Biographies & Memoirs

SIXTEEN

HIGH TIMES AT ROUND HILL

Because of the ever-shifting market value of real estate and securities, putting a precise dollar value on Hetty’s total estate was difficult or impossible. Hetty further complicated the guesswork by including no inventory in her will and specifically declaring that the trustees (Ned and Sylvia) not be required to file an inventory or appraisal in order to divide the spoils. The most conservative estimates put her net worth at $100 million, the highest at $200 million. According to an estimate cited by William Emery, the Howland family’s genealogist, Hetty’s holdings of New York City real estate mortgages were worth $30–$45 million; industrial and mining securities, $4o-$6o million; railroad and bank securities, $15–$25 million; farming tracts, oil properties, and other real estate in the Southwest, $10 million; and assorted other real estate in Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, and other cities, $10 million.

The will was admitted to probate, without contest, in Bellows Falls on July 22. Hetty, who had spent her life avoiding classifying herself as a resident of any city, town, or state, in death designated herself a resident of Vermont. There was more than sentimentality toward Bellows Falls in her decision—the state levied only paltry inheritance taxes. The will was dry, unsentimental, concise, and tight. Hetty bequeathed a total of $25,000 to people other than her children. There was $5,000 to Mrs. Herbert Bancroft of Bellows Falls, $10,000 to Amory Lawrence of Boston, who had served as a trustee of Aunt Sylvias estate (and was one of the few trustees of any sort for whom Hetty felt affection); and $5,000 to Ruth Lawrence, a New York friend. The most interesting of these bequests was $5,000 put aside for Matthew Astor Wilks, Hetty’s son-in-law, in thanks for his having signed the prenuptial agreement. Hetty left nothing to charity, a fact that newspapers were quick to point out.

Everything else that Hetty owned went evenly to Ned and Sylvia. She gave the remainder of her father’s estate to Ned and, as a compensation to Sylvia, set up a ten-year trust using railroad and mortgage bonds worth a total of $4.2 million. No valuation was given for Edward Mott Robinson’s estate, but if Sylvia’s compensatory trust fund is any indication, the trust of Hetty’s father had barely increased in value in all those years. Hetty’s own money, meanwhile, had exploded in a literal embarrassment of riches. All of her remaining fortune was to be divided equally between Sylvia and Ned, and Ned served as sole executor of the estate.

Within days of Hetty’s death, New York and New Jersey both announced they would fight to have her declared a legal resident, entitling them to inheritance taxes that New York’s comptroller estimated at up to $5 million. But Hetty hadn’t been playing residential cat-and-mouse all those years for nothing. Lawyers for both states quickly learned the difficulty of proving that the elusive Hetty had lived anywhere, except as a transient.

As the battle wound through one courtroom after another, New Jersey flinched first, dropping its claim in March 1917. The state received as consolation around $60,000 in transfer taxes on securities Hetty held in New Jersey companies. New York, stirred by the prospect of perhaps the biggest inheritance tax windfall in state history, fought on. After three years of legal wrangling, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1919, the court sided with Hetty’s estate in declaring her a resident of Vermont, the state which, ironically, had shown the least interest in claiming her. The reason for the indifference became clear when the estate in February of 1920 doled out Vermont’s cut of just under $58,000, per the state’s lenient tax code. Defeated in the residence battle, New York turned next to Hetty’s business dealings. In May 1920, an appellate court awarded the state $1.5 million in transfer taxes, based on an estimated $38 million in investments she controlled there. In the absence of federal inheritance taxes, the estate paid out a little over $1.6 million to the three states (or, less than 2 percent of the estate), ensuring that the vast fortune Hetty had protected so jealously would pass to her children virtually intact.

With Hetty’s death, one other matter was to be cleared up at long, long last—disposition of Aunt Sylvia’s trust fund. Now the descendants of Gideon Howland would receive their share of the fortune. The original would-be recipients had, of course, long since died, and their descendants were scattered across the map. Instead of the several dozen relatives, mainly concentrated in southeastern Massachusetts, there were now 439 descendants in line to receive a share of a pie that had scarcely increased in value in the fifty-one years since Aunt Sylvia’s death. Descendants lived in Paoli, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York; in El Paso, Texas, and Paris, France; in Englewood, New Jersey, and Saginaw, Michigan; Richmond, Virginia, and Jet, Oklahoma. As the appointed genealogists set about to determine the rightful heirs, anticipation built among both legitimate recipients and schemers. Letters arrived from around the world from people claiming Howland blood. Some people, misinterpreting the source of the money, wrote to the trustees claiming relationship with the Green family of Bellows Falls. A woman from Chile sent a picture of herself, claiming her face showed the stern lines of the Yankee Howlands, and she must therefore be related. A memorial monument designer wrote in hopes of getting a contract to design a magnificent stone memorial for the deceased, unaware that Aunt Sylvia had been dead and buried for more than half a century.

