Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Richest Woman in America

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach  304 pp.

I don't think I ever heard of Hetty Green until I read a review of this book. Henrietta Howland Robinson was born to a Quaker family who earned their money owning whaling ships. She learned about business from her father but he did not allow her to participate in his business ventures. She inherited several million dollars from her father and an aunt and, by her death in 1916, had increased her worth to about $200 million dollars (over $3 billion by today's equivalent). She married Edward Green, the son of a wealthy Vermont family, with a prenuptial agreement that he renounce all rights to her money. Hetty was careful about her investments and after bailing out her husband's bad business deals on more than one occasion, she separated from him but they never divorced. Through her shrewd and careful business dealings, Hetty weathered several of the serious economic panics in the late 19th and early 20th century. In spite of her wealth, she lived an extremely frugal life, moving frequently between boarding house and residential hotels to avoid paying taxes in any one location. She was often ridiculed in the press for her penchant for dowdy clothing, her frequent appearances in the courts for an abundance of lawsuits against others, and her restrictions on her daughter who did not marry until she was in her late thirties. Green was an interesting character.

This is a book worth reading but not because of the biographical information on Hetty Green. I found the most fascinating parts to be about the causes of the various "panics" and financial crises the country faced during her lifetime. Every one of them can be traced to situations similar to what caused our current financial troubles. Proof that Santayana was correct when he said "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

I listened to the audiobook version and was rather disappointed in some of the mispronunciations and stumbles in the reading that were not corrected in editing. 

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