Hetty Green: Mistress of Finance

Mabel Potter Daggett in Broadway Magazine February 1 1908

Hetty Green: Mistress of Finance

Mabel Potter Daggett in Broadway Magazine February 1 1908

Hetty Green: Mistress of Finance

Mabel Potter Daggett in Broadway Magazine

IF you have been a part of the hurrying throng that daily jostles down lower Broadway, you may have seen her. Such a lonely little figure! A withered leaf, it seems strangely tossed in the great financial current. Follow this little old woman in rusty black and see her enter the Chemical National Bank. She is not the scrubwoman. The scrubwoman has no clothes of such ancient date as hers, the alpaca gown that has weathered many seasons, the black woolen cape that has shaped itself to the shoulders as they have bowed through the last ten years, and the tousled bonnet with its little bunch of flowers that faded with the millinery of many summers past.

Yet she has made no mistake in entering here where the atmosphere is* crisp with the ways of the business world and metallic with the sound of money. For lo ! office boys and clerks and men higher up stand obsequiously aside as she passes. The bowed gray head turns neither to the right nor the left as she walks straight on. With assurance her hand rests on the gate that leads inside beyond the brass-barred windows to a mahogany roll-top desk. This is her office.

The shabby little old woman who has just passed from view is worth $60,000,000, even $100,000,000, some estimates say. She is Hetty Howland Robinson Green, greatest mistress of finance the world has ever seen. Seated atop of her huge yellow millions, a wrinkled old woman, the financial limelight of a continent plays about her as she directs the destinies of men and of corporations. There is power in the pen-

stroke of her aged fingers, the thin old fingers that are busy, busy all day long cutting coupons and signing checks. She has more ready money at her command than any other one individual. Wall Street waits on her coffers. To the oldfashioned mahogany desk comes a procession of bank presidents, hat

in hand, railroad magnates, bowing low, and rich directors humbly making obeisance. Even the city of New York in need has brought its plea to her, its richest citizeness. Coolly, calculatingly, she listens, balancing want and entreaty with a grim nicety of judgment. Then she drives her bargain shrewdly.

They get her money and they pay her price.

So rolls up the fortune for which she has long been famed as the richest woman in America. There is the possible exception of Mrs. Russel Sage, but hers was amassed by her husband. In all history there has been no other woman who, by the exercise of her own ingenuity, has made so much money as this supreme financier.


Yet the Midas touch that has fairly encrusted her life with gold has been a fatal gift. For Hetty Green

is really a bankrupt to-day, bankrupt in desire! With money to buy all that the world has for sale, it holds nothing that she would like. She has mortgages strewn in acres from Boston to .San Francisco. She owns railroad and steamboat lines, copper mines in Michigan, gold mines in Nevada, iron mines in Missouri, telegraph and telephone securities and government bonds, and in her safe is locked a pint of diamonds and one of the finest collections of pearls on earth. Yet the girl stenographer who takes

her dictation probably has a lighter 112

heart under a new spring gown, the butcher from whom she buys chuck steak at twelve cents a pound has a better Sunday dinner, and her neighbors in a Hoboken flat, when they go on a Coney Island outing, brighten the monochrome of existence with more of color than varies her drab days.

Poor Hetty Green, least happy woman in New York! Her husband, who died a few years ago, she completely eclipsed in individuality. Her daughter Sylvia’s personality is subordinated entirely to hers. But there is one smouldering heart-in-

terest beneath the cold financial exterior of this woman who devotes herself to making money as unceasingly as a machine. And the touchstone that proves her still human is, “My son Ned.” It is for him, Edward Howland Robinson Green, railroad president and a leading citizen of Texas, that she is piling millions on huge yellow millions. Her consuming ambition, her only desire, is to make that son, Ned, the richest man in the world.

New York knows Hetty Green as one of its queerest characters. The mention of her name among the pre-

sent generation raises a smile at her parsimonious eccentricities.


But it was not always so. Once Hetty Green was young. She was brilliant and beautiful, one of the belles of New York and Newport and Saratoga. The eligible men of the day were at her feet, and one in the Far East who had heard of her reign as the daughter of a merchant prince of America was on his way to woo and to win her. There is a portrait of that Hetty, a photograph, across the back of which is written :

Miss Hetty Howland Robinson at 26. Taken on the way to dinner at Saratoga to be given by ex-President Van Buren and his son, John, to Lord Althorp, afterwards Duke of Northumberland; Lord Harvey; Col. Scarlett, afterward Lord Abinger; and Captain Tower, of the Coldstream Guards. Was matronized by Baroness Stoeckel, wife of the Russian Ambassador.

An old beau of the sixties who danced with her that night says with reminiscent wistfulness : “She was most charming. Her hair was very brown and her eyes were very blue and the necklace of pearls that she wore was not whiter than her slim young throat. Then her laugh, that rippling, delicious laugh, I heai the music of it yet !”

From this portrait of Hetty Robinson look to the Hetty Green of to-day, with the faded eyes that are done with sweet smiling, and the stern mouth that is hard with the tired lines about it. A story beginning with romance and ending with pathos—stranger than fiction is this chronicle of a curious career.

