The Richest Woman in America.
NEW YORK TIMES
The public is not very well acquainted with Hetty Green, who may appropriately be called the Rockefeller of her sex. She is now seventy years of age, and has during her life amassed a mighty fortune, which is invested in all sorts of industries, and in all parts of the world. The following article throws some interesting light on this remarkable woman.
HETTY HOWLAND ROBIN SON GREEN, without question the wealthiest woman in the
United States, of whom more has been written and less is known than probably of any living woman of equal prominence, whose income is roundly measured at several dollars a minute, who eschews publicity, despises a failure, and loathes a lawyer, will celebrate her seventieth anniversary on Nov. 21. As it will fall on a Tuesday, she will pass the day, just as she does every week day when in New York, at the Chemical National Bank.
Besides rounding out her three score and ten years of life, it will also mark her fortieth year as a business woman, during which period she is reported to have added fully $50,000,000 to the nine-million-dollar nest egg left behind by her father in 1865.
During several conversations the writer has had with this extraordinary woman she has never borne any likeness to the verbal and pencil caricatures that have appeared from time to time in the public prints. Nor was she other than a vivid, virile person-
ality, with friendly blue eyes and plenty of sympathy with humanity, as she sat at her desk the other day in the rear of the bank.
“I really have nothing to say— nothing of any particular interest,77 remarked Mrs. Green, “further than to be thankful for my continued health and interest in general affairs. I know of but very few people who are busier than myself or who are better trained to combine business with pleasure. I suppose that is the secret of my—my fountain of youth,77 she smiled. “But, you see, one of the rules of my life is never to worry uselessly about things. I am just as ready as ever to stand up for my rights, and I do the best I can every day as I go along. But after having done a thing, my policy is to let it drop and take up something else. The result is that business never disturbs me after business hours; never makes me lose any sleep, in other words.77
Her bright, cheery expression and clear complexion were convincing corroboration of the words. A timeworn walnut desk, which recently
accompanied its owner to her present headquarters, appears slightly out of place in the new Chemical banking room at Warren and Broadway, but not so the great woman financier. Her mouth, though determined, has motherly lines about it, and a strong character shines forth from every feature. She is still fine-looking, as is proved by the picture in the Pictorial Supplement.
By feminine rule and line Hetty Green, in her seventieth year, is tall, with a strong frame, hair still plentiful, but now deeply frosted, plump but capable hands, and a manner emphatic and forceful without being obtrusively so. She has a soft voice and a matronly figure, but when she leans back in her chair and squares her face in earnest conversation or crosses her knee and points her finger in denunciation at an imaginary enemy—she does all these things just as a heavy, muscular man would do them.
Occasionally, in her hurried earnestness, a final “g” is missing. Otherwise her vocabularly is one of blunt Anglo-Saxon directness—simple words generally of one and two syllables, without any furbelows. Her neat dress of plain black was a replica of those you will find on benign elderly mothers in scores of rural towns. The skirt was of sateen, and upon her head she wore a crepe veil twisted about her hair in such a way as to suggest the Castilian mode. One noticeable characteristic was the entire absence of affectation—no suggestion of trickiness, hardness, or suspicion. Plainly—her recent painting by J. Delany Rice being an admirable likeness—our wealthiest woman has been persistently caricatured.
Or else Hetty Green dresses better and smiles kindlier and offener than was once her habit.
Adding to her prescription of youthfulness, she says that she is a Quakeress, and that her father early implanted in her a habit of self-control. He used to tell her, she is fond of repeating, that if she would learn how to manage her brain she would know how to manage her fortune. Thus she learned as a girl to hold herself in check when things were not going right; when, for instance, she is being cross-questioned by the legal fraternity, against which she has an abiding grudge.
Referring to one occasion when an eminent lawyer strove to make Russell Sage appear ridiculous on the stand,. Mrs. Green is fond of imagining herself in the same position.
“Were any lawyer to catechise me about my wearing apparel it would be a simple matter to offer to retire to an anteroom and remove such articles as perhaps his wife might desire/' she says. “I would simply ask to retain enough clothing to get back home without Anthony Comstock or the police becoming agitated. No, such a question would never be put to me twice,” she declared.
“By the way,” continuing, “why must newspaper men persist in saying ridiculous things about me? Why, just the other day—and it also happened on a former occasion—when I went up to Police Headquarters, the reporters decided that I was after a permit to carry a weapon. Absurd! Why should I go armed? I simply called on Commissioner McAdoo to recommend a watchman of my acquaintance for a place on the police force.
“Why was I interested in the watchman? Well, he had been extremely courteous to me on many occasions, and I believed him deserving of a better salary than he wa s earning’ as a bank watchman. That
was the sum and substance of the case.7 7
“Have you any idea of retiring from active business in the near future?77 was asked.
