The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age

Janet Wallach, Author
Janet Wallach. Doubleday/Talese, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-53197-9
Reviewed on: 07/23/2012
Release date: 09/25/2012
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Hetty Robinson Green (1834–1916) was as rich as Rockefeller, worth $100 million at her death. Born to an emotionally withholding Quaker family that instilled in her the value of both wealth and thrift, she grew her inheritance into a massive fortune through shrewd investments in greenbacks, struggling railroads, and real estate. Wallach (Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell) makes a strong case that Green’s Quaker family valued financial shrewdness over physical affection, shaping their daughter into a supremely confident woman who overruled her husband’s and children’s desires for independence and sued business adversaries as a matter of course. Green also defied expectations of a wealthy woman, dressing, eating, and living simply according to her “starched New England values.” Wallach’s enjoyable account encourages admiration for Green’s cheekiness in the face of straitlaced bankers but strains to portray Green as a doting mother and the occasional good friend since her strict frugality and money-related eccentricities required significant compromises from those around her. Still, the author successfully portrays a compelling woman who kept her eyes on the glittering financial prize, using a commonsense philosophy regarding real estate and investment throughout the 19th century’s Wall Street roller-coaster. Agent: Lynn Nesbit. (Sept.)
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