Monday, September 5, 2016

The Richest Woman in America: The Life and Times of Hetty Green


Rating: 3 Stars

I went back and forth on this one for a while. At times I felt like 4 stars were deserved, but after taking some time away from the book I really can't give it more than three. That reason stems from the fact that there are factual inaccuracies that I noticed and if there are ones that I noticed, it is usually safe to say there were others I did not know were inaccurate, because I do not have as much knowledge of Hetty as I do of her contemporaries.

The biggest thing that stood out to me was the on page 173. There it was stated that McKinley was in the White House in 1896. But previously in the photo section, the was a picture with the caption stating that she was 26 and on her way to a dinner party at the home of former President McKinley. Yet, Hetty could not have been 26 and McKinley a former president at the same time. Hetty was born in 1834 and died in 1916. McKinley began his term in 1897 and was assassinated in 1901. He never had the chance to be a former president because he was killed while in his second term. It makes me wonder which former president she was actually visiting, and how such an obvious and glaring mistake could have escaped the attention of editors. To some this may not seem like a big deal, but as someone who reads non-fiction almost exclusively, it is huge. I have thought about this a long time, thinking perhaps I am the one who is in error, but I don't think that is the case. And if something so easy to fact-check is wrong, how many other errors are there that are not as obvious and may be accepted as truth?

While the issue above is huge for me, that is not to say this book was awful. One thing the author did very well, that I appreciated, was that it was just as much about the time that Hetty lived, as Hetty herself. I appreciated this because it really set the tone for the story and painted the backdrop of New York in the Gilded Age. I can see how some would not like that as much as I do, especially those looking for a biography solely of Hetty. But to understand her, you have to understand her era and why she was unique and worthy of future generations knowing who she was.

As for Hetty herself, what a character. Her childhood was not one that anyone would want. Her parents did not want her, as she was not the boy they longed for. Her dad was just such a jerk, but again, the mentality fit with the times. Hetty learned early on that the only way she was going to prove her worth was to amass a fortune based on the investing rules set out by her father. Hetty followed those rules exactly and grew her own fortune very quickly. She was very independent and did not follow the rules that everyone else on Wall Street seemed to. When people were panicking and selling, Hetty stayed calm and bought more and more shares. She was intelligent and capable of managing her money, even when her own husband made several bad decisions and investments - using some of the very money that Hetty worked so hard to earn. While they never divorced, Hetty kicked him to the curb for a time, though they remained friends and close in their old age.

Hetty was fiercely independent and did not care one iota about what the newspapers said about her or society, for that matter. She cared about the money she made and ensuring that her children were taken care of after her death. But unfortunately her two children had no heirs of their own and the great fortune (estimated at $2.5 billion today) she worked so hard to amass was divided as her will stipulated.

One of my favorite quotes came at the very end of the book, the last paragraph in fact. It sums up Hetty quite perfectly:

"Hetty Green's money is long gone, and with it, her fame. what remains is her legacy: a woman who stood her ground, who defied the crowd and refused to follow its whims. Making her way in a hostile male world, she was never hesitant to look a man in the eye, never reluctant to say what she thought, never afraid to act as she saw fit" (page 228).

Following the main text of the book was a section called 'The Wisdom of Hetty Green', which includes some of the rules of money-making that she followed, and her general thoughts on investments, deals, etc. I found these interesting and a good addition to the text. Some were scattered throughout the text itself but it was nice to have them all in one place, quotes that could be directly attributed to Hetty.

The Gilded Age and New York are endlessly fascinating to me. It was refreshing to read about Green, when I have read so much already about the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, Morgans and so on. My concern of course is the accuracy of the facts presented, given the glaring inaccuracy about McKinley. However, she is a worthy subject and I will be looking for more information about her. Give this one a try, but be cautious.

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