporters away. Here, in the rectory, with only her son as witness, Hetty was baptized in the Episcopal church. She had not, however, undergone a conversion of faith or become suddenly devout. Her reasons were more practical, and perhaps more touching. The little burial ground in Bellows Falls where her husband lay interred only Episcopalians—and that is where she preferred to be buried, next to Edward, when the time came.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!