“I? Why should'I give up work 77 she demanded. “I was never more capable of managing my affairs. Besides, business has become a habit with me after so many years, so many years, of it.77
Asked on another occasion if she was not weary of so much litigation, her undimmed fighting spirit was revealed when she answered :
“Yes, it is tiring. I have had much to contend with in the way of persecution all my life; so much to contend with that if any one were to suggest the possibility of my children enduring the same ordeal I would prefer to see them poor. There is no place —no country on earth— where women are so persecuted as here. Our heiresses have a harder time than even the Indian widows, who can at least burn themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. If they are rich they ought to be contented, for it saves them plenty of trouble.
“As for me, my whole life has been a struggle against heavy odds. I have been more abused and misrepresented than any woman alive. Periodical attempts have been made to declare me crazy, and for forty years I have had to fight every inch of my way.
“Take that story of my black bag, for example. Once it was my constant companion, and a very useful one, because it was just the sort of thing to hold papers and things. Well, what happened? It was made out that my bag was nothing but a purse—that I always carried bills of large denomination in it. At any rate, my friends advised me to jn It carrying it, as a means of safety.
Yes, it was only common sense for me to heed their advice.77
“What is your opinion of the insurance investigations and other branches of so-called frenzied finance?77 Avas ventured.
“Everything Avili adjust itself,77 she believed. “The financial and industria] condition of the country is perfectly safe and sound. These outbursts are exceptions to the rule, yes, exceptions to the general rule.77
With which she began energetically putting on her bonnet preparatory to making her daily rounds of the financial district. Before leaving she gave her secretary careful instructions about one or tAvo transactions and said she Avas not certain just lioAv soon she Avould be back. Possibly she might not return to the bank until the folloAving morning.
For every forenoon, rain or shine, finds Mrs. Green at her desk in the Chemical National counting room. That is, every forenoon that she is in toAvn. For her vast business interests in Chicago and elsewhere frequently demand her absence from thq metropolis.
Decorating one corner of the oldfashioned roll-top desk, which really constitutes her office, is the portrait taken of her forty-four years ago. On the back of it is written in faded characters :
Miss Hetty HoAvland Robinson. Taken on the way to a dinner at Saratoga Lake, given by ex-President Van Buren and his son, John, to Lord Althorp, afterward Duke of Northumberland; Lord Harvey, Col. Scarlett, afterward Lord Abinger, and Capt. ToAver of the Coldstream Guards. Was matronized by Baroness Stoeckel, wife of the Russian Ambassador.
The social recognition implied in the foregoing paragraph reveals this wealthiest American woman in a new
light, and incidentally suggests reviewing her earlier history. When and where and by whom was the cornerstone of her immense fortune laid?
To-day her property is of many sorts and her real estate holdings fairly freckle the face of the country. Octopuslike her mortgages embrace some of the safest and soundest properties in a chain of cities extending from Boston to San Francisco, and the income therefrom flows toward her from every National section and corner between Maine and Texas. Railroads and steamboats, mines of copper in Michigan, of gold in Nevada. and of iron in Missouri and Pennsylvania, telegraph and telephone securities, her wealth covers alt sorts and conditions of gilt-edged dividend-paying investments.
Building from a nine-million-dolîar base, she has, by her own genius and energy, reared a vast and valuable fabric, of which every strand is known to her and numbered as proverbially as are the hairs of the human head. Yet she is as diligent in weaving strand after strand, in piling* dollar upon dollar, as when she began, on the death of her father in 1865.
Contrary to prevailing opinion, the Howland and Robinson families have been either wealthy or in very comfortable circumstances for at least four generations. Had the family a coat of arms it would probably bear such luminous mottoes as:
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Haste makes waste.
Take care of your money: it will instinctively take care of you.
A shrewd bargain is the oldest and best testament of worth.
Pay as you go, and demand the same of others.
A fair, albeit a hard, rule of following! But it was substantially
and legitimately inherited from that shrewd old New Bedford shipowner, Edward M. Robinson, who in turn shared it with another veteran whaler named, • Gideon Howland, whose daughter he had wooed and won, to the incidental improvement of his own exchequer.
When a daughter, christened Harriet Howland, came to the Robinson home in New Bedford on Nov. 21, 1835, the patronymic was identified up and down the rugged New England coast with the largest whaling and trading fleet in America.
Of the many yarns spun around Blackhawk Robinson, as he was known, one regarding his characteristics has come down in the homely New England phrase of squeezing a dollar till the eagle screamed.
Amid this atmosphere of thrift, though the family lived as well as, if not better than, many of its neighbors in New Bedford and also in Bellows Falls, Vt., where the old Robinson homestead is still standing—the property of Hetty Green to-day—the subject of this sketch was reared.
By the time she put her teens and pinafores behind her, prosperity had shone so steadily on the family that it became advisable to look beyond New England for a field in which to sow the surplus.
