Born in 1834, Hetty Robinson (later Hetty Green) faced dismal prospects. Her family earned a nice fortune in New Bedford, Mass., the center of the whaling industry. But her parents had wanted a boy, not a girl. So her devout Quaker parents cast her away, placing Hetty with her maternal grandparents, where she struggled for attention.
Hetty's grandfather, Gideon Howland, taught her from a young age about the importance of understanding business affairs, and she demonstrated a talent for numbers. Eventually, Hetty's father, Edward, noticed the unusual talent exhibited by a "mere woman," and began to view her as a family asset.
By the time Hetty died in 1916, she had been portrayed in the media for decades as the richest female in the United States. With seed money from her father and occasional assistance from her late-in-life husband, Edward Green, Hetty invested wisely in railroads, commercial real estate and so many other industries that keeping track became difficult. She rarely if ever invested on a whim, instead researching every potential transaction carefully. She lived frugally, providing generously for the two children she eventually brought into the world, but denying herself all ostentation.
Biographer Janet Wallach suggests that Hetty Green can be compared validly to current tycoon Warren Buffett, and the comparison indeed seems apt. Although portrayed as humorless, Green -- like Buffett -- sometimes demonstrated subtle humor, generosity to those less fortunate and empathy for all humankind.
Wallach supports such characterizations with copious detail. She reports that when trolley workers began a strike in Brooklyn, Hetty "took the side of the workers." Wallach quotes Green as saying that, "The poor have no chance in this country. No wonder Anarchists and Socialists are so numerous. The longer we live, the more discontented we all get, and no wonder, too." Green added, perhaps pointing to herself, "Some blame the rich, but all the rich are not to blame."
Through no fault of Wallach's, this biography can drag at times, as it recounts social events and business transactions with no seeming special significance. Green was not flashy, and she left behind no diaries or correspondence to "serve as a key to her enigmatic ways," Wallach writes. As a result, Wallach relied heavily on secondary sources such as journalistic accounts. Wallach decided that rather than write a "traditional biography," she would produce something akin to "an Impressionist painting, a series of brushstrokes meant to shed light on a woman and her times." Defined in that way, Wallach's life and times of Hetty Green is a success.
Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books, including three biographies and a book about the biographical craft.