As it turned out, the hubbub was over an amount of money that, once divided, was in most cases modest even by the standards of the day. The estate was valued at $1,030,040.55, and each recipient received a portion carefully calculated according to his or her proximity on the family tree to old Gideon Howland. Newspapers reported that H. A. Merrill of Michigan, “a cobbler in a dingy, dirty backroom shoe repair shop,” was to receive $100,000 from the will. Unfortunately for Mr. Merrill, the reports exaggerated his take. There was, indeed, a Horace A. Merrill of Michigan listed among the recipients. But he would get only 1/1440th of the estate, or $715. Maria E. Strobeck, of Worcester, New York, received a 1/8640th share, or $120. Ned and Sylvia received a 1/90th share each, or around $11,500 apiece, which they most certainly did not need. At last, the great debate and fight over the estate of Aunt Sylvia could be put to rest. The largest shares, 1/45th, went to a half dozen Howland descendants and amounted to just under $23,000 each.

The matter of Aunt Sylvias fortune livened up the Boston Transcript’s normally staid genealogy column. One letter writer, identified only by the initials J. E. W. B., said: “If it could be supposed that Mrs. Green had a sensitive soul it must have wrung her heartstrings to think that she was the only person in the world every year of whose prolonged life added to the natural hatred and envy of a constantly increasing number of people.” But, of course, that had been the very nature of Aunt Sylvia’s gentle revenge.

Ned was always respectful toward his mother after her death. He did what he could to protect her reputation, praising her in interviews with reporters as a financial genius, and expressing gratitude for the things she had taught him. Yet almost from the moment of her death, he embarked on a spree of spending that seemed calculated to repudiate everything Hetty Green had held sacred regarding thrift and saving. If Hetty had tried to save her way to happiness, Ned would test the opposite course.

On July 10, 1917, a year and a week after his mother’s death, Ned stepped out of the Blackstone Hotel, his favorite stopping point in Chicago, and journeyed by hired car to Highland Park, a suburb a few miles from downtown. There he exchanged wedding vows with Mabel Harlow, his housekeeper of twenty-four years, the former prostitute who had introduced him to sex when he was in his early twenties. In their wedding photo, they look like a prim, proper couple, well beyond their prime. Mabel is wearing a dress that appears to be white, and holding a large bouquet. Ned, just shy of forty-nine, wears a long black jacket, high starched collar, and bow tie, with a flower stuck in his lapel.

The wedding—a conventional consummation of a highly unconventional relationship—seems to have been an act of genuine devotion for both parties. Ned, who never concealed the relationship, showed that he didn’t fear social condemnation. And Mabel finally earned the recognition and right to call herself “Mrs. E. H. Green.”

As a wedding gift, Ned presented Mabel a trust fund for $625,000. That was her reward for cooperating on another matter—her signature on a prenuptial agreement giving up any further claim on the family fortune.

The newlyweds celebrated their union with an extended cruise aboard Ned’s newly purchased yacht, United States, a former Great Lakes steamship that was the first great indicator of the life Ned was to enjoy after his mother’s death. At 255 feet in length, and with renovations totaling more than $1 million, the United States, with its crew of sixty-one, was widely regarded as the largest private yacht in the world. Stripped of its utilitarian furnishings for transporting freight and passengers, and reincarnated for pure luxury, the yacht contained no fewer than forty-eight staterooms, including nine master chambers, each with its own bathroom. Ned’s stateroom was decorated in Georgian style with walnut furnishings, gold-colored drapes, and silver fixtures. Mabel’s stateroom was outfitted in the style of Marie Antoinette, with light gray walls, gold fittings, and three full-length mirrors. The library was paneled in rich oak, waxed to a shine, and filled with maroon leather furniture. A living room on the main deck was furnished from the Jacobean period, with a large stone fireplace, a Welte Philharmonic self-playing organ, and a piano. The carpeted floor displayed a lion skin rug.

