Biographies & Memoirs



Among the many properties Hetty had acquired through foreclosure in New York, the old loft building at 74 Broad Street, just off Wall Street, was perhaps the most homely and unprepossessing. It stood empty of tenants, except for a lunchroom on the ground floor, which Hetty leased because the rent covered her taxes on the building. The building was old and cobwebbed, with shaky wooden stairways leading to floor upon floor of dustbound, grime-streaked gloom. The dirty windows, nailed shut to discourage intruders, allowed only miserly streaks of light that did little to illuminate the interior. And yet this old building was perhaps Hetty’s most valuable possession, for personal if not proprietary reasons. Tucked away on the sixth floor of 74 Broad Street was a trove of treasures so guarded that Hetty was willing to keep the entire building vacant for years so as to discourage the curious. She examined the contents of this repository several times a year, in the company of Walter Marshall, Ned’s private secretary.

There was something ceremonial about the process, with Marshall following Hetty through Wall Street and Curb Market staying twenty feet behind, on her instructions, so as to avoid attracting attention. Upon reaching 74 Broad Street, Marshall would light a borrowed lantern to guide their way up the dim staircase. On the sixth floor, Hetty pulled out the load of keys from her black reticule and stopped in front of a large room whose door was secured with a padlock. Before opening the lock, Hetty always knelt and ran her finger under the double door. She had secured a black thread running from a nail in the door to another nail in the floor.

“This is my safeguard—this black thread,” she told Marshall. “If anybody else ever goes in here, I’ll know it because the thread will be broken.” Satisfied that her treasures had not been tampered with, she unlocked the door.

“When we finally got into the room beyond that door, grotesque shadows arose above a great clutter of objects stored there,” Marshall later recalled. “A gray film of dust covered everything. I saw an ancient sleigh with a buffalo robe in it, office and household furniture in various stages of decreptitude, a dressmaker’s dummy, a grandfather’s clock with no hands, a tall beveled mirror with a crack across the top, several trunks and many heavy wooden boxes, a bunch of leather-bound account books, a lot of framed pictures, and a ship’s figurehead—a painted mermaid. When I brushed the dust off that with a piece of newspaper the colors appeared faded.”

This inner sanctum was even more airless than the close and airless building around it. Marshall felt faint. Hetty, dressed in layers of black garments, with rubbers on her feet, did not appear to notice the heat. She chewed a raw onion and advised Marshall to take small breaths if the heat disturbed him.

“This sleigh was my father’s,” Hetty said. “I used to ride with him behind a black horse that beat anything on hoofs in New Bedford. Black Hawk Robinson’s daughter was the envy of all the other girls in town.” Inside the sleigh was the buffalo robe under which she’d sat, snug on winter rides. On one visit, when she picked up a corner of the robe it began to deteriorate in her hand. Tears filled her eyes.

Other boxes opened other memories. There were dresses she had worn as a young woman, including the white gown with the pink sash that she had worn to dance with the Prince of Wales.

“She might have been a magician pulling surprises from a hat as she showed me various mementoes dating back across the long stretch of her life. There were silken shawls and wall-hangings which some sea captain had brought her from China; pieces of jewelry, some in fantastic design; specimens of fine old glassware, shoes and slippers, dance programs, opera tickets, an ocarina that her father had played, baby shoes that Sylvia and Ned had worn, photographs of Hetty as a young woman.”

Hetty observed wistfully, “People said I was good looking then,” and the words lingered for a while and died in the hot thick air.

But for each of the pleasant memories of balls and parties and sleigh rides, there were sterner memories that reminded Hetty of her life’s great struggles. Rummaging through one chest she came across a pile of newspaper clippings she had saved about Collis P. Huntington. “That old Hyena thought I’d die before him,” she said. “But he’s long in his grave.” Then she named other financiers, part of the endless gallery of enemies. She signaled to Marshall it was time to leave. She bent down and refastened the black thread that was her bulwark against prying eyes. She got up and shook her fist in the gloom.

