Book Heaven

Where the world of books and life intersect

Location: South Amboy, New Jersey

I am deeply involved in trying to solve the discrepancy between being interested in zen and trying to acquire all the things I've been accumulating

Monday, May 09, 2005

Another Myth Deconstructed

Now that I've been exiled from eBay, I'm spending less time scuffling for pesos to support my book buying habit, and, (surprise of surprises!) more time actually reading. To fill some of this new found time, I turned to a subject that interested me almost as much as those mysterious Collyer brothers. The subject in question was Hetty Green, a woman often referred to as "the witch of Wall Street." A few things about Hetty are indisputable -- although she was not the richest person of all time, she amassed a remarkable fortune in a man's world and her achievement may actually be more impressive than any man's. As fortunes are measured, I seem to recall Hetty's was ranked in the mid 30s, half a dozen notches lower than that of Bill Gates. John D. Rockefeller's fortune in 1937 is #1 on the all time list and unlikely to be surpassed any time soon (fortunes are measured as a percentage of the gross national product). Hetty was a woman obsessed with accumulating wealth and the only thing that may have given her as much pleasure was going toe-to-toe with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and besting them at their own game. She's little more than a footnote in history today primarily because she didn't bother to soften her image through philanthropy. She was indisputably a titan of finance though and even bailed out a struggling New York City a couple of times

There is a pretty interesting web site devoted to Hetty. You can access it at: Called "A Frugal Women's Museum," it is a tribute to the often misunderstood entrepreneur. More importantly, there is an interesting book that is also worth a few hours of your time: Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack (Harper Collins Ecco, 2004) was a book I had a hard time putting down. Although I generally hate the opening chapters of a book like this, Slack's recreation of Hetty growing up in the whaling era of New Bedford, Massachusetts was positively masterful. It made me want to run right out and check out a few of the books mentioned in his bibliography that detailed whaling era New Bedford.

I've always been fascinated by the story that Hetty let her son lose his leg because she was too cheap to pay a doctor to try to save it, instead relegating his care at the time to a free clinic. Slack debunks that tale but his stories about Hetty's schemes to avoid paying for medical care more than make up for that shattered myth. I just noticed that Slack teaches a class entitled Bringing History to Life at his hometown Trumbull, Connecticut library. Wish it were closer and I could attend!

Right after I had finished this book, a remarkable thing happened. As I was pawing through some old books at a book sale at the Newark Public Library (details to be provided in a later entry) I came across a copy of Hetty Green: A Woman Who Loved Money by Boyden Sparkes and Samuel Taylor Moore (Doubleday, Doran 1930). It was a pretty funky copy but Hetty would have loved the price -- it was free!


Blogger Cap'n Bob Napier said...

The Hetty Green book is being sold by Ed Hamilton, the remainder guy. Check out his latest catalogue.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Wow, so Ed Hamilton is selling my great, great grandmothers book. Not sure what the remainder guy means, but wouldn't you think that royalties to our great great grandma Hetty should come to us as the living relatives. Just how did it come about that you are profiting from my family??!!

Deborah A Burgess Turner

3:38 PM  

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