On Feb. 25, historian Charles Slack will serve as the keynote speaker at Westfair Communications’ 2020 Family-Owned Business Awards, and he can’t wait to take the podium.
“As a business writer, I’ve done a lot of writing about family businesses,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated about the challenges in running a successful one.”
The Trumbull-based Slack may have come across one of the most compelling families in the history of American business: The Green family headed by the matriarch Hetty Green, who gained notoriety during the Gilded Age as the nation’s wealthiest woman. Green’s story nearly disappeared into obscurity until Slack’s 2004 book “Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon” offered a look at her groundbreaking achievements in late 19th and early 20th century finance and banking.
Slack said it was difficult to “find the real person” behind many of the strange and wild tales that surrounded her life and legacy. She was “concerned in protecting the family fortune” and did not ensure a future of automatic name recognition by lavishing her funds on self-named schools, libraries or cultural centers. And what little about Green that came down through the years was suffocating in legends that made her seem almost cartoonish.
“There were many stories about her but trying to find out the true woman was challenging,” he said. “She was private and secretive and did not leave a diary.”
Hetty Green was born in 1834 as Hetty Howland Robinson. Her father, a whaling fleet owner and a shrewd investor, willed her his fortune, but the laws of that era prevented her from having direct access to the funds, with the estate going into a trust fund from which she derived income.
The death of her wealthy aunt in 1862 also found her inheritance going into a trust, over which she had no control of the principal, with the rest of the estate going to charities and other beneficiaries. As a result, Hetty brought a lawsuit against the executor of her aunt’s will, claiming she had possession of an earlier will that supposedly had a clause invalidating subsequent wills.
The case went to court as Robinson v. Mandel, and the pioneering use of forensic mathematics to determine the legitimacy of the documents’ signatures resulted in Hetty losing the case, but she later gained a $600,000 settlement.
Hetty married Edward Henry Green, a wealthy executive in a trade company, in 1867, but she took the then-unprecedented step of forcing him to sign a prenuptial agreement that would prevent him from making any legal claim to her fortune. Unlike most of the women of her time, she took an active interest in investing, following the buy-low-sell-high strategy and staking out projects that more conservative investors were uncomfortable in pursuing.
By the time of her death in 1916, Green’s fortune was estimated between $100 million and $200 million (between $2.35 billion and $4.7 billion in today’s dollars).
But despite her prominence on Wall Street, Slack pointed out that she did not work to open the doors for other women to shatter the proverbial glass ceilings of that period.
“As she became much more well-known, she never became an activist for women’s rights,” he said. “She raised her kids in a more-or-less conventional manner — her son went into the business, but her daughter was never really in it.”
As for the Green family, Hetty’s husband fell victim to bad investments and never shared the same level of wealth of his wife. Her son Ned managed the family’s properties in Chicago and Texas while her daughter Sylvia married Matthew Astor Wilks of the Astor dynasty. Hetty previously swatted away a number of cash-poor European aristocrats who tried to win Sylvia’s hand and, by extension, bank account. Both went into their later years in great wealth, but neither had children and the Green family’s fortunes were willed to schools and charities.
Green’s extreme frugality included an effort to have her son’s injured leg treated in a free clinic by pretending to be an impoverished mother. The nickname “Witch of Wall Street” became attached to her, but Slack discovered she could be warm and caring as well as witty in addressing the insults of her excessive thriftiness.
“I think they looked at her as an oddity,” he said. “They thought she was someone they could intimidate because she was a woman. But they never knew what to expect from her. She was a real threat to men.”