“They’ll never murder me! I’ll outlive all of them!”

As she entered her eighties, Hetty began conducting much of her business from a four-story brick house at 7 West Ninetieth Street, near Central Park. Ned was living next door, at 5 West Ninetieth. Both homes had been owned by Hetty’s father, and left to her as part of the estate. She visited Ned, Sylvia, and Annie Leary frequently at their respective New York homes, but she refused to move to the city herself. On May 10, 1915, the Jersey Journal reported that Hetty was living in Hoboken as a guest of Jacob Van Twisk and his family. Van Twisk was the janitor of the Yellow Flats Building, and lived nine blocks south of the building. “The noted woman financier is positively incognito,” the article stated. Even so, Hetty couldn’t help but be recognized, the reporter added. A young girl approached her and asked, somewhat impertinently, how to become rich. Hetty looked at the girl’s fancy dress and replied, “The first thing, don’t spend so much money on your clothes.”

She returned to New York for her eighty-first birthday, in November, which she spent quietly with Ned and Sylvia. On November 22, 1915, the New York Sun ran a brief account of Hetty’s day:

Mrs. Green came to the city early from her residence “somewhere in Hoboken” and took a Madison avenue street car. She transferred to the Eighty-sixth street crosstown branch and journeyed over to Central Park West. With brisk strides, apparently with the fourscore years resting but lightly upon her, Mrs. Green walked north to her son’s residence.

In the afternoon she went motoring through Central Park and returned about 6 o’clock to her daughter’s residence in Madison avenue. Of course there was nothing ostentatious about the party. Mrs. Green’s birthday parties never are. She took this one so much as a matter of course that hardly any one knew she was having a party at all.

On April 17, 1916, while staying on Fifth Avenue with Annie Leary, Hetty suffered a stroke. Ned would later say that Hetty had had an argument with one of Leary’s cooks—a woman given to drink. Hence the legend, handed down through the years and given permanence by the Guinness Book of World Records, that she “died of apoplexy in an argument over the virtues of skimmed milk.” Whether the stress of that argument actually contributed to Hetty’s stroke is unclear. But the stroke left her partially paralyzed on the left side. Hetty was taken to Ned’s home on West Ninetieth Street to recuperate.

When newspaper reporters caught wind of her illness, Ned denied there was anything seriously wrong with his mother. On April 26, nine days after the initial stroke, he told the New York Times that Hetty had suffered a cold, but was quickly cured by “simple remedies.” “Mother was rather brave last Sunday and went for a ride,” Ned dissembled. “As a result she contracted a slight cold. When she came back home, hot-water bags were put to her feet and she was given a glass of hot toddy. If we had given her a larger glass it would not have been necessary even to call a doctor. As it was, she was up yesterday attending her usual heavy routine of business.”

The reality of the situation at 5 West Ninetieth Street was more serious. After the first stroke, Hetty suffered a series of additional strokes that left her unable to walk. Ned hired nurses to attend to her around the clock. He instructed them to wear plain clothes rather than uniforms. Her doctor, Henry M. Painter, visited regularly. Nurses wheeled her up to a window overlooking Central Park. Through the trees she could see crowds of park visitors and the shimmering waters of the large reservoir. The city was coming to life with the spring.

In May, to be closer to her mother, Sylvia, with Matthew, bought a four-story house at 7 West Eighty-first Street. When Hetty’s condition seemed to improve, attendants lifted her into Ned’s car for a drive through the park. She still met daily with Ned, who recounted for her the financial reports of the day, just as Hetty had done for her own father and grandfather decades ago.

A reporter from the New York Sun caught Ned leaving the house early in the evening on June 25.

“Does your mother attend to her own business now?” the reporter asked.

Ned chuckled. “Well, if you heard her put me over the jumps every day, you’d think so. She scolds me for the way I handle her affairs and says she surely made a mistake in my education or I would be doing things better.”

