Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Wizard of Wall Street

Jul 03, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


“A good business woman is often sharper than a good business man.”-Hetty Green


What Lady Macbeth and Lady Black failed to grasp was the biblical admonition, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”


Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film was a portrayal of Jordan Belfort-a real-life Jay Gatsby-a rapacious predator who earned the sobriquet “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Predating Jordan was the nineteenth century Hetty Green whose detractors dubbed her “The Witch of Wall Street.”


The nineteenth century magician of money was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Herman Melville spent time in the whaling town where he could have seen Edward Robinson, in the company of his young daughter, shouting at the sailors that time was money. Melville set sail on the Acushnet, an experience that led to his seafaring novel in which Captain Ahab’s obsession was Moby Dick, the great white whale. Henrietta, (Hetty) Howland Robinson’s obsession was money. She was the daughter of Quaker parents Edward and Abby whose affluence stemmed from Isaac Howland Jr. and Company that owned a fleet of whaling ships. The Robinsons were deeply disappointed at the birth of a daughter.  Their second- born was the long-awaited son, Isaac, who died before his first birthday. A grieving Abbey took to her bed; Edward busied himself in work. The opening sentence of Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael,” related to Hetty as her parents shunned her-the same fate as the biblical Ishmael. She ended up living with her grandfather, Gideon Howland.


As Gideon and Edward suffered from poor eyesight, Hetty read them stock quotes and the newspaper’s financial section from which she learned “what stocks and bonds were, how the market fluctuated and the meaning of ‘bulls’ and ‘bears.’” Another lesson she learned was from her father’s admonition, “Never owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness.” At age eight, Hetty told the Howland driver to hitch the horses to take her to the bank. Using the coins saved from her weekly allowance, she opened her own account. Edward, whose motto could have been, “Miserliness is next to Godliness,” was pleased with his enterprising daughter. Due to his position at the Bedford Commercial Bank, Edward welcomed Congressman Abraham Lincoln when he came to New Bedford to speak at Liberty Hall.


Hetty’s happiest childhood times were spent at Round Tree Farm, the Robinson clan’s 100-acre seaside summer retreat. Her unhappiest were spent when she attended Eliza Wing’s boarding-school in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Quaker discipline ruled and classes centered on Scripture and rote memorialization. On a vacation, she was delighted when Gideon purchased a piano, something not sanctioned by the Society of Friends.  Her friend, Mary Swift, was playing a tune when Abby berated Mary, “Take thy music, thy person and thy furbelows and be gone!” The girl rushed from the house.


Hetty’s Aunt Sylvia, a semi-invalid who never married or had children, insisted her niece spend time with their wealthy Manhattan relatives Henry Grinnell and his wife, Sarah, who could introduce her to eligible bachelors. Henry was friends with Whig senators Henry Clay and Daniel Webster and had served as the first president of the American Geographical Society. Before his daughter’s departure, Edward gave her $1,200 for a new wardrobe; she spent $200.00 on clothes, the rest on bonds. 


In 1860, Abby passed away, little mourned by her only child or distant husband. She died intestate, and when Edward claimed her money, Hetty was infuriated since the wealth had come from the Howlands. The twenty-six-year-old Hetty took the case to attorney B.F. Thomas for arbitration. Edward proved the victor; Hetty received an $8,000 home.


The widowed Edward, prescient as to the demise of the whaling industry, sold his business and moved to Saratoga, a watering hole for Wall Street tycoons and industrialists. Having mended their relationship, Hetty paid him a visit. The highlight of her vacation was when former U.S. president Martin van Buren invited her to a dinner party at his home on Lake Saratoga. Other guests were Baroness Stoeckel, wife of the Russian ambassador, Lord Althorpe, the future Duke of Northumberland, and Van Buren’s son, John.


