Biographies & Memoirs

SEVENTEEN

SCATTERED TO THE WIND

In May 1940, two demolition workers from George W. Donahue and Son, of Rutland, Vermont, climbed to the roof of the Tucker House in Bellows Falls. Stepping carefully along the slope, they tied lines around the southeastern chimney. With the lines secured, they stepped back a few paces and gave the signal to workmen on the ground to start pulling. The chimney did not surrender easily. The house had been built to last. The mortar and bricks were as sound and tight as on the day they were laid 134 years earlier.

Eventually, the chimney ceased its protest. It keeled over, fell in silence for a moment, and crashed with a dull thud. The demolition of the Tucker House had begun. Within a few weeks, every vestige of the Green family’s ancestral home, with its magnificent views of the Connecticut River and Mount Kilburn, was gone. Crews leveled, graded, and paved the property, leaving in place of the house that most prosaic footprint of human development: a parking lot.

The demolition came on the express orders of the property owner: H. Sylvia Ann Howland Robinson Green Wilks, who donated the property to the town. The parking lot was her idea. The symbolism of her choice is inescapable. The woman whose seven-word name paid homage to every branch of her family tree seemed to want nothing more than to eradicate the place where she spent summers dutifully by her mother’s side; the place where her father died. It was as if she believed a layer of steaming asphalt might adequately seal her past away forever.

Round Hill held equally little interest for Sylvia. In 1948, she donated her brother’s grand estate to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which had conducted so many experiments there during the Colonel’s lifetime. MIT used the property for radio experiments. Scientists erected dozens of broadcast towers and antennas and sent signals into deep space. One dish antenna, a relic of those days, sits on a promontory overlooking the ocean, and is a well-known landmark for local boaters. The Institute used the property until 1964, when it became a Jesuit retreat. The property has since been developed and is dotted with private homes. The mansion has been converted into luxury condominiums.

Sylvia spent most of her time in New York City, looking after the fortune that had concentrated in her hands. She spent far less money than her brother had, and she made good, sound business decisions. With her mother, brother, and husband dead, Sylvia lived a quiet and solitary life, shuttling between her New York apartment at 988 Fifth Avenue, and her home in Greenwich. In Connecticut, she studied the birds that flitted about her garden. Human visitors were more rare—they included a few old friends from Bellows Falls. One was Helen Guild, who had befriended Sylvia half a century earlier at the suggestion of her mother, who told her that Sylvia “hasn’t had a happy girlhood.”

As old women, Helen and Sylvia walked along Sylvia’s small stretch of private beach in Greenwich, about a mile from her house, watching waves and picking up shells. They toured Greenwich in Sylvia’s chauffeur-driven Lincoln, stopping for ice cream at a local parlor, or ducking into a dress shop, where Sylvia instructed her friend to choose seven or eight dresses for herself.

Sylvia also remained in touch with Mary Nims Bolles, her old friend from Bellows Falls. Mary visited Sylvia in Greenwich occasionally, and the two exchanged letters and gifts at the holidays. When Mary sent Sylvia some fruit from Florida in 1946, Sylvia replied, “My dear Mary. Many thanks for the oranges & grapefruit—Sorry to hear your eyes are not behaving well. We all have some trouble one way or another.” Sylvia did not, as a rule, send out Christmas cards. But one Christmas, Mary did receive a thin, plain envelope. The envelope, almost overlooked amid the profusion of boxes and presents, contained no card or note, just a check from Sylvia for $500.

Sylvia died in a New York hospital on the evening of February 4, 1951, at the age of eighty. Obituaries noted that Sylvia died without heirs, and that her passing had put an end to the strange and fabulous saga of Hetty Green. And they remarked on Sylvia’s unusual upbringing. “Sylvia was grudgingly permitted to enter New York society in 1897–98 and occasionally visited friends in Newport, but these sorties were timid, reluctant, and accomplished very little beyond the finding of a suitable husband,” the Times noted. The obituary added: “As time wore on, she developed many of the frugal characteristics of her mother in a gentler way. Few friends graced her life, nor did she derive much apparent enjoyment from the wealth at her disposal.”

The Herald Tribune wrote that “Mrs. Wilks, a tall, austere woman, shunned publicity and pursued privacy with almost the intense devotion that fired her famous mother.” The article continued: “Even her estate managers seldom saw her, although she continued to be active in the management of her vast financial affairs, and always made major financial decisions herself.”

The Bellows Falls Times noted somberly: “Despite Mrs. Wilks’ bitterness over the kind of life her mother led and imposed upon her children, she evidently was unable to escape living a life that was much like her mother’s in its dedication to money. Even though she may have hated her mother’s influence, she could not escape it.”

While Ned’s burial had drawn fifteen hundred people to the New Bedford train station, just to observe the procession, Sylvia’s arrangements were as quiet, restrained, and understated as her life. After a small service at a funeral home on Madison Avenue, her body was transported to Bellows Falls to join those of her mother, father, and brother. A small group of New Yorkers joined about fifty local residents standing graveside on a bitter cold day. The New Yorkers included two executives from Chase National Bank, where Sylvia kept more than $31 million in a single cash account; her lawyer; and her chauffeur.

The four Greens—Edward, Hetty, Ned, and Sylvia—lie in the same few square feet of soil next to the church. The children’s names appear on the same obelisk that bears Edward’s and Hetty’s. Ned’s wife and Sylvia’s husband are buried elsewhere.

Sylvia’s will, directing the distribution of around $100 million, was found stashed with four bars of soap in a cabinet in her New York apartment. It named sixty-three individuals and institutions as beneficiaries. There seemed to be little overall plan to the bequests; they were scattered willy-nilly, sometimes to people who pleased her from afar. Sylvia left $10,000 to Robert Moses, New York City parks commissioner, “in appreciation of his work creating public parkways.” Moses had been the mastermind behind the Hutchinson River Parkway, the leafy thoroughfare connecting New York City with her home in Connecticut. The Boston Public Library received a half-million dollars, because one of her father’s cousins had been a trustee there.

She divided $1 million of her estate evenly among ten distant relatives—all, like herself, descendants of Gideon Howland. Most barely knew Sylvia, if at all, and were shocked to learn of their inheritances. Henry A. Loomis, an eighty-five-year-old retiree living in Rochester, New York, was perplexed. “I won’t be able to use much of it. I’m too old,” he told reporters. “I’m going to continue to live simply—and wear old clothes—as I have been doing for the last forty years.”

The lion’s share of Sylvia’s estate was divided into 140 shares, worth more than $600,000 each. These she doled out to some of the nation’s most elite and least needy universities and private schools—Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Groton, and Vassar—despite having little personal connection to any of them. Some of her bequests were personal. She left money to some friends, such as the now-elderly Mary Nims Bolles. She left money for the construction of a new hospital in Bellows Falls, and for the library in New Bedford. It was the same library to which her namesake, Aunt Sylvia, had given money in her own will.

The great fortune that Hetty had spent her lifetime acquiring, saving, and guarding against interlopers real and imagined slipped quietly out of the family’s grasp. Time and death did what no Wall Street shark, meddling trustee, or tax collector could—it dispersed the great fortune among people and institutions who were strangers to Hetty. Hetty, who had set out to win at a man’s game, and played it ferociously, courageously, brilliantly. Perhaps, she had played it a bit too well.

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