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The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age by Janet Wallach
The Warren Buffett of the Gilded Age wore a dress.
 

(Nan A. Talese, $28)

The Warren Buffett of the Gilded Age wore a dress, said Kevin Keane in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Hetty Green had one major investment rule: Buy when everyone is selling and sell when everyone is buying,” and she rode that formula to such success that countless wannabes watched her every move. Green was born in 1834 to a Massachusetts Quaker family who held a controlling interest in a whaling firm, and from the beginning she showed a gift for accounts. She may never have found happiness during the half-century in which she amassed a fortune worth the equivalent of $2 billion today, but Janet Wallach’s colorful biography provides “an enthusiastic portrait” of what appears to have been “a less-than-satisfying life.”

Nicknamed both “the Witch of Wall Street" and "the Queen of Wall Street," Green earned both titles, said Bethany McLean in The Washington Post. She invested her first $1,000—money intended to help her attract a spouse—in bonds; by 32, she was rich enough that it was her fiancé who had to sign a prenuptial agreement. Green could be ruthless. She loved suing competitors, and was fond of making threats, once with a gun in her hand. Her unrelenting commitment to thrift led her to prefer New York boarding houses to mansions, but it also precluded a healthier emotional life. When she was forced to cover debts incurred by her husband, she coldly sent him away.

“It remains a question whether the Green story is worth celebrating,” said Amity Shlaes in The Wall Street Journal. Wallach hopes her book will inspire young women to aspire to Hetty-like independence, but the evidence in this “well-researched and well-written” biography suggests that Green’s life was “not only miserly; it was miserable.” The experience of battling daily against an all-male plutocracy “narrowed her,” and her wealth “never compensated for the loneliness she caused herself.” You have to hope that her story will inspire female readers to create lives that are more fulfilling. 

 

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