Ned and Mabel sailed from New York, down the Atlantic coast and around to the Gulf, stopping at ports along the way and making a stir wherever they landed. In Charleston, reporters tried in vain for interviews. In Galveston, the Greens picked up friends from Texas and Chicago and spent a week fishing and cruising. Ned and Mabel had used the United States for barely two years when it met its doom in perhaps the least violent shipwreck in history. Anchored in the tranquil waters of Padanaram Harbor, near Round Hill, the old Howland estate at South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the ship swung slowly around and struck a rock. The hull filled with water slowly enough to allow passengers to leave the sinking ship unharmed. Most of the furnishings were saved, but the ship was lost, lying like a dying whale on its side in sixteen feet of water. The wreck of the United States barely registered on Ned’s balance sheets. Already his restless imagination was leading him to other pursuits.

Ned had spent little time in New Bedford and South Dartmouth before he was in his fifties. And Sylvia had never shown much interest in family history, either, but now Ned decided to return to Round Hill, the old family estate. He had no desire to occupy the historic but by now dilapidated farmhouse. Instead, he set about planning and building an immense mansion and estate, costing $1.5 million, set on the 110 acres he’d inherited from his mother. Sylvia, who by rights owned half of the estate, did not object, but showed about as much interest in developing Round Hill as she did in her own family history. Ned acquired an additional 140 acres in the area, giving him 250 acres to play with.

The house, completed in 1921, was an enormous limestone-and-marble palace, three stories high, with sixty rooms. Just to the left of the tiled entranceway was an elevator, and in the center a large, curved hallway. Ned filled the house with the fruits of a breathtaking collecting spree. He collected with abandon, with unrestrained zeal, as if he were trying to buy his way to happiness. He bought shelf after shelf of books from Good-speed’s Book Shop in Boston. That fortunate seller routinely alerted Ned to rare and valuable volumes available. Ned was an avid buyer but not indiscriminate—the surviving correspondence between Ned and Goodspeed’s shows him buying heavily in books on the history of New Bedford, whaling, and New England, returning books when Goodspeed sent him an incorrect volume. He paid $110 for a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language; $962.50 for a 151-volume, blue-cloth-bound set published by the Hackluyt Society, devoted to maritime exploration, covering 1847–1923; and he paid $1,000 for a volume on Sir Francis Drake, published in 1626.

He collected jewelry by the bin, more than Mabel could have worn in a thousand lifetimes. A surviving appraisal of his jewelry purchases covers dozens of ledger-sized pages. There was a double bracelet with a half-moon diamond, for which he paid $18,000; a 6.86-karat ring for $28,000; a solitaire pendant purchased for $15,200; a diamond necklace and brooch for $2,700; and the list goes on and on. He collected rare stamps and coins by the thousand. To this day, Ned remains something of a legend among stamp collectors for purchasing the original 100-stamp sheet of perhaps the most famous and rare misprint ever, the 1918 upside-down biplane known as the “Inverted Jenny.” They are worth about $150,000 per stamp today. Ned broke off most of the sheet individually and sold them to friends, but he had one placed in a locket for Mabel. Coin collectors know him for owning all five 1913 Liberty “V-Nickels.”

But his interests didn’t end there. He owned a large collection of erotic pictures, many of them on glass negatives, and the enormous dried penis of a whale, which he displayed prominently at the entrance to the mansion, where it loomed over guests who, to Ned’s delight, had no idea what it was. A statue of a naked female stood in the foyer, clutching a fishing pole whose line dangled into the cavity of a gold spittoon.

Despite all of his spending, Ned did not, as is sometimes suggested, blow through his mother’s fortune. In fact, he proved to be a fairly able custodian of the principal that she left to him and to Sylvia. He did not double, triple, or quadruple the money, as his mother would no doubt have done. It was perhaps among his graces that he realized enough was enough. He lacked Hetty’s burning drive to acquire money, and was instead interested in finding ever more creative ways to spend it. But he was careful not to squander the principal. The several million dollars he received in annual interest was more than enough income to cover even his most expensive hobbies and interests. Wilbur Potter, in the offices at 111 Broadway, continued to handle investments for Hetty’s estate, but he cleared purchases of securities through Ned.