For this woman of wealth, who lives like a pauper because she prefers to, comes of a family that has had social position and riches unlimited for generations. She reads her title clear to the Mayflower passenger-list, and her ancestral shield is starred with Colonial governors. She was born in New BedG

ford, the town that her forefathers founded and in which they made their fortune in the whaling industry. She was the daughter of Edward Mott Robinson and Abby Howland. New England, to this day, smoothes its apron complacently and adjusts its spectacles proudly as it adds, “She is a Robinson of the Howland Robinson line and a Howland of the Round Hill Howlands, you know.”

It was on November 21, 1835, that a little daughter came to the great stone mansion on Pleasant Street, New Bedford, and to a most pleasant heritage, it seemed. “Such a fortunate child,” the neighbors sighed almost enviously, “with a father the richest man in Massachusetts.”

She was sent first to a famous Quaker school kept by Eliza Wing, at Sandwich, Cape Cod, and later for a final polishing to a Miss Lowell’s 'seminary in Boston. Afterward, at home, she became her father’s associate and virtual secretary. The house in which Edward Mött Robinson had been made a partner by his father-in-law still retained the hereditary name of the rich whaling merchant, Hetty’s great-grandfather, Isaac Howland, Jr. In the counting-room there at night passers-by often saw the daughter poring over the books by lamplight with her father, and getting her first lessons in finance.


And she was soon more than a mere pupil. She was able to render him very definite assistance. His ships touched at many ports, and he must know the credit of the world. So it became her daily duty to read to him the reports of the world’s finance. And dry and unattractive as such reading might seem for a girl in her teens, this girl became as keenly interested in the markets as another might have been in romances. It is said to have been upon her advice that Edward Robinson made his first investments in

Chicago real estate that later netted him a million dollars or more profit.

Then Edward Robinson, after the death of his wife, about i860, transferred his residence to New York. Like the rich men of to-day, having made a fortune, he went to New York to enjoy it.

About this time there was given in Japan a dinner for the American commercial men in the East. Among the guests was Edward Green, for twenty years United States Consul-General in Manila, where, identified with the house of Russel, Sturgis & Company, he had made three or four millions in the silk trade. A toast was proposed to the “Richest American Heiress.”

“Who is she?” came in a chorus.

“Hetty Robinson,” some one answered.

The Consul-General’s fist came down with an emphasis that rattled the glasses and silver. “I'm. going home to marry her,” he declared.

And he did. Through business connections he obtained the necessary introduction to the Robinson home. He found a woman of personality as attractive as her fortune. And his wooing was swift and sure. He was a handsome elderly man of the world, polished of manner and practised of speech in saying the things that women like to hear. Hetty Robinson was nearing thirty years of age, and by the custom of the day it was time for her to marry some one. Here was a man with money enough of his own not to want hers. When he proposed, she applied a test, and he met it unflinchingly. Would he sign an ante-nuptial contract agreeing to leave her fortune hers absolutely, while he supported her and any children they should have? He would, and on this strange but characteristic agreement the engagement was announced.

One month later came the shadow of trouble that embittered Hetty Robinson’s life. In June, 1865, her father died suddenly, leaving her

his nine millions, one million outright and the income from the other eight millions, the principal to be held for her children. Hardly had she arranged the house of mourning in New York, when she was summoned to New Bedford by the death of her aunt, Sylvia Howland. This aunt, in turn, was worth $2,500,000, and her niece, Hetty, had been brought up from the time she was a little girl to count it as hers.

“You have had your mother’s money, you will have your father’s money and you shall have my money —you shall be the richest woman in the world,” the aunt was wont to say.


The richest woman in the world— the richest woman in the world—that was the ideal that had been held up to the girl until it had been ingrained in her soul.

Then Aunt Sylvia’s will was read— bequeathing the half of her fortune to numerous beneficiaries and to charity. The other half was set apart, the income only for Hetty, and the principal at her death to go to the living descendants of her grandfather, Gideon Howland. Hetty Robinson listened to the reading of this document, stunned and amazed. This will was not Aunt Sylvia’s wish, she knew. Some one had unduly influenced its making. Had not she and Aunt Sylvia made and exchanged wills mutually benefiting each other? Nevertheless, the document was probated as read. All New Bedford was interested that it should be. Then a month later Hetty came forward with the missing will making her sole heir and declaring all past or future wills of Sylvia Ann Howland null and void. She said that she had found it in a trunk, and she at once instituted the famous Howland will contest, most celebrated in American legal annals. The Howlands charged her with forgery. There was a battle of the handwriting experts that has never since been equalled. Louis Agassiz and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and members of Harvard’s faculty were called to give scientific evidence. After two

years the case was finally settled out of court. New Bedford to-day has $100,000 of Aunt Sylvia’s money invested in its pure water supply. There is another $100,000 in the Sylvia Ann Howland School and the public library.

