Hetty Green was known and feared as the richest woman in the world. She could afford every luxury. Yet she was too mean to wash her underclothes! Although a fabulously wealthy woman, Mrs Henrietta ‘Hetty’ Howland Green cared little about her personal appearance and on her daily visits to Wall Street gave the impression of poverty by her dress.
No beggar, no scarecrow, was ever as shabbily dressed as Mrs Hetty Green, variously known as ‘The Meanest Woman in the World’ and ‘The Witch of Wall Street’.
Worth millions of dollars, Hetty Green was a difficult woman to find. She flitted from one cheap boarding house to another to avoid paying taxes. She was well known at every New York hospital and clinic, for ever pleading for free treatment for her son’s injured leg. Although she doted on him Hetty Green could not bring herself to pay doctor’s bills and her son lost his leg because of her miserliness.
At times she could be found in the vaults of the Chemical and National Bank of New York, squatting on the stone floor, wearing a dress for which she had paid 50 cents. As she sat there, clipping dividend coupons and stuffing them in a shabby handbag and chewing a raw onion she was unaware of the odd sight she presented.
But no one laughed or smiled. For Hetty Green was the woman who deliberately ruined her husband, architect of her early rise to wealth, because he had acted against her advice in buying railroad shares. And, to emphasize that she was not to be trifled with she had ruined the bank on whose advice she had acted for 15 years. They had confused her money with her husband’s, so she switched her millions to another firm knowing full well what would happen.
Miserliness was in Hetty Green’s blood. Her wealthy father once refused the offer of an expensive cigar in case he liked it and lost his taste for cheaper brands. As a child the only family topic discussed in her hearing was money and finance.
The first signs of her meanness were noticed at her 21st birthday party. Hetty brought the proceedings to a hasty conclusion by blowing out the candles on the cake when they were still big enough to be resold to the grocer.
In 1860 she went to live with an aunt, Sylvia Howland, actuated by greed more than concern for the old lady’s welfare.
Sylvia Howland’s husband had left a fortune which Hetty expected would come to her. At he reading of the will Hetty was horrified at the long list of charitable bequests to widows and orphans left destitute in shipping disasters for which Howland had paid no compensation.
Hetty Green was left the income from a bequest of $100,000.00 yet she spent years trying to block payment of the charitable bequests. Their money, she argued, should have been left to her.
Almost at once she began nagging Aunt Sylvia to economize in housekeeping and asking for money. The lady Howland agreed to get some respite from her niece’s persistence and even, made a will in Hetty’s favor. When it was read, however, Hetty Green learned that she had been outsmarted. Sylvia had inserted extra codicils and Hetty’s share was quite small. Seething with fury, she then sued for everything her aunt had left, producing documents purporting to prove that Hetty was entitled to the lot. Experts, however, were able to prove that Hetty Green had forged the documents and Hetty, then faced with charges of fraud, forgery and perjury, withdrew her case. Yet she won in the end by blocking all attempts at paying other beneficiaries until all had died.
A few years later she married Edward H. Green a millionaire, and her real meanness began when their son was born. Hetty swore to make him the richest man in the world and from that day never willingly spent a cent. To save money she only had the hems of her underclothes washed as they were the only parts seen. When her daughter went to school she stuffed the child’s ears with cotton wool so she could not hear the remarks passed about her old clothes.
Meanwhile, the Greens’ joint fortunes grew, but Edward’s confidence in his own judgment eventually induced him to buy some speculative shares and several times Hetty helped him out of tight corners, until he did it once too often and she stripped him of his wealth and brought down his banker with him. In that year Edward told the tax authorities that his only assets were a gold watch and six dollars in cash.
Hetty Greens’ wealth, however, had greatly increased when her aunt’s will was proved at last and she collected most of her fortune. Then she was known as the richest woman in America — and widely hated as the meanest.
She lost no opportunity of spiting anyone she imagined had impeded her quest for riches. With threats and a series of legal actions she brought about the death of the man appointed executor of her uncle’s will. Hetty Green always accused him of favoring other beneficiaries at her expense.
Offended by the decisions Judge Collins had sometimes given against her, she deliberately compelled people, who dared not refuse, to withhold their support when they would have voted for him. Invariably Collins was passed over for promotion.
Even when her daughter married once of the Astors her way did not change. She even started economizing by writing cheques on scraps of paper instead of using proper bank forms.
With the onset of old age she did not mellow but did seem to become less wary. Once she lent $800,000.00 to a reckless speculator named Payne, believing he was Harry Payne Whitney, the millionaire. Fortunately for her peace of mind the loan was repaid on time.
Her dividend coupons were left unclipped. She forgot to collect or claim interest. She mislaid important documents, yet her bankers dared not complain in case they became victims of her spite.
Hetty Green — Drink Talks
In July of 1910 she agreed to place all affairs in the capable hands of her son, Ned, and still living in squalor, was rescued by an old friend, Countess Annie Leary. She took Hetty into her own home and for the first time since girlhood the richest woman in the world lived in comfort and ate satisfying meals. The most pleasing feature to Hetty Green, of course, was that it was all at her friend’s expense. Even so, Hetty Green was appalled at the cost of it all and, though she enjoyed her new surroundings, never once ceased assuring her friend that the luxuries they both enjoyed would condemn her to the poorhouse.
One day Countess Leary’s cook, under the influence of Dutch courage, tired of Hetty Green’s niggling, talked back to her and even out-swore her. That was a new experience to Hetty whose wealth had always assured her of respect. She bottled up her indignation and that, said her doctor, brought on a stroke.
She had other strokes and nurses were engaged to look after her. Countess Leary, well aware of her guest’s ways, knew that Hetty Green would be outraged by such extravagance and persuaded them to masquerade as ordinary servants.
Hetty Green died on July 3, 1916, aged 81. Ten years passed before the full extent of her estate could be calculated. Eventually it was proved at more than $100 million and included 8,000 plots of land. Both New York and New Jersey tried hard to collect taxes on Hetty Green’s fortune but the Witch of Wall Street had the last laugh as usual.
Her policy of never having a house of her own paid off. The courts decided that she was a resident in the state of Vermont which managed to collect $52,000. Hetty Green would have undoubtedly been grieved about that.