Correspondence between Ned and his New York brokers, R. L. Day and Company, reveals him to be an active investor. He stayed true to his mother’s formula of maintaining conservative investments and copious reserves of cash, and was able to navigate the Great Depression more or less unscathed. During the Depression he bought stock, in keeping with Hetty’s dictum to buy when everyone else is selling. R. L. Day sent him detailed reports on blue-chip companies such as Otis Elevator and AT&T. On a single day in June of 1930, eight months after the stock market crash, Ned spent more than $250,000 for 295 shares of AT&T, 500 shares of Chase National Bank, and 1,400 shares of Southern Pacific, the company once owned by his mother’s mortal enemy, Collis P. Huntington. In 1928, Ned had sold his beloved Texas Midland Railroad to Southern Pacific. His financial timing was impeccable, a trait that was clearly passed on to him from his mother and grandfather, Edward Mott Robinson. Shortly after the sale, Walter P. Allen, his old banker from Terrell, wrote to tell him that new, hard-surfaced roads were sprouting all over the state, carrying an influx of trucks and passenger buses along the same route as rail tracks. “I think you sold the Midland just in time,” Allen wrote. The union of the Midland and the Southern Pacific added a final coda to the long feud between Hetty and Huntington.

Ned also continued to use the Round Hill property to explore a spectacular array of interests, sometimes to the chagrin of neighbors. He had a keen eye for emerging technologies and developments. In 1923, he took out a license to operate a radio station on the property. He lavished money on the enterprise, turning it into one of the most technologically advanced stations in the country. Just to the right of the mansion, he built a studio with a fully equipped music room. The station generated a signal strong enough to be picked up by radio operators in England. For the benefit of the many people who did not have radio in those days, Ned had radio features broadcast by amplifiers around the property, and invited the public to come listen. They arrived in droves. As many as 15,000 people turned out on September 14, 1923, to hear an announcer describe boxer Jack Dempsey’s pummeling of Luis Firpo. Cars jamming Smith Neck Road at the entrance to the estate created what historian Elliott Burris Knowlton called “one of the greatest traffic jams in South Dartmouth history.”

Like Jay Gatsby, Ned loved to throw open his gates to the public. They flocked to his beach in the summertime. Knowlton quoted a grounds superintendent describing the typical scene: “The noise was awful, between blast of music from WMAF, Klaxons honking, kids screaming, and hawkers selling hot dogs, balloons and Bon Ami. They used the Bon Ami to sprinkle on car windows so that they couldn’t be seen when they got undressed to get into their bathing suits.”

With his combination of inquisitive mind and unlimited resources, Ned threw money at everything that interested him. In 1929, he paid $8,400 for a custom-made Rauch and Lang Electric Brougham, which he ordered through a Boston car dealer. The car had an extra-tall passenger compartment—it stood a full six inches higher than Ned’s head, with tall doors that made it easy for him to get in and out without stooping. He rode about the estate in this car, greeting visitors and checking on various operations. But his fascination with cars was already giving way to a new passion: aviation. Though not a pilot himself, he built a large airstrip and hangar near the beach. He set up a training school for pilots and for years operated one of the most modern and well-equipped airports on the East Coast. It was among the first airports with lit runways for night landings. Round Hill attracted visits from aviation luminaries ranging from Charles Lindbergh to the original Goodyear blimp. He built a hangar capable of sheltering the blimp and several airplanes at once.

Ned built large greenhouses to provide his mansion with fresh flowers and exotic plants. He invited scientists to the estate and funded experiments in aviation, radio, and early television. Engineers used WMAF’s powerful transmitters to communicate with Admiral Richard E. Byrd during his Antarctic expedition of 1928–30. From 1925 until Ned’s death eleven years later, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lived and worked at Round Hill. In the early 1930s, MIT professor Robert J. Van de Graf built a prototype “atom smasher” at Round Hill. The device couldn’t, as it turned out, split the atom, but it did generate prodigious electricity. On November 27, 1933, a large crowd gathered to watch as the machine generated 7 million volts of electricity. “No Fourth of July fireworks exhibit ever approached this in spectacular, indescribable splendor,” the New Bedford Standard-Times gushed the next day*

When Ned learned that the famous whaling ship Charles W Morgan was falling into disrepair, he bought it, restored it, and put it on display at Round Hill. Launched in 1841, the Morgan had been owned by his great-grandfather, Isaac Howland Jr., proprietor of the whaling company. During its storied, eighty-year career, the Morgan had completed thirty-seven voyages. Ned opened the ship to tens of thousands of tourists each year. Five years after Ned’s death, in 1941, the Morgan would be towed to Mystic, Connecticut, where it remains a featured attraction of the Mystic Seaport Museum.

