LITERATURE

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

. September 2012. 304p. 978-0-38553-197-9. 27.95.
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Investor Hetty Green (1834–1916) came to be known during her lifetime as “the Witch of Wall Street” and later as “the World’s Greatest Miser.” The image of Green has been rendered more positive and complex recently, e.g., as in Charles Slack’s Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon and now in Wallach’s contribution. Green amassed an estimated $100 million over her lifetime, but spent many of her years living in boardinghouses, eating soup, and wearing tattered, out-of-date clothing. Wallach (Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell) argues convincingly that Green’s frugality was excessive but understandable for several reasons. The loss of control she experienced when her father died and left much of the already considerable family fortune in the hands of a trust was one factor. Another, learned from the economic downturns of the Gilded Age, was that because fortunes can be lost, money should be saved and invested, not spent profligately. Green’s methods were condemned to a great extent simply because she was a strong and canny woman.
VERDICT Wallach covers much of the same ground as Slack, so it is unnecessary to own both books, but biography buffs and general readers will learn much from Wallach’s engaging study.

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