Hetty Green – the witch of Walls Street and the world’s richest woman

Hetty Green was born in a rich family. She inherited a large sum from her father. However, unlike other rich daughters, she didn’t like to spend money on luxury. She loved compounding money. From less than $1 million she inherited from her father, she invested in real estates, bonds, and companies. By the time she died at the age of 83, she was the richest woman in America. Her net worth was estimated from $100 million to $200 million (or $2.3 billion to $4.6 billion in 2019).

Hetty Green lived a frugal life. She did what she loved and didn’t care what others thought of her.

The following are stories I collected which are my favorites about Hetty Green.

Hetty thought her servant wasted money shopping for family meals. In fact, she considered her servant a wasteful expense.

“Hetty insisted on doing most of the shopping herself, and would return to the house bearing the cheapest flour she could find, and bags of broken cookies that grocers sold cheap. Grocer Patrick J. Keane said she always redeemed her berry boxes for a nickel refund, and asked for—and received—free bones for the family dog.”

“When the Greens first arrived in town, they took pleasure rides in Edward’s barouche, a fancy, four-wheeled carriage with a collapsible top, double seats facing each other inside the carriage, and an outside front seat for the driver, along with a pair of fine horses. Hetty decided the rig was too fancy. She sold the carriage and horses, and paid $10 for an old horse and a modest jump seat wagon, barely large enough to fit the family.”

“Edward’s mother was no match for Hetty’s forceful nature. Anna had no doubt expected to live out her remaining days in genteel comfort and contentment, surrounded by Edward, his bride, and the two grandchildren. Instead, she found herself sharing her suddenly too small home with a loud, opinionated woman who questioned every incidental expense, harangued her beloved maid, and didn’t even bother to make herself presentable. Neighbors on Henry Street were shocked one day to see Hetty on the roof, seated, wearing hoop skirts, hammering away. Why pay workmen for a simple repair job?”

“Merchants reportedly tried to lie low when they saw Hetty Green approaching. She was known to demand the cheapest possible goods and, still, to haggle endlessly over a bill.”

“Hetty Green never thought of anything without evaluating its cost, and never received a bill that she did not question.”

“She seems to have made it a rule of her life to indulge in no personal luxuries. She has been known to walk from her hotel in this city to a social reception through a heavy snowstorm rather than pay for the use of a coach.”

“Although she could have afforded a home as fine as the finest on Millionaire’s Row, she chose instead the teeming, dense borough of Brooklyn, populated by immigrants and, laborers, where nobody dressed up as royalty”

“Nobody ever saw her with a dress which was not severely plain, and seldom has she been noticed when she did not carry an old style and well-worn black satchel. Her appearance would never cause the uninitiated to think that she was anything more extraordinary than an old fashioned woman of moderate means and simple tastes, who was on her way to the corner grocery or the bakery on the block below. Yet, if money is power, this same staid looking person is one of the most powerful human beings in the country.”

“Hetty rarely lost sleep worrying what others thought of her, and yet there was a certain irony in the public’s reaction to her. For all of her faults, she was no snob. She sneered at all forms of pretense, and was unimpressed with titles. She didn’t just mix with the common folk; she lived among them, ate at their restaurants, rode their streetcars and ferries.”

“Hetty lived her life convinced that, as a businesswoman, if not as a woman, she was fundamentally and completely alone. Nobody else would watch out for her interests. She mistrusted all forms of alliances and cabals. Where other investors sought the safety of numbers, the soothing ring of consensus, Hetty felt most comfortable on her own, trusting her own judgment and instincts. She was a free agent in the truest sense of the term.”

The Georgia Central was unwieldy, inefficient, and complacent. The stock languished at $69. In 1886, a group of investors from New York began buying up the stock with the idea of replacing the management and directors. 

The Georgians fought back. 

Hetty got wind of the plan early on and began quietly buying stock at around $70 a share. She had 6,700 shares. She took no side and waited patiently. 

By November, the stock shot up to $100 per share. 

Alexander, the New Yorker, offered Hetty $115 a share. 

Hetty told him that he could have her shares for $125. Alexander declined. 

A few days later he came back accepting her offer with a condition that she waited till the election was over. 

Hetty replied: “If I have to wait for my money, the price is $130.”

Alexander counted with $127.50 and Hetty agreed. 

As her custom, she demanded that Alexander’s group post collateral for the entire amount. 

Despite her reputation as a miser and a hard-nosed dealer, Hetty usually offered rates that were more than fair. Although she could be ruthless when dealing with an enemy, she rarely if ever took the opportunity to kick a borrower when he was down. That was bad business, she always said.

“I’ve found out something about the young man who has been waiting on you at Newport, Sylvia. I find that your young man is very nice and proper, but if it wasn’t for his father, the world wouldn’t know a thing about him. He has never earned a dollar and doesn’t know the value of money. Now Sylvia, I’ve kept my eyes open all these years, and I want to say right here and now, that you shall never marry a society man with my consent. I want to see you happily married and in a home of your own, but I want you to marry a poor young man of good principles, who is making an honest, hard fight for success. I don’t care whether he’s got $100 or not, provided he is made of the right stuff. You will have more money than you’ll ever spend, and it isn’t necessary to look for a young man with money. Now you know my wish, and I hope I won’t hear anything more about your young man at Newport, who knows just about enough to part his hair in the middle and spend his father’s money.”

“Hetty kept to a simple and predictable daily routine. Each morning she awoke early enough to eat a light breakfast in her apartment and make the short walk, rain or shine, to the ferry slip in order to catch the 7 A.M. ferry to Manhattan.

She was, invariably, among the first to arrive at the bank (where she has her office desk). She ate a small and hurried lunch at any of several nearby restaurants.

In the evening, Hetty was usually among the last to leave the bank. ”

“Waiter, I want the best steak you can give me for thirty cents.”

“We have no thirty-cent steaks, madam.”

“No thirty-cent steaks! Haven’t you something you can warm up for me?”

“No, madam.”

“Well, how much is your tea?”

“Ten cents.”

“Ten cents! Well, it isn’t worth it. How much are your stews?”

“Fifteen cents.”

“Can’t you let me have a stew for less than that? “No, madam.”

“Well, you can bring me some tea, some toast without butter, and a stew.”

“All of her life she had considered herself physically indestructible, and her remarkable constitution generally supported this conceit. She attributed her ability to function into her seventies with the energy and sharpness of someone half her age to her prudent habits—moderation, frugality, and self-denial. Illness and health to Hetty had always carried a moral component—people who were sick were probably overindulging their desires, becoming soft, or else spending money they did not have and driving themselves to an early grave over worry. ”

“One way is to give money and make a big show. That is not my way of doing. I am of the Quaker belief, and although the Quakers are about all dead, I still follow their example. An ordinary gift to be bragged about is not a gift in the eyes of the Lord.”