Leonardo DiCaprio did an outstanding job (as he always does) in his fictional role as Jordan Belford, the so-called Wolf of Wall Street. In real life, a woman named Hetty Green was far shrewder and far richer than DiCaprio’s fictional alter ego.
This isn’t your typical girltalkcareerblog post. When I discovered Hetty Green I thought she was worth mention in the Girl Power Hall of Fame so I blogged solely about her and her business acumen. Although I admire her intelligence, her familial skills were far less impressive.
Henriette Howland Robinson was only 9 years old when she showed an aptitude for numbers and a head for business (and a bod for sin?). She learned her ruthless father’s business acumen as a child when he took her to work on the shipping docks of his whaling business.A stalwart piece of advice he gave her child was “never owe anyone anything, not even a smile or a handshake.” Hetty would take that advice to its extreme and then some.
Even though Robinson respected his prized daughter he refused to let her receive her inheritance when her mother died, so she didn’t get a penny until he kicked the bucket when she was 30. As he lay dying, the mentally deficient Robinson told his daughter that he had been poisoned and warned her that his enemies were planning on killing her. Well they say money can’t buy happiness – or sanity, apparently.
After a number of legal battles over an inheritance Hetty was promised by her aunt, she invested in low-risk investments and tax shelters that bordered on evasion. Her method, among others, was to buy and sell several houses all at once, turning them over for a profit before Uncle Sam could take his share. Years later, when her grown children left home, Hetty moved repeatedly among small apartments in New Jersey to avoid establishing a permanent residence that might bring the tax official wolves (pun) hounding at her door.
All the while, Hetty wasn’t one to be seen strutting in high heels (a big mistake for the modern businesswoman, of course). She was too cheap and miserly with her money. Coco Chanel was worthless in the Robinson household, unless Hetty bought into her stocks (who knows). Hetty married Ned Green, a bit of a lowlife who was a speculative investor and not a good one at that. His talents worsened considerably over the years.
The two were polar opposites and Hetty made sure she had Ned sign a pre-nuptial agreement (one of the first of its kind in America) protecting her assets. No human being is perfect and Hetty was lacking in two areas: mothering and spending. Hetty Green’s frugality clashed with her husband’s speculation. She had to bail out her husband from near bankruptcy several times before she separated from him. They had two children, a daughter, Sylvia and a son, Ned.
A particularly troubling rumour states that while a child, Ned injured his leg sledding so Hetty took him to a charity hospital to get free care. Naturally the hospital turned her away and Hetty attempted to care for Ned at home. Being even less skilled in doctoring than she was in mother, the leg was improperly treated. Years later her son’s leg to be amputated when gangrene set in. Hetty’s biographer wrote that she paid her bill and brought her son to other doctors. The leg simply didn’t heal.
Not surprisingly, given her lifestyle and extreme frugality, Green’s relationship with her children was strained. Sylvia left after marrying and seldom Ned worked unpaid for years as her clerk. He was instantly recognizable because of his “cork leg”. Well, he chose to work for free.
Our girl Hetty was all about value investing, which is when buyers deliberately purchase stocks that are offered for what they believe is beneath their true market value. These investors operate on “rumour”, that is, people’s uncertainty about which way the market will move and who usually undervalue their company’s worth when placing their stocks on the market. Hetty wasn’t a “buy and hold” investor. She simply sold when she got the right price. Hetty was a natural at “buy low, sell high”. She told the NY Times that her secret was to buy shares when “nobody wants them,” and to sell when they were worth considerably more
When several men in the stock trade tried to bear raid Hetty’s fortune they got nowhere. A bear raid is where a group of people illegally try to push an investor out of the market by short selling, or selling a security that isn’t owned by the seller or that the seller has borrowed. Short selling is motivated by the belief that a security’s price will decrease so it can be bought back at a lower price to make a profit. Sell low, buy lower. Rather like a gang of people on Survivor making pacts about not voting each other off the island so that other people got the boot. Hetty bought up the outstanding stock and demanded a high price from her enemies before allowing them to close out their positions. Well played.
Hetty’s miserly character was legendary to the point of offensive. She was said never to turn on the heat or use hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out, ross), did not wash her hands and rode in an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap. Personal hygiene was not one of Hetty’s strong suits.
Hetty groomed Ned to replace her, but did nothing for Sylvia. Hetty died in 1916, with an estimated $100 million in liquid assets and much more in land and investments that weren’t always in her name. She took a $6 million inheritance and made it into a fortune worth upwards of $2 billion today, making her the richest woman in the world. After she died, Ned led a party lifestyle and squandered some of the fortune. I’d say he earned it. After his death Sylvia received $100 million (Hetty and her children are pictured left). Sylvia left $200 million upon her death. She left it all to churches, universities and charities.
In her old age, she developed a bad hernia, but refused to have an operation because it cost $150. She suffered many strokes and had to rely on a wheelchair. The mental paranoia that had afflicted he now affected Hetty. She became afraid that she would be kidnapped and made detours to evade would-be pursuers. She also suspected that her aunt and father had been poisoned.
If you’re familiar with Sarah Winchester of the Winchester Rifle fortune, you’d know that she too seemed to have a mental illness of some type. She was a highly superstitious woman and visited a psychic who continually told her to build stairways and doors that led nowhere or directly into walls inside her mansion, then rip them all down and begin again in an effort to avoid persecution by otherworldly spirits. Winchester spent millions following this woman’s advice for several years until she died. Can you imagine the conversations these two would have had? Hetty still would have invested in Winchester Rifles if there was good money to be made. The hell with Sarah Winchester’s ghosts.
I admire Hetty’s business sense and obvious financial aptitude. I’m appalled at her inability to enjoy her money and spend it like (Victoria) Beckham. Men like Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt were respected for their shrew business acumen but due to her gender and wealth (and possibly a few personality quirks) , Hetty became known as the Wicked Witch of Wall Street. Today she would be an inspiration to investors everywhere and not just women. Her mothering sucked but clearly her sense of financial investment didn’t – a staggering example of Girl Power.