28 February 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse book review: The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age




Hetty Green-whom I hadn't heard of -- was worth over 200 million dollars by the time she died in in 1916; that's close to 3 billion dollars in today's money. That seemed like a good reason to read this book, plus it was February's selection for my book club. My rather low opinion of Wallach's biography was in the minority Wednesday night when we met to talk about it. Here are the positive aspects of the book:

1. It sheds light on the unlikely story of an astute business woman in the man's world of the late 1800's. This is the strongest reason to read Wallach's book.

2. The financial panics of 1873, 1893, and 1907 bore uncanny likenesses to the economic woes of 2008.

3. Hetty was an oddball and that's interesting. One woman announced Wednesday night that she liked Hetty and thought they could be friends.

4. Hetty Green was an astonishing money-maker.

So I had to defend myself, a newcomer to this intellectual, outspoken, and independent group of women comprising the book club...all eyes on poor little me, who sheepishly had to say I didn't much like this book. Here are a few reasons that I blurted out:

1. It does NOT shed light on the unlikely story of an astute business woman in the man's world of the late 1800's. Wallach's research into Hetty's life depended mostly on the yellow journalism reports of her written in her lifetime, and these are just not credible. Fascinating, but not credible.

2. I'm not sure that the panics of the 1800's can be fairly compared to the real estate bubble of 2008. Maybe. Hetty's profiteering from such low points is classic, though. Should I admire her for that? 

3. Hetty was an oddball in terms of a lust for money and little else. Though she clearly loved her family, she was controlling, conniving, miserly and tyrannical towards all. She was against women's suffrage. Certainly the culture of the Edwardian era was different from present day, but I couldn't find it in my heart to say that we could ever be friends. Okay, she was very fond of her dog. I could've talked dogs with her.

4. Hetty Green was a litigious zealot. Even all of those who liked this book admitted to skipping some pages, tedious passages about lawsuits. I probably skipped 6-10 such pages, which is a lot. "It's a shame when one can't put up with reading the hard stuff," said a person who loved the book, and I agree with her. But who wants to put up with boring stuff? Even she skipped some of these passages.

5. Hetty Green DID make a lot of money. Here's her secret: buy low, sell high. I know that's shocking.

I had trouble loving a book about somebody as unlikeable as Hetty. Even so I'm glad I read it because now I know who she was. Watch this short clip about Hetty, who bought up real estate in Chicago when banks were going belly-up:



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18 comments:

  1. So ... February was a bad month for books for you? Hetty sounds like a lady version of Howard Hughes. Profiles of unpleasant people can be interesting, but it sounds like this author was trying to make readers admire Hetty. Which is maybe where it fell flat for you? I laughed at your #3. "Liking dogs" is indeed always a mark in someone's favor.

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    1. The author attempted to psychoanalyze Hetty, saying she was insecure and always looking for approval from her wealthy father who was disappointed that she wasn't a son. I didn't really buy that. I wanted to like Hetty, I did. In the end I just thought she was sick.

      March will be a better month for books! I feel it coming.

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    2. I was curious to see what Stephanie thought of this one as it reminds me of her review of The Unwinding last month. Boy, the more things change...

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    3. I need to re-visit her review, AS. Thanks for the reminder!

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  2. You might get drummed out of this little community, you outspoken newcomer. This does not sounds like an enticing read to me.

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    1. Ha! Maybe. But discussions are so much more fun when somebody disagrees with the majority opinion. I think they'll hang onto me for sheer entertainment.

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  3. With all her money-making ability, you gotta love that her surname was green.

    Good for you for speaking your mind. I'd want you in my group. :)

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    1. Oh Hilary, that's so funny!! How come I didn't even think of that for one second?? Of course her name had to be green!

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  4. She looks like she'd be a very miserable person to be around. And what a mother! I think today you'd have the child removed from your home if you ignored medical advice and had your son's leg amputated. She would make a great villain in a novel!

    And, hey, you don't have to like every book. I'm pretty vocal about the ones that annoy me. ;)

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    1. She was kind of a villain, one I wanted to like because she was a woman. But villains are villains. And her son only had one leg.

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  5. You brought up some very good counterpoints in your group. I love honesty and appreciate those who can speak up instead of agreeing with the majority. I read a similar biography on Huguette Clark, a filthy rich heiress, and I couldn't even finish the book it was so boring, and I so disliked her! Anyway, I admire your outspokenness and I'm sure the book club is better with you in it.

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    1. I never heard of Huguette Clark. Huguette? Interesting name. But I'm not gonna run out and get that book.

      There was one other person who wasn't nuts about this book. I was not alone! It's very intimidating to be alone in your opinion.

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  6. It can be scary to be the first to go against the general consensus - but clearly it makes for a much more interesting discussion if somebody does. :)

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  7. Hetty is a nicer name than Huguette. Can see why she went for the short form. Think this book would just make me frustrated with her shortcomings.

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    1. I think Hetty was actually short for Henrietta. People at the meeting defended her shortcomings as things that would not be a big deal if she'd been born male...a point with which I disagree.

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  8. Obviously having all that money didn't make her a nice person or even one who enjoyed life very much. It's nice that you are able to give an honest review at your book club.

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    1. Sally, money definitely does not = niceness, especially in Hetty's case. The book produced no evidence that she enjoyed life very much, but I have to believe she had some fun in the years she spent abroad, which the book failed to cover. Her passion was money.

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