- - Friday, November 9, 2012

By Janet Wallach
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, $27.95, 304 pages

This autumn has seen a slew of new books about the economy and the new plutocracy. None is as absorbing as Janet Wallach’s “The Richest Woman in America,” which takes us through America’s repeated booms and busts through the eyes and coolheaded example of the remarkable financial genius Hetty Green.

As rich as a Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, New England Quaker Hetty Green was a blue-blooded heiress who triumphed in the male world of finance yet identified with common folk. When she died in 1916, “The Queen of Wall Street” was worth at least $100 million, the equivalent of $2.5 billion today. The Warren Buffett of her day, she made her fortune by careful research, buying low and selling high. She was a railroad magnate; real estate mogul; and owner of gold, copper and iron mines. She also was a generous financier, a reliable source for city funding. In making her wealth, she did not borrow or cheat. Hard work and common sense were her secrets “Common sense is the most valuable possession anyone can have.”she said.

Author Janet Wallach has a talent for discovering defiantly independent women from the past who swam against the tide, and plucking them out of obscurity. Her 1996 biography “Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia,” has been translated into 12 languages and was hailed by critics, who said the story of Lawrence of Arabia paled beside those of this trailblazing Victorian.

Unlike the rich trove of Gertrude Bell’s diaries and letters, no such treasures existed for the intensely private Green. Her son and daughter died childless; her solid fortune “was scattered like confetti to the wind.” It is a testament to Ms. Wallach’s skills as a biographer and reporter that she has been creative and thorough in finding new material in which to weave the life and times of her enigmatic subject.

Hetty Green liked to attract attention and enjoyed saying outrageous things; reporters found her to be excellent copy. She rejected the mores of her patrician background. Instead of decking herself out in the latest fashion and dining out at Delmonico’s with the other socialites, she marched to Wall Street, poring over bonds and figures, decked out in shabby shawls and frumpy hats. She loved music, art and concerts but was not one to waste time seeing and being seen at the opera or theater. She found more satisfaction working the soil and harvesting vegetables from her garden. She encouraged women to educate themselves about business and manage their own money, declaring it was “foolish timidity” for them to lean on men. But she rejected the whole idea of women’s suffrage, declaring a woman’s place was to be the good wife and mother.

Convinced that strangers were out to rob, poison or kill her, she traveled disguised, staying never more than a night in one hotel; her constant lawsuits filled court dockets. When asked why she adored her Scottish terrier so much, she replied: “He doesn’t know how rich I am.” Until the end of her life, reporters remarked on the quickness of her walk, the sparkle in her eyes, her quick wit; she credited those to her habit of hiking everywhere and her steady diet of onions to stave off colds. She made her own rules and lived by them. If town gossips thought she was cheap, her home austere, her manner hard, they did not give her credit for being devoted to her children, kind to strangers and loving and generous with her friends.

Ms. Wallach is less successful in explaining Green’s character than in depicting her financial environment. Hard times have always come in waves. They have followed exaggerated expectations, wild speculation and high leverage. Ms. Wallach’s telling of the collapses of 1857, 1873, 1893-94 and 1907 is fascinating and, at least on the surface, readers will find similarities with our own miseries. And while the author has made a valiant attempt to humanize and explain Hetty Green, there are times the narrative gets repetitious; certain anecdotes do not add to our understanding of the relevance of her life, work or personality and easily could have been edited.

Nonetheless, long after one has finished reading, what shines forth is the wisdom of an obscure but admirable woman who said and did what she thought. As if to inspire others, a series of Green’s bon mots conclude the book, which should be mandatory reading for investors embarking on refiguring their 401(k)s.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is a writer living in Washington, D.C.

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