But by the time Ned uttered these words, Hetty was already bedridden, and Ned admitted that she had suffered “a slight stroke.” Dr. Painter, dutifully holding the family line that Hetty’s illness was a minor one, told the Times on June 25, “Mrs. Green is not as well as she was ten or fifteen years ago, but that is to be expected. During the last few days she had been a little worse than usual, and I advised that she remain in bed, as she had taken cold. It is not true that Mrs. Green had a stroke of paralysis, though the presence of the nurses may have given rise to the rumor.” The doctor continued, “In fact, after I saw her yesterday morning I gave Mrs. Green permission to sit up in an arm chair, and in the course of a day or so I feel sure that she will be quite well again.”

Privately, Hetty was less sanguine. Sensing that her time was drawing near, she called Sylvia and Ned together for a final talk about the subject that so defined her life—money. She assured them that each would receive an equal share of her estate.

On the morning of July 3, Hetty ceased to respond to her nurses. They immediately called for Ned and Sylvia, who, in turn, called for Dr. Painter. It was still just seven-thirty in the morning when Dr. Painter said that while Hetty’s condition was very bad, she would most likely survive through the day. The doctor left, with a promise to return. A half hour later, with her son and daughter by her side, Hetty Green died. She was eighty-one.

July 3, 1916, was a particularly heavy news day In the Great War, advancing French and British troops launched a major offensive against the Germans along the Somme River. In North America, tensions between the United States and Mexico were running at a fever pitch following alternating raids by Pancho Villa into Texas and General John Pershing into Mexico in search of Villa. Nevertheless, Hetty’s death still made front-page headlines in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Boston, St. Louis, and dozens of other cities.

The Los Angeles Times ran a large drawing, in profile, of Hetty in the top center of the front page, under the words “World’s Richest Woman Dead.” The Chicago Tribune ran a photograph of Hetty as an elderly woman, with her long black dress and her bonnet covered in a black veil. “Was Wizard of Finance,” the Tribune headline read in part. Underneath the picture was a roundup of “Anecdotes of Hetty Green” including this quote of hers on society women: “Fashionable women pass their time playing bridge, smoking cigarets, drinking pale tea and strong whiskey.”

Many of the newspapers used the same Associated Press article, a long piece that stated, in part: “Hetty Green was the World’s most remarkable mistress of finance. The fortune she has left is close to $100,000,000. The richest woman in America, she lived almost as frugally as a shop-girl. Her home was wherever she chose for a time to hang her little black cape and bonnet, often in the hall bedroom of some cheap boarding house, or in some remote and modest flat around New York.”

Most articles were respectful in their assessment. The New York Times quoted Ned at some length. He described her as a woman who had been largely misunderstood, hardly the miser that people made her out to be:

Mother held herself aloof because there was nothing else she could do in her position. When it becomes known that a person has money to lend you have no idea of the requests that come for it—bona fide offers to borrow, begging letters, and letters from unbalanced people. In recent years she had moved her office many times and had finally taken up quarters in the Ninetieth Street house to avoid these money seekers.

For the same reason, mother never told of her charities, though they were many. The sums of $500, $1,000 and $10,000

she gave away were many and there was a list of about thirty families who received regular incomes. These were mostly members or descendants of families who had been associated with our family for many years.

Writing in the Boston Sunday Globe on July 9, six days after Hetty’s death, A. J. Philpott stated: “In point of fact, it is a question if Hetty Green—in a financial sense—wasn’t the greatest woman that ever lived.” Among the newspapers seeing Hetty’s life as a cautionary tale against greed and miserliness was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which offered the opinion that Hetty’s behavior was only natural for a woman. Under the headline “Hetty Green, Feminine Croesus,” the article stated: “The familiar type of masculine multimillionaire who has piled up great accumulations through unsocial methods turns naturally to ameliorative philanthropy when his years lengthen. He becomes as intemperate in the making of gifts as he once was in the making of money. He even tries to regain the esteem of his fellow man by inventing and endowing new forms of benevolence.

