“It is the duty of every woman, I believe, to learn to take care of her own business affairs.” – Hetty Green
The “Queen of Wall Street.” The first female tycoon. The Wizard of Finance. The richest woman in America. The richest woman in the world. And, due to her austere and never-changing black dress—perhaps due to being a Quaker—the Witch of Wall Street. This was Henrietta (“Hetty”) Green (1834-1916).
It would be a great story if Hetty Green started with nothing and died quite likely the richest woman in the world, with a fortune of $2.3 billion to $4.6 billion in today’s money, but she had a major head start. Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, she was lucky that her father owned a whaling firm and also profited from trade with China. Because her mother was often ill and her father away on business, she lived with her grandfather and aunt from the time she was two years old. She inherited fortunes from both of them and later from her father.
By the time she was six, she read all things financial out loud to her grandfather, whose eyesight was failing. According to Wikipedia and other sources, she became the family bookkeeper at 13, and “accompanied her father to the counting houses, storerooms, commodities traders and stockbrokers. In the evening, she read him the news.” This was indeed a prodigy in money.
Green multiplied her inheritances substantially. She invested in railroads, real estate, and mines, and also was a mortgage banker, lending not only to business but also at times to New York City. She was a contrarian in the mold of Baron von Rothschild and today’s Warren Buffett, explaining “I buy when things are low and nobody wants them. I keep them until they go up and people are crazy to get them. That is, I believe, the secret of all successful business.”
She was notoriously stingy, perhaps because of her Quaker background of thrift and saving. She tried to have her son treated for his leg at a free clinic, and when refused, went to other doctors, but in the process his leg did not heal, and it had eventually to be amputated (they apparently remained close and she spent her last months living with him). On a far less serious note, she developed a hernia in her later years but used a stick against it rather than have surgery. (Yikes.). She preferred cold water and was said to do all sorts of miserly things, but it is possible that the more extreme tales—searching all night in a carriage for a two-cent stamp, for example—were told in the way people today tell stories about celebrities. Nevertheless, not for nothing did the Guinness Book of World Records peg her the “world’s greatest miser.”
A favorite poem of hers included, “To live content with small means…” Accordingly, she did not have a large house or hang out with the rich. In fact, she was a quiet philanthropist, donating regularly and generously, again likely due to her Quaker upbringing. This trait passed on to her daughter, who though unlike her mother enjoyed her money, still donated 99.69% of her own $200 million (in 1951 dollars) estate to colleges, churches, and hospitals – all but $1.38 million.
Everyone should follow Hetty Green’s advice to women: “It is the duty of every woman, I believe, to learn to take care of her own business affairs,” and “A girl should be brought up as to be able to make her own living…Whether rich or poor, a young woman should know how a bank account works, understand the composition of mortgages and bonds, and know the value of interest and how it accumulates.” (emphasis added)
These are not hard concepts, yet many parents—let alone their children—don’t know them. This can mean dependence on others, who may not have our best interests at heart. A saying in Green’s time was, “I’m not Hetty if I do look green,” which at the time meant “I’m not rich but I’m also not naïve.” Spot on.