When Hetty returned to Manhattan, the city was in a frenzy over the imminent arrival of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII of England. Henry Grinnell was part of the committee in charge of planning a ball in the royal’s honor. On the day of his arrival, business closed, and a crowd of hundreds of thousands thronged the streets. They crowd cheered, and cannons boomed as Queen Victoria’s son waved from the balcony of his Fifth Avenue Hotel. On the evening of the ball, Hetty cut a striking figure in her low-cut white gown. When an official introduced her to the Prince of Wales, Hetty responded, “And I am the Princess of Whales.” The future king stated, “Ah, I have heard that all of Neptune’s daughters are beautiful. You are proof of that.” Then they danced.


With Hetty’s beauty and bank account she could have traded provincial New England and reigned in the upper echelons of Manhattan, with summers spent in a Newport mansion, a life straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. But Hetty was not hungry for the trappings of wealth; what interested her was wealth itself. Worried that her increasingly frail Aunt Sylvia was falling under the influence of strangers, Hattie boarded a steamer for Massachusetts. 


Visits with her aunt proved contentious as Sylvia spent her money in a manner that her niece found frivolous. In a fit of anger, Hetty pushed her aunt’s maid, Fally, feeling she was trying to muscle in on her employer’s money.  Fally lost her balance and tumbled down the stairs. Livid with rage, Sylvia paid $1,000 in compensation. A contrite Hetty begged for forgiveness and rejoined her father.


For most of her thirty years, Hetty’s lexicon had revolved around the words stocks, bonds, bulls, and bears till a new one-romance- entered her life. On an 1864 trip to Boston, Hetty was in the Parker House Hotel where she saw Solon Goodridge, her father’s business acquaintance. Samuel introduced her to his friend, Edward Green. The Vermont-born Green had worked in the Far East for twenty years where he had faced down pirates and storms at sea. What interested Hetty more than his past: Green was a millionaire. A further credential, like Henry Grinnell, he was a member of the prestigious Union Club. What cast a shadow over their courtship was her father’s sudden illness. In between acting as his nurse, Hetty helped manage his business portfolio.


When Edward asked for his daughter’s hand, her father agreed. He was dying, and, though his daughter had proved her brilliance in finances, he still harbored the belief that a woman could not handle money. However, to safeguard his daughter, he made a stipulation in his will that her husband would not be able to access her funds without her approval. When Edward Robinson passed away in 1865, he left behind a six-million-dollar fortune. He left Hetty a million dollars in cash plus the ownership of a San Francisco waterfront warehouse. The rest was left in trust for others to invest. Hetty was furious, knowing that she had more monetary acumen than those who would control her inheritance.


Silvia Howland passed away shortly afterwards, and Hetty headed home to New Bedford. Swathed in black due to the double deaths, Hetty discovered her aunt had left her a million dollars rather than her entire estate, and once more, the funds would be managed by trustees. Hetty felt she was the biblical Esau who had lost her birthright for “a mess of pottage.” The wills that left other to be the marionettes of her money she wrote, “I am able to manage my affairs better than any man cold manage them, and what man has done, women do. It is the duty of every woman, I believe, to learn to take care of her own business affairs.” She hired an attorney, claiming a beneficiary, Dr. William Gordon, had drugged her aunt with laudanum, and manipulated the will. In a trial that garnered headlines, celebrated attorney Oliver Wendell Holmes sided with Hetty. In midst of the turmoil, in 1867, the thirty-four-year-old Hetty and Edward married at the Grinnell home. While the couple took their vows, the newly minted Hettie Green made her own: while her Aunt Sarah had been the richest woman in New Bedford, she determined to be the richest woman in America. As charges of Hetty having forged the document, the Greens boarded the Cunard ship, Russia, and set sail for England.


The couple moved into the Langham Hotel, the most luxurious in London where other guests were Clemens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Andrew Carnegie, and Sir Henry Stanley. In an echo of her debutante days, Hetty received an engraved invitation for presentation before Queen Victoria. Hetty’s investments increased by $1.25 million-and so did her family. In 1868 she gave birth to her son, Edward Howland Robinson Green, nicknamed Ned. Bad news dampened the joyous; despite her high-power attorneys, Judge Nathan Clifford had dismissed her case. At one point, Hetty took out a license to carry a pistol. Asked why, she replied, “Mostly to protect myself against lawyers. I’m not much afraid of burglars or highwaymen.” Three years later, the Greens welcomed their daughter, Harriet Sylvia Ann Howland Green, nicknamed Sylvie. In 1873, the family once more boarded the Russia for their return passage to New England.


