Faces From The Past—VI

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Almost every day the strange figure, swathed in ancient black, might be seen walking down the street toward the Chemical National Bank. There she went directly to the vault, pulled out the trunks and bags that were stored for her under a staircase, and sat cross-legged on the floor rummaging through the masses of papers and documents that represented her fortune of more than fifty million dollars.

Her hands and face became smudged with dirt while she clipped coupons from a great pile of bonds and put them into a basket at her side. This work was too important to be interrupted by lunch; when she was hungry she reached into a pocket of the black dress and drew out an unwrapped ham sandwich. Beneath the folds of that garment she wore a petticoat in which were sewn a number of deep pockets, each big enough to hold the contents of a safe-deposit box (one day she arrived at the bank carrying $200,000 in negotiable bonds); beneath the petticoat, on a cold winter’s day, were newspapers that she had fashioned (after reading) into extra underclothes. Around her waist was a chain from which hung keys to safe-deposit boxes all over the country; in New York City alone, in addition to the space so generously allotted her at the Chemical National, she had eleven boxes at the Safety Deposit Company.

In the early 1990’s America had an unusually colorful grade of millionaire, but Hetty Green—the Witch of Wall Street—had more eccentricities than most. During those years when Vanderbilts, Belmonts, Goulds, Astors, and others were building lavish palaces, putting their riches on display, Hetty Green was living under a variety of assumed names in a series of cheap boardinghouses in order to save money and escape the tax assessor. One fall she took a room in Far Rockaway; it was several hours from the city by ferry and train, and she had to wear fishermen’s boots for the walk to the station through the sand, but since it was out of season the rent was only five dollars a week. Sometimes she had a room in the Bowery, or a third-floor-rear hall bedroom in Brooklyn, or a walk-up in Harlem (there was no icebox and her meat spoiled—a loss she complained about for years). Often she spent only one night at a place, arriving with so little luggage that landladies asked her to pay in advance. She was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, under the name of Dewey (her dog’s name) when officials discovered who she was and learned that the dog was unlicensed. When they tried to collect the two-dollar fee she moved to a friend’s apartment in New York.

Once she boarded a streetcar and gave the conductor half a dollar. He looked at the coin and handed it back; it was counterfeit. She had no more money in her pocketbook, but a postman who was on the car recognized her and vouched for her credit. A few days later she appeared at the trolley company office, put a nickel on the counter, and held her finger on it until she was given a receipt. This happened at the same time that she was loaning the City of New York $4,500,000.

Hetty Robinson began accumulating money in 1865, when she inherited from her father about a million dollars outright and a life interest in five million more. Two weeks later her aunt died and left her a life interest in a residuary estate of nearly a million dollars (Hetty tried to break the will, claiming she should have her aunt’s entire fortune). In 1867 she married Edward Green, who was himself worth over a million dollars, and by 1885 her capital had grown to $26,000,000, largely as a result of his skillful management. But that year he committed the unpardonable sin: he lost all his own money speculating, and she had to cover some of his debts. Eighteen years of marriage were no compensation; she was through with Edward Green, whose worldly possessions just then consisted of seven dollars and a watch. “My husband is of no use to me at all,” she said. “I wish I did not have him. He is a burden to me.” From that day on they lived apart, and she managed her own money. It is hard to see how anyone could have done better.

She loved a good panic. “I believe in getting in at the bottom and out at the top,” she observed. She also loved six per cent interest and her two children, in that order.

When Hetty Green’s son, Ned, was fourteen he dislocated his kneecap in a sledding accident, and rather than spend any money on a doctor his mother looked after the boy herself. Two years later he was still suffering severe pain, so she took him to a New York physician—they appeared at his office disguised as beggars. After several treatments the doctor discovered that she was Hetty Green and asked to be paid. She never went back. And three years later Ned Green’s leg had to be amputated. Yet in her way she did all she could for him. To give him a start in business she sent him to Chicago to oversee her real-estate holdings there. Each month the young man relayed to his mother $40,000 in rents, and in return she paid him an allowance of $3 a day (she started him at $6 but cut it back when she learned he was spending some on himself). Later she bought him a Texas railroad, and now and again sent him an unsigned telegram telling him what to do. Young Green always knew the source: they came collect.

When Hetty Green died in 1916 at the age of eighty-one, she left her son and daughter an estate worth over one hundred million dollars. She also left a reputation about which she knew she could do nothing. “I do not blink facts,” she had said; ”… my life is written for me down in Wall Street by people who, I assume, do not care to know one iota of the real Hetty Green. I am in earnest; therefore they picture me heartless. I go my own way, take no partners, risk nobody else’s fortune, therefore I am Madame lshmael, set against every man.”

—Richard M. Ketchum