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Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon    by Charles Slack Amazon.com order for
Hetty
by Charles Slack
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover

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* *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

Hetty Green was surely an anomaly during her lifetime, and remains so almost a century later. Born Hetty Howland Robinson in 1834, she grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts; her Quaker heritage played a pivotal role her development from an early age. Her younger brother died in infancy, so it was Hetty who accompanied her father and grandfather to the docks and offices, where she learnt lifelong lessons about financial management. After her mother's death, the only other female of significance in Hetty's life was her Aunt Sylvia, an invalid from childhood, who suffered spinal deformities that kept her prone for most of her life.

Hetty became obsessed with maintaining and building up the family's fortune, and went to great lengths to hold on to control of her inheritance. It should be remembered that we are talking about amounts of money that today would rank up there with Bill Gates and other multibillionaires! Even though Hetty accrued an amazing fortune, she was the miser of all misers - she lived in a variety of mean boarding houses in suburbs of New York, particularly Brooklyn and Hoboken, moving frequently to avoid the taxman after her death it was established through court litigations that she had been a resident of Vermont, a state with one of the lowest inheritance taxes (several states wanted to include Hetty Green as a resident because the inheritance tax amounted to a substantial sum of money). Throughout her life Hetty adhered to a simple financial dictum - buy low, sell high and never panic.

Hetty's miserliness was legendary, and she could be seen taking public transport and walking around New York - often wearing old clothes that had seen better days (or rather decades!). Her two children grew up in poverty, although they were the heirs to one of the greatest fortunes of the time. Neither of Hetty's children produced offspring, so the fabulous fortune just passed on, in smaller amounts, to numerous distant relatives and many charities. While she was alive, Hetty was not known to make charitable donations, although she did advance many loans to church groups, the City of New York, banks and other institutions at rates better than the going rate; she was forever a business person. However, Hetty's business dealings were always ethical, unlike for example, J.P. Morgan, who financed Arthur Eastman's purchase of defective rifles from the government at $2.50 apiece, and sold them back to the government for $22 each!

Charles Slack's book begins well, keeping the reader enthralled with this tale of a woman who defied her times, amassing millions when women didn't even have the vote! However, as the book progresses the pace slows, and there are several repetitions of detail which are rather annoying. But do not let that deter you - Hetty is quite an interesting read.

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