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:
For more book reviews, visit Armchair Squid and check them out.