Chicago presently beaconed, just as it was to beacon to his daughter, when the great fire devastated the Illinois metropolis in 1871, and, shrewdly studying the skies, the wealthy New Bedford capitalist, now a graduated whaler, began planting his dollars along the Michigan lake front. His acumen was soon rewarded when the properties so purchased began doubling and then tripling in value until an even million was harvested from that source alone. To-day Mrs. Green has several for-
tunes scattered around Chicago — choice corner lots gradually enhancing in value as the city matures.
Of the $9,000,000 left by Edward Kobinson forty years ago, one-ninth went to his daughter outright, the remainder in trust to go to her children. Directty an aunt, Sylvia Ann Howland, died and added some $T,000,000 to the original inheritance, thereby precipitating a lawsuit which marked the genesis of her long and almost unbroken career as a litigant.
Perhaps the smallest suit she ever defended grew out of a summons for her to appear in court and show cause why she should not pay a two-dollar tax on a favorite dog. She evaded service for quite a time and eventually a license was taken out for the bothersome pet in the name of an only daughter, Miss Sylvia Green, the other child being a son, Edward Green, in Texas.
Speaking, on one occasion, of the charge made forty years ago, that the Sylvia Ann Howland will contained spurious signatures, the richest woman in America seriously declared her innocence of the charge, and added : “I had the will and the other people had the property all laid out to suit themselves. There was nothing else for them to do but cry forgery, and they were all against me. As a parallel case, suppose, when you went out of the bank here, I should put this diamond sunburst (could it have been rhinestone?) in your coat pocket. Then when we reached the door, suppose you found yourself charged with the theft, you’d be in a pretty fix—yes? Of course, you had not thought of stealing the sunburst, any more than I would think of forging a will, and it is easy enough to make charges.
“Why do you suppose my daughter was named Sylvia Ann Howland if
I had forged my aunt’s name? She would have been a living picture of forgery before me all these past years. Absurd. ’ ’
Yes. Hetty Green is a strong, forceful woman—a type that probably no other country could have produced, just as it required an overripe civilization to produce an Ibsen. The American spirit of independence is incarnate in her—keen, self-reliant, capable.
It is significant that she has no pronounced views about equal suffrage, although, as a simple matter of justice, she believes women should be enfranchised. She has met and mastered the best champions that man had to pit against her, and she has done it single-handed.
Yet, to recapitulate, with all her extraordinary business ability and knowledge of human nature, she remains a kindly disposed woman—a woman of the world—the busy mart —but none the less a woman of heart, chary as she is of wearing it on her sleeve.
She has original views about a number of things--about; her own fortune, for example,: “I regard my
property largety as & trust. It is not mine absolutely. I\take care of it on much the same principle as you would foster a valuable animal left in your charge. Of course my atti-* tude in the premises was inherited. . My father believed that the money . left to one should be given over undiminished to the next generation. That also is my idea.
“He believed that one who inherited property had the right to spend the income it yielded, but not to waste the principal.”
Asked regarding the secret of her success, she smiles and habitually disclaims being the wealthiest woman in the country. “About all that can
be said is that my investments have been carefully chosen and have turned out well as a rule. A fortune cannot be built up around any fixed idea,” she believes, “or, in other words, without the exercise of plain common sense. I buy when things are low and no one wants them. I keep them, just as I keep a considerable number of diamonds on hand, until they go up and people are anxious to buy. That is the general secret of business success. One thing, however, has been wrongly attributed to me, and that is speculating. I never speculate. Such stocks as belong to me were purchased simply as an investment, never on a margin.” By a curious antithesis, Edward H. Green, prior to is death three years ago, was one of the best-dressed club men in New York, while his wife was certainly the least fashionably gowned woman of wealth within leagues of the City Hall. Poor Spendthrift Green, as Wall' Street named, after wasting him! He and she had very opposite ideas and ideals. For years the husband divided his time between his bachelor chambers, where he had his
large library, and his club, where he smoked, chatted, dined, and occasionally played a mild game of cards. Once in a while he saw a play for a change. So passed his days in a quiet, blameless, clubable way, while the wife fought lawyers, dodged taxes, and knitted her fortune more firmly together.
She frankly admitted the other day caring nothing about the changing styles. Yet with equal frankness she admits having an excellent wardrobe. But, in her own homely phrasing, if a thoroughbred were harnessed to an omnibus for forty years, he would begin to look like an ordinary hack. And as she passed out into Broadway, taking care of a fortune, she laughed, was something like omnibus work.
Such is the richest American woman at three score and ten—the Rockefeller of her sex—replete with energy, aggressive, kindly on state occasions, shrewd, epigrammatic, honest, fearless to the verge of daring, a firm advocate of religion and of the gentler amenities—a Quakeress who has amassed single-handed so stupendous a mountain of money in the brief space of forty years!