“Womanlike, however, Mrs. Green, disillusioned as to all other things, pursued her one remaining phantom to the end without faltering and without betraying qualms of conscience,” this odd editorial stated. “Almost every town, even small towns, have women like her. The only difference is that she devoted the same sort of mean sacrifices in a narrowed life to conserving and increasing tens of millions that they may devote to conserving and increasing only thousands.”

A more balanced and thoughtful assessment came two days after her death in an editorial in the New York Times, which noted that Hetty hardly would have come in for the criticism she did had she been a man. “If a man had lived as did Mrs. Hetty Green, devoting the greater part of his time and mind to the increasing of an inherited fortune that even at the start was far larger than is needed for the satisfaction of all such human needs as money can satisfy, nobody would have seen him as very peculiar—as notably out of the common. He would have done what is expected of the average man so circumscribed, and there would have been no difficulty in understanding the joys he obtained from participation in the grim conflicts of the higher finance,” the editorial stated. “It was the fact that Mrs. Green was a woman that made her career the subject of endless curiosity, comment, and astonishment.” The most perceptive assessment may have been this: “Probably her life was happy. At any rate, she had enough of courage to live as she chose and to be as thrifty as she pleased, and she observed such of the world’s conventions as seemed to her right and useful, coldly and calmly ignoring all the others.”

The New York Sun struck a similar theme, praising Hetty for her independence and courage: “If Mrs. Hetty Green was not the richest woman in the world, as popular fancy delighted to regard her, she was one of the most sensible. What common report said of her she disdained to notice. If her frugality was painted as miserliness, well and good; if she was depicted as moving ‘twixt days to escape taxes, she refused to reply; she had her life and dared to live it without compromise or concession. And this is sensible, because no person, rich, poor, miser or spendthrift, can extract comfort, to say nothing of happiness, from the effort to live according to another’s prescription.”

On July 5, two days after her death, Hetty took a ride in luxury that she would not have afforded herself in life. For her long, last journey to Bellows Falls she rode not in a day coach, as was her custom, but in a private railroad car provided by Ned. Ned, Sylvia, and Matthew Wilks accompanied the body on the train, as did Mrs. Herbert Bancroft, an old friend of Hetty’s from Bellows Falls, who had lived for many years in New York. Out of respect for his mother’s feelings, Ned’s wife, Mabel Harlow, did not attend the funeral.

The train bearing Hetty’s body from New York arrived in the late morning, about an hour after schedule. It was loaded onto a horse-drawn carriage for the solemn procession up the hill from the station, within view of the shuttered windows of the Tucker House, to the Immanuel Episcopal Church. About two hundred people attended the service. They included acquaintances from years past and curious onlookers. The rector, Alfred C. Wilson, presided over a traditional Episcopal service. The plain coffin was covered with broadcloth, upon which lay a mantle of white carnations. The choir sang two nineteenth-century hymns, “There Is a Blessed Home” and “I Heard the Sound of Voices.” In the latter hymn, the choir sang:

I saw the holy city The New Jerusalem

Come down from heav’n, a bride adorned

With jeweled diadem;

The Flood of
Crystal waters

Flowed down the golden street;

And nations brought their honors there,

And laid them at her feet.

It was a simple ceremony, as plain and unostentatious as the wooden coffin that contained Hetty’s body. Annie Leary, who was unable to attend due to her own advancing age, sent a spray of lilies and orchids. On the day of the funeral, all trains along the Texas Midland Railroad line stopped for five minutes in tribute, and businesses in Terrell, Texas, ceased operations for an hour. The body was moved outside to the shady spot where Edward was buried. She was laid alongside him; they were together for eternity as they had not always been through years of turbulent marriage. They share a tombstone—a modest-sized obelisk. In death, on the memorial stone, she accepted a subordinate position to Edward that she rejected during her life. There is no mention of her financial prowess or fame. Only this, beneath Edward’s name: “Hetty H. R. Green. His Wife.”

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