No Ostrich Feathers: Hetty Green
Once upon a time in the Gilded Age, the richest woman in the United States, and maybe in the world, made her home in Vermont. Her name was Hetty Green, and she lived in Bellows Falls. And by most accounts, she was shrewd, ornery, and ill-dressed.
Hetty’s father left her a million dollars when he died. By the time of her own death at the age of 83, she had built a fortune worth between 100 and 200 million dollars. (Today that would equal approximately 4.7 billion.) She invested mostly in railroads and real estate, and as a financier, loaned vast sums of money to the City of New York to help keep it afloat in the early 1900s. When she married Edward Henry Green, she and her family insisted on a pre-nup that kept her husband from her money and excluded him from directing or influencing her investment decisions. Some other Americans, including the Morgans and the Rockefellers, were getting rich at the time; virtually all of them were men.
Whether because of her business acumen, her gender, or her appearance, she was called “The Witch of Wall Street.” Throughout her life, she wore the same drab black dress until it literally disintegrated and was replaced by another. People saw it as a sign of her penny-pinching or general eccentricity. Hetty explained it as part of her Quaker heritage. “Let them wear ostrich feathers on their heads if they want to; that’s their responsibility, not mine.”
Her frugality was legendary and particularly remarkable in light of her extensive wealth. It has been reported that her son, Ned, suffered an amputation of his leg when she refused to seek early medical treatment for him because of the cost. The same Ned was directed by his mother to resell the daily newspaper by hawking it on the neighborhood streets after Hetty had read it. Her homes were unheated and without hot water. For many years, she couch-surfed among friends in New York City to avoid having any actual residence there, which would have required her to pay taxes. She often traveled alone by train from Bellows Falls to New York City to negotiate business deals, and to litigate. Suing people apparently gave her pleasure. So did giving her money away.
The citizens of Bellows Falls found her both solitary and unpleasant. As reported by the New York Times in the announcement of her death, her son took issue by saying:
“Mother held herself aloof . . . because there was nothing else she could do in her position. When it becomes known that a person has money to lend, you have no idea of the requests that come for it, bona fide offers to borrow, begging letters, and letters from unbalanced people . . .”
Hetty Green died at her son’s home in New York City in 1916. She is buried beside her husband at Immanuel Cemetery on a hill overlooking downtown Bellows Falls (photo, top); her son Ned and a daughter Sylvia are buried nearby. Aside from the legend, little else remains of her existence there. Her home was torn down.
Though it has no actual connection to Hetty Green, except as a symbol of her folkloric status in Bellows Falls, a severely dilapidated Hetty Green Motel (photo, below) has lived at the town’s gateway on Route 5 for decades. Reviews on Trip Advisor and the like were uncommonly negative. The former owner recently died. After a tree fell and crashed through the roof, nature, jungle-like, seemed to be reclaiming the wreckage on my first visit to Bellows Falls last autumn. A few weeks later, there were signs of rebirth. A construction team was removing and tossing old furniture into a heap. Word is that there is a new owner and that part of the building may be rebuilt into tiny apartments. Whether Hetty would be pleased by this turn of events is anyone’s guess. I, for one, am hoping the structure will retain her name.
Want to know more? Hetty Green has a Wikipedia page (with photo) and there are dozens of contemporary articles about her. One of my favorites, though, is this one in National Magazine, written in 1905 by a female reporter, Carol Ford, who trailed Hetty to the Parker House Hotel in Boston to get a scoop. Her reportage begins, “The first time I met Hetty Green I went to church with her.” There is a biography by Janet Wallach (who also wrote Desert Queen, a compelling biography of another intrepid woman, Gertrude Bell) titled The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age.
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Susan B. Apel retired from a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.