The great Round Hill circus, with its endless cacophony of sound and light, airplane motors, atom smashers, screaming bathers, floodlit runways, music, the thwack of boxing gloves amplified by a dozen loudspeakers and made audible for miles around, was all too much for the wealthy owners of nearby summer estates. They had come for the peace and quiet of shore summers, for sanctuary from the heat and noise of Boston and New York. And, it must be said, they were accustomed to seeing local residents mainly when they arrived to trim the hedges, paint the portico, or deliver groceries—not as hot dog-eating, Bon Ami-sprinkling fun-seekers frolicking in the sun. Weren’t there public beaches for them … elsewhere? Owners of nearby summer homes complained at public hearings and signed petitions trying to enforce some quiet at Round Hill.

The Colonel made a few token concessions—airplanes would fly no lower than 1,000 feet over neighboring houses—but mainly the complaints delighted him. He never cared much for stuffed shirts, anyway. “It’s just another sport—complaining about me,” the American Magazine quoted him as saying in 1933. “In the morning they swim, in the afternoon they play golf, and at night they talk about Colonel Green.”

For a warm-weather retreat, the Colonel built a fabulous, $600,000 estate at Star Island, in Biscayne Bay near Miami Beach. He had first come to Florida on the advice of a physician. He lived in hotels and, later, on a magnificent houseboat docked next to his property, until the house was completed in 1927. That part of Miami was attracting more and more conspicuously wealthy people, some of them notorious. Just across the water from the Colonel sat the compound of gangster Al Capone. The Colonel and Mabel became familiar figures in Miami, throwing lavish parties and motoring around town in a chauffeur-driven car. They spent about four months of each year there, but the Colonel never established residency in Florida. He followed his mother’s example of moving about frequently, as a way of thwarting tax collectors. He never established residency in Massachusetts, or in New York, where he frequently stayed When pressed, he continued to claim Texas as his legal home, though all he kept there was a rented room containing a pair of pants and a vest. It was enough to maintain his voting rights in Texas. At Star Island, the Colonel maintained his habit of inviting the public onto his property. His Easter celebration became an annual event, to which hundreds of local children came to hunt eggs hidden all over the property. The Colonel personally supervised the hiding of the eggs by his staff. He handed out baskets to the children, gave them the signal to start, and laughed in delight as they tore over the property in their search. Ned shrugged off the inevitable complaints from neighbors, just as he did at Round Hill.

The Colonel’s acts of philanthropy were never terribly focused or sustained. He liked to quote his mother’s adage that paying people to work was more honorable and better for the recipient than simply giving money away. His endless projects at both Round Hill and Star Island provided hundreds of jobs throughout the Depression and pumped millions of dollars into local economies that needed them. Despite Hetty’s dictum, the Colonel did give money away, but it was sporadic and spontaneous. In 1932, he donated $5,000 for a children’s ward at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami; when he learned that a trip to New York for the Miami Boys Drum and Bugle Corps had been canceled when the Junior Chamber of Commerce ran short of funds, Ned wrote out a check for $3,000 to cover it. In 1926, he chipped in $2,000 to the New Bedford Community Fund. He also enjoyed playing the white knight when banks ran into trouble. In 1921, he stopped a run on the Security National Bank in Dallas by depositing $100,000. A few months later he saved the First National Bank of Terrell in more dramatic fashion, placing $250,000 in cash on a table in the middle of the lobby and paying depositors until the panic subsided.

