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Buy *Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon* online

Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon
Charles Slack
272 pages
November 2004
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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The names Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie are immediately recognizable, synonymous with money and plenty of it. But what of the name Green? Strike any chords? Most likely not -- unless you’ve read Charles Slack’s Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon.

Hetty was born in 1834, the daughter of New Bedford, Massachusetts, businessman Edward "Black Hawk" Robinson and Abby Howland Robinson. Her only sibling, a brother, died in infancy. Robinson was known to be "a tough businessman, shrewd, unsentimental, thrifty, and cold." His wife was a frail, quiet shadow of a woman. Hetty was shipped off to her grandfather’s home for much of her childhood, but wormed her way into the paternal world by reading the financial news to her father -- who had poor eyesight.

Her love of money began at a young age, and her passion for thrift became legendary. By the time she passed away in 1916, Hetty’s personal fortune was estimated to be a minimum of $100 million (today that would be in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion). So why don’t we know the name Green? Two reasons: Hetty was eccentric and she was a woman who dared enter a man’s world.

Peppered with excerpts from press clipping of the time, Slack leads readers through Hetty’s journey along the road to riches. Labelled the "Witch of Wall Street," Hetty was infamous for eschewing society and living life as she saw fit. If that meant cheap tenements instead of a grand house, so be it. If that meant pretending to be poor and searching out free medical help, c’est la vie. If that meant wearing a black dress and bonnet, years out of style and sadly showing its wear, that was a sacrifice of shrewd saving practices.

She was a brilliant businessperson, unemotional and dedicated to growing her wealth. Buy low, sell high, never waver. If a mortgage came due and couldn’t be paid, foreclosure. If they fought, fight back in court with the best lawyers money could buy. Hetty was equally famous for her love of battle in court, and she willing (and regularly) parted with some of her hard-earned money for the cost of lawyers.

The book covers all of the pertinent details, covering Hetty’s life through the birth of her son and daughter, her estranged marriage to Edward Green, her lack of close personal friends and the ultimate loss of a fortune when both children fail to bear heirs. What it doesn’t provide is a sense of fascination, morbid or otherwise. There is little excitement and passion in the very correct recitation of facts. As a reader, I found it hard to care much for Hetty and, at times, had to re-read sections that were historically detailed but not very exciting.

Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon is a factual account of a woman whose life was all about money. Maybe that’s why it seemed dry!

© 2005 by Megan Kopp for curledup.com.

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