Through all the trouble of the will contest Mr. Green had stood staunchly by his fiancee. After it was over they were quietly married. The ceremony was performed July 7, 1867, at the home of a distant cousin, Mr. Henry Grinnell, of No. 17 Bond street, New York.

After the marriage, Mr. Green and his bride lived abroad for seven years, during which time they were presented at court in England, and on the continent were introduced to many distinguished people who had been the friends of genial Edward Green in his previous world wanderings.

Two children, a daughter and a son, were born while Mr. and Mrs Green lived abroad. It was during their travels that she began to protest at all expenditures as extravagance. She could enjoy no pleasure because she forever asked its price and counted its cost. To free spending, pleasure loving Edward Green this was as harrowing a sort of incompatibility as could well have been invented. On their return to New York, in 1874, the house that they took she thought too large and too fine. He had the taste of a connoisseur for rare books and pictures and statuary. It was a luxury that she attempted to curb. The Green ancestral home was at Bellows’ Falls, Vermont, and the family planned to spend the summer there. Before their departure she decided to sell the horses to reduce expenses. And to drive a good bargain, she would sell them herself. She had them harnessed and brought to the front door of the New York resi-’ dence, with a black and white “For Sale” sign hung from the carriage. Then she climbed on the front seat to wait for a purchaser. It is related that her husband appeared at the door, and, every other entreaty failing, declared, “Harriet, if you don’t come into the house this minute, I*

shall have a commission in lunacy appointed to declare you insane !” All this happened with millions of dollars in the family exchequer.

It was soon after the return to America that both Mr. and Mrs. Green went to Wall Street with their money. From the first dip his began to disappear, and it is said that she declined to risk any of hers in its rescue. When he succeeded in extricating himself he was no longer a rich man. His wife, on the contrary, was growing richer.

But the more money that Hetty Green made the more she wanted to make, and the less she wanted to spend.


She insisted that they give up their handsome home and go to a boardinghouse to live. Then she moved frequently to avoid being taxed on her enormous fortune, and the boardinghouses that she selected became cheaper and cheaper. She enforced the most rigid economies on the entire family. It is said to have been her custom, after the daily paper had been read, to thriftily send her son on the street to turn an honest penny by selling it. He didn’t so much mind the selling of the paper. There were other boys whose circumstances in life compelled them to sell papers, too. But there were none who had such enormous patches on their trousers as he. Having brooded over the indignity until he could bear it no longer, he one day, before an admiring group of companions, drew forth his pocketknife and deftly removed a particularly large and offending patch with the remark, “Mother shall never sew that on again.”

When her husband had endured Mrs. Green’s eccentricities as long as he could, he finally left her to go the way she liked. He took up his residence at the Cumberland Hotel, and there and at the Union League Club lived until within a few years of his death. The children were sent to school, Edward to St. John’s College, at Fordham, and Sylvia to the Sacred Heart Academy, in Manhattanville.

Edward’s declaration of independence about the trousers’ patch evidently endeared him to his mother. Her purse opened more indulgently to him than to any other member of the family. In Chicago, where, when he had finished his college career, he went to look after some of her property, he became known as a rather lavish man of the world. On joining the Elks there he liberally expended $2,500 for refurnishing the headquarters. Indeed, he spent so much money that his mother concluded life m a large city made a son a luxury, so she bought him a railroad in Texas—the Texas Midland—and sent him to be its president.


Sylvia, the daughter, since leaving school, has patiently followed her mother from one temporary abode to another. For a girl who was the heiress to several millions, which she will inherit from her grandfather’s estate, she had little of the joy of girlhood. Deprived so long of so much she grew accustomed to going without, and she is now a middle-aged woman who apparently doesn’t care. On leaving school she joined St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. She had a summer at Newport under the chaperonage of the Countess Leary, and there was another summer at Morristown, New Jersey, at the home of a distant relative. Here, at the same time, was another guest, a certain Duke de la Torre. For just a little while Sylvia

strayed on the borderland of romance. Then the Duke returned to Italy. And she went back to her mother’s Hoboken flat.

The stories that are told of Hetty Green’s oddities would fill a volume.

She happened to be in Philadelphia one day when there was a sudden fluctuation in securities in which she was interested. It wás already afternoon and unless she reached New York before the close of the stock exchange, she would miss the chance to make several thousand dollars. No train would bring her in time, and she opened negotiations for a special. A price was named for one Car and the engine. She haggled for some moments over the figure. Then she suddenly announced: “Take off the car

and knock off five dollars from the price. I’ll ride in the locomotive cab.” And that was what she did.

Her parsimony even reaches the limits of the ridiculosas. One day she objected to her laundry bill and wanted the price reduced five cents on the dozen. But her washerwoman protested that she could not lower the rate. “Well, then,” said the astute financier, “we’ll compromise this way. When you come to the petticoats, wash only the bottom Where the soil shows and charge half-price for the garment.”

“There are many kinds of people in the world,” Hetty Green herself has declared, “but I am a kind all by myself. I live as I like and I always shall.”

The curiosity of him who wishes to see fully for himself how the dark side of life looks, is like that of the man who took a torch into a powder mill to see whether it would really blow up or not.