The largest single act of philanthropy by the Colonel was also one of the more intriguing. Over the years, Ned and Mabel informally adopted a series of young women, mostly the daughters of acquaintances, who cruised with them on their boats and, later, stayed with them at Round Hill. The women came to be known as the Colonel’s “wards.” Among the many things Ned did for these women was to pay for several of them to enroll at Wellesley College outside of Boston. Given the unconventional and unorthodox atmosphere that prevailed wherever the Colonel went, there were inevitable stories of sexual relations between Ned and the girls. But these rumors were never substantiated, and the girls themselves insisted Ned’s behavior toward them was proper and avuncular. Indeed, Ned was already suffering from mounting health problems, and in 1921 had undergone an unsuccessful operation to reverse impotence. It is difficult to imagine him taking advantage of the situation even if he had wanted to. Ruth Lawrence Briggs, who graduated from Wellesley in 1925 (she was the only one of the wards to actually graduate), wrote an article for the college alumni magazine in 1988, when she was eighty-five years old. “I guess Uncle Ned took a fancy to me,” she wrote. “I don’t mean in any wrong way.” Uncle Ned bought Ruth a horse, and a car. And when Briggs was married, Mabel bought rugs for her house. Briggs’s portrait of Ned and Mabel is of a doting, older couple who, childless themselves, enjoyed having young people around.

Because of this connection with Wellesley, Ned in 1923 talked his sister into joining him in a $500,000 donation to the college. They agreed to give $50,000 each per year for five years, toward the construction of an administration building. The building, with a tower rising 185 feet high from Norumbega Hill, was constructed of brick and Indiana limestone; it was and remains the most prominent building on campus. It also bears the distinction of being the only edifice or monument to Hetty Green. It is called Hetty H. R. Green Hall.

For all of their vast differences in personality and temperament, Ned and Sylvia cared for one another. Letters between these two wealthy, childless siblings are playful and affectionate, passing along trivial details of daily life. Ned signed letters to his sister “Your affectionate brother,” or “Your loving brother.” He addresses Sylvia, whose first given name was Hetty, as “Hetty B.”

The day after Christmas 1927, Sylvia wrote: “Many thanks for the electric clock you so kindly sent to Greenwich. I have put it in the library under George Washington’s picture. It is with good company.” In 1935, he sent her another gift, a case of three dagger rum, “which I think is about the finest on the market. I have found this rum to be an excellent sleep producer, and this is how you fix it up: Put some cracked ice in a glass; then squeeze in half a lime; then put in a little over an ounce of rum and gradually increase it until you have two ounces in; then add a little sugar and drink it just before going to bed.”

Sylvia owned a dog named Prince. Ned had two, Stella and Beauty. In the summer of 1928, Sylvia sent a dog bed for Stella. Ned wrote back to “Dear Auntie” from “Your affectionate niece,” as though Stella was Ned and Mabel’s child, writing a thank-you note to her Aunt Sylvia. This conceit amused Ned; he used it on several occasions. Once, he sent a Western Union telegram to Prince, Sylvia’s dog. It read: “Wishing your mother and you many happy returns of the day.—Stella and Beauty.” It is impossible to miss the pathos between the lines, of the aging brother and sister, both childless, exchanging gifts and notes for their dogs instead of their children, writing in the voices of their pets, the closest either of them ever came to producing heirs.

Sylvia, a widow since the death of her husband in 1926, shared her mother’s contempt for Mabel. Ned and Mabel tried their best to thaw Sylvia’s feelings toward her sister-in-law. Ned refers casually to “Aunt Mabel” in some of the letters, and sends love from both of them. But Sylvia wasn’t buying any of it. To Sylvia, she would always be “Mabel Harlot,” the interloper after the family fortune, as she had been to Hetty. In 1930, when Ned fell ill at Round Hill, Mabel sent a seventy-two-word telegram to Sylvia: “Connection over the phone was so bad could not talk to you as I wanted to. While Ned is getting along fairly well, I would like you to come down and see for yourself. Dr. Pascal advises blood transfusion, will probably be Thursday. You could understand things much better if you were here. I could meet you at Providence if you will advise me time of arrival there. Love from us both. Mabel.” Sylvia responded with the chilly, aloof politeness of someone turning down a dinner invitation from a social inferior: “Regret cannot make a trip at present. All best wishes. Sylvia Wilks.”

