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The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age (2012)

de Janet Wallach

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A captivating biography of America's first female tycoon, Hetty Green, the iconoclast who forged one of the greatest fortunes of her time.

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biography - b. 1834 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Hetty would grow up to own properties in New York, Chicago, plus major shares in railroads in several other states.

interesting to learn about such an eminent, famous woman that has never been mentioned in my history books, and also interesting to learn that in many ways she was exactly the sort of woman that certain politicians would not feel threatened by (she didn't support the cause of women's suffrage, perhaps because she had enough influence already, and did support certain causes in moderation-- the creation of jobs, etc. without mistreating workers the way other moguls migt).

However, there were a few statements that would have benefited from some context or background:

Th. Jefferson wishing that the practice of slavery would die out (mentioned on p. 45) -- Jefferson's involvement with the practice has been fairly well documented and is "complicated" to say the least, so I think a footnote on the topic at the very least would be worthwhile here. Even if he was unable to free all the enslaved people connected to his estate in his will because they would still be seized by debtors to settle outstanding debts after his death, there were plenty of questionable decisions he made apart from that (and apart from what became of his children with Sally Hemings--some of whom he did free, though not all?), including some very detailed records of the severe beatings received by the enslaved on his estate, presumably on his orders.

"With 60 percent of the electoral college but less than 40 percent of the popular vote, in November 1860 Abraham Lincoln won the election for President of the United States." (p.50) -- this is not inaccurate (see https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/elections/1860) but again I feel some context would be valuable here. He had the highest share of the popular vote that year (closer to 39.9%), easily eclipsing Democrat Stephen Douglas' 29.5% and Southern Democrat John Breckenridge's 18.1% (as well as John Bell's 12.6%). This is one of those odd factoids apparently (mis)quoted often and as such requires a more exacting look.

The pirates faced by Edward Green in the south China seas were described as "the ugliest ruffians they had ever encountered" (pp 62-63) which, hyperbole or no, would be more meaningful if the text provided the exact quote (as in Edward's letters or other primary source). It's hard to know what the author meant -- are they missing teeth from scurvy, bearing lots of scars from sea battles, or are they maybe just swarthy/brown/darker-skinned? This is perhaps a relatively minor detail compared to the others but it did make me wonder. As before, I checked the end notes for some source info but came up empty.

Tldr: it was overall fairly interesting (and not by any means an easy task to write such a book when so many of the newspaper articles about her were inaccurate), but would definitely benefit from much more thorough source notes. ( )
  reader1009 | Feb 16, 2024 |
Hetty Green was born in 1834 and, despite being a girl, learned about money and investments from her father (hmm, on reading the blurb, this may not have been where she learned this – at least not directly). She also seemed quite litigious and took offense when inheritances she thought should go to her didn’t. She was a very wealthy woman.

I listened to the audio, and though the narrator didn’t appear to have an accent, she did pronounce some vowels oddly, which distracted me. Combine that with really being kind of boring and I wasn’t impressed. Because of being somewhat boring, I may not have the summary exactly right, as I wasn’t paying attention to parts of the book. And I didn’t particularly like Hetty. In some ways, she was obviously before her time. ( )
  LibraryCin | Mar 9, 2021 |
In the introduction to her biography of Mary Shelley, Muriel Spark states that she “ha{s} always disliked the sort of biography which states 'X lay on the bed and watched the candle flickering on the roof beams,' when there is no evidence that X did so.” I took note of this comment because I happen to agree with it. Unfortunately, this biography of Hetty Green is that sort of biography. Apparently there is a dearth of primary sources documenting Hetty Green's life. The author relied on secondary accounts from newspapers and the like. The biography was embellished with all sorts of little actions like skirt brushing and hair smoothing that aren't likely to be documented anywhere. The biography was also padded with lists of national and international news events that occurred at various times in Hetty's life. It made me wonder if the author had a YA audience in mind since most adult readers wouldn't need such long lists in order to understand the events in Hetty's life in their historical context. The reader for the audio version wasn't very expressive or engaging, and her voice magnified the book's flaws instead of diverting my attention from them the way a good narrator can do. Disappointing. ( )
  cbl_tn | Feb 6, 2016 |
I enjoyed the information about Hetty Green. She drew the disdain of her father and the ambivalence of her Quaker mother because she wasn't born a male. Due to her that neglect she was angry and acted out. However, she had an aptitude for finance and because of that, she gained the respect of her father and grandfather.

Throughout her life, she went through constant battles including enduring countless court dates contesting the will of her aunt's will, her husband philandering ways, her son's deteriorating leg condition, her daughter's solitude, and her growing paranoia on her enemies trying to poison her. Despite of all that, Hetty was on top financially. Her rules to success are tried and true: buy when others are selling, sell when others are buying, invest in land, live way below your needs. Indeed, Hetty Green was the richest miserly woman in America in the Gilded Age.

Had that been the entire novel, with sprinkles of the culture on New York through the Gilded Age, Wallach would have succeeded wonderfully and this would have been a four starred review easy! However, Wallach stuffed it with useless information about real estate, debutant life, and the allegorical meaning of Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Some of the information was very interesting and if Wallach wants to pen a novel about New York's Gilded Age, I would read it.

I suspect the reason Wallach went off on random verbose tangents is because there really isn't information on Hetty Green. I tried looking up information and I found three reputable sites with the same information. That explains why she would rephrase Hetty Green's rules 70 times within a chapter. It must have been tough for her to come up with with the recommended page count with such scant information on the source material. I can't fault Wallach. She did the best she could but I can't forgive her either. ( )
  Y2Ash | Apr 16, 2014 |
Esta resenha foi escrita no âmbito dos Primeiros Resenhistas do LibraryThing.
I have been fascinated with Hetty Green since reading her biography THE DAY THEY SHOOK THE PLUM TREE many years ago. The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age adds a fresh look at Hetty. A look into the life of a 19th/20th century woman who despite her sex and how women were viewed at the time, amassed a huge fortune. The book is well written and worth a detour. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Jan 2, 2014 |
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My Symphony
(A favorite poem of Hetty Howland Robinson Green)

To live content with small means;
To seek elegance rather than luxury,
And refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich;
To study hard, think quietly,
Talk gently,
Act frankly;
To listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart;
To bear all cheerfully,
Do all bravely,
Await occasions,
Hurry never.
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.
--William Henry Channing
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Author's Note: Hetty Green left no diaries, jounals, or correspondence, no personal jottings to serve as a key to her enigmatic ways.
Prologue: A pack of reporters swarmed around the woman who emerged from the heavy doors of the courthouse.
Chapter 1: The rancid smell of whale oil pervaded the air and perfumed the purses of New Bedford, Massachusetts,in 1841.
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A captivating biography of America's first female tycoon, Hetty Green, the iconoclast who forged one of the greatest fortunes of her time.

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