Mabel’s note to Dr. Henry S. Pascal, Ned’s New York doctor, and the reference to the blood transfusion in a letter to Sylvia, reveals Ned’s state of health. Because he was so tall and heavy, weighing between 250 and 300 pounds for most of his adult life, his good right leg took a tremendous amount of wear and tear. By his fifties, Ned was suffering from advanced arthritis, which made getting around on his own difficult. He frequently traveled in a wheelchair as the condition worsened. He took copious amounts of Bromo-Seltzer for his stomach, which caused, according to Dr. Pascal, acetanilide poisoning. He suffered from anemia and heart disease. For several years he included stops in Lake Placid, New York, on his regular circuit between Miami and Round Hill, seeking rest and treatment at the Lake Placid Club. He was there in June 8, 1936, when he died. He was sixty-seven years old. The coroner listed the cause of death as myocardial failure.

The Colonel was transported back to New Bedford, where a procession of local dignitaries followed him out to Round Hill for the funeral services. But Ned was not to be buried at his beloved Round Hill. Shortly after the funeral, Ned, the lover of trains, took his final ride up into the hills of Vermont. Although he had little personal connection with Bellows Falls, he was taken up to join his mother and father in the cemetery of the Episcopal church.

For the Greens, money and litigation always went hand in hand, and Ned’s death prompted two spectacular court cases. In the first, Mabel tried to invalidate the prenuptial agreement she had signed forswearing any claim on the fortune. She tried to prove that the Colonel had been predominantly a resident of Texas, which had one of the nation’s strongest community property laws. She wanted half of Ned’s estate. But Ned had signed his will in 1908, when his mother was still alive. He left everything to Hetty and, should Hetty be dead, to his sister. The fact that he had not felt compelled to update it during the remaining twenty-eight years of his life speaks to the closed circle that the family fortune had become. The fortune must stay in the immediate family. He would not violate that trust. Mabel hired a prominent Philadelphia law firm to handle her case. But she was outgunned by an opponent—Sylvia—who had more money, more lawyers, and who had spent much of her formative life in courtrooms observing her mother in action. For Sylvia, the idea of sharing the fortune with Mabel was untenable. She felt, as keenly as her brother, the importance of keeping the money within the nuclear family, even if that number had now dwindled down to one lonely widow of sixty-five. She was prepared to do whatever she had to do, even if it meant calling up private details from her brother’s life.

Sylvia’s lawyers traveled to Texas to dig up dirt on Mabel, which, by implication, involved digging up dirt on Ned. They paid a call on a man named Dan Quill, the son of Ned’s early secretary at the Texas Midland. The elder Quill had written an unpublished memoir allegedly detailing wild times in Terrell in Ned’s early days there. On September 30, 1936, Dan Quill wrote a letter to Mabel in Port Henry, New York, where she was staying. Quill promised Mabel that he had not shown the memoir to the lawyers, but he had contacted New York agents about the possibility of publishing it. He would, of course, withhold publication should he find some other means by which to take care of his aging mother. “I wish to sincerely state there is no disposition on the part of the Quill family to in any way injure your cause of action in the Courts, and you have our assurance that nothing will be done in this matter until advice is received from you.” It is not known how Mabel responded to this unctuous letter, or if she responded at all. In any case, Sylvia hardly needed Mr. Quill’s memoirs to prevail. Ned’s will was sound, as was the prenuptial agreement Mabel had signed. In the end, more than a year of litigation resulted in a settlement in which Sylvia, gritting her teeth, agreed to pay Mabel a nuisance settlement of $500,000 to get rid of her. Mabel went off to live on Long Island, not so wealthy as she hoped but wealthy enough to live out her once riotous life in comfort.

The second court case developed as a battle among four states—New York, Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts—over estate taxes. Each of the four states sought to have Ned declared a legal resident. In the end, although he had never voted in Massachusetts and had avoided paying state income taxes by claiming to be a resident of Texas, the courts found him to be a resident of Massachusetts. For its efforts, the state received some $5 million in taxes, the largest single estate payoff it had ever received.

So now Sylvia, having rid herself of the annoyances of greedy widows and bureaucrats, gathered the fortune into her arms. Within a few weeks of Edward’s death, Mabel had been evicted from Round Hill, and the house was largely empty. Through her attorneys, Sylvia announced that she would no longer pay to heat Ned’s beloved greenhouses through the winter, and directed that the plants be sold off. Curious residents, accustomed to liberal access to the property, now found the entrance padlocked and guarded by a hired policeman. In South Dartmouth, it did not take residents long to realize that the Colonel’s fabulous party was over; the era of Sylvia clamped down like a January frost.

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