The Greens settled in Bellow Falls, Vermont, where they moved in with Edward’s mother, Anna, who had received the house as a gift from her son. Excitement mounted in Bellow Falls as they awaited the arrival of the woman who was rumored to be a millionaire. Speculation was she would arrive draped in furs and jewels and would spread her wealth in her adopted town. The reality was far different. In her early forties, it was obvious that fashion and hygiene were not high on her list of priorates. Taking over grocery shopping, she haggled over ever purchase that earned her the reputation of a curmudgeonly miser.  She made soap from animal fat. After examining an old sled, she found “some perfectly good nails” that she pulled out by hand.


Cracks in the Greens’ marriage appeared, a combination of Hetty’s slovenly appearance and the fact that Edward’s finances had taken a huge hit. After paying $700, 000 to satisfy Edward’s creditors, marital relationships became frosty. While Edward had stared down storms and pirates, his powerhouse wife left him cowering. A further heartache occurred when Ned hurt his knee riding in his sled, compounded when he fell playing in a tree.


Part of the year, the Greens lived in Manhattan where Hetty spent time on Wall Street. The street derived its name from a wall the Dutch settlers erected in the 1650s to keep the British out. In Hetty’s era, Wall Street was the provenance of men. A 1909 article in the New York Times stated, “It is difficult to reason about money and business with an angry or weeping woman. Her view of Wall Street and all its works suddenly becomes entirely emotional, and only a broker with infinite patience can calm her.” Hetty Green punctured the stereotype. On one afternoon, she journeyed to the financial center with a satchel filled with $200,000 in bonds. Her broker, John Cisco, warned her of the danger of carrying such a huge sum on public transportation and suggested the next time she take a carriage. Hetty responded, “A carriage, indeed! Perhaps you can afford to ride in a carriage-I cannot.”


Even workaholic Hetty took time off, and the Greens visited Central Park that offered rides in goat carts, carousels with painted horses, and sail boating. In winter, the children went sledding. One afternoon, Ned nagged his knee while sledding that resulted in a knee injury. A few years later, he fell while playing in a tree that resulted in further knee damage. Hetty hurried her son home and called a doctor. While waiting for him to arrive, she bathed and dressed his wound. When the doctor arrived, she sent him away in the belief she had provided as goof a treatment for her son as the doctor could provide. She explained that if he had stepped off his buggy, she would have had to pay his fee. The injury did not heal. Determined to help her son-though at the most inexpensive price possible-Hetty dressed in shabby clothes so she would be charged a reduced rate and sought out professionals in New York and Baltimore. His parents consulted several professionals who stated he needed his leg amputated below his knee. With no other options, his bereft parents agreed, and Edward paid for the procedure. Hetty buried his leg in the family plot where Ed united with his appendage forty-seven years later.


Another family horror was when Edward broke his wife’s trust. While he had been able to stare down pirates and storms, but his powerhouse wife left him cowering. Hetty had turned a blind eye to her husband’s philandering and drinking, however, his one unforgivable sin was when he had used her money to fund businesses that went south. She paid 4700,000 to his creditors, but the marriage had run its course. Due to her Quaker religion, and fondness for Edward, they never divorced. When he passed away, she arranged his internment in the Immanuel Episcopal Church.


Other than her two Edwards-her father and her husband-she cared the most for her children. She was extremely proud of Ned who she installed as the president of her Texas railroad. To keep him focused on business, and keep a wife’s claws from his staggering fortune, she urged him not to marry. He agreed but lived with his former girlfriend. The woman, who rumor held had been a former chorus girl or call girl, was Mabel Harlow. Hetty referred to her as, “Miss Harlot.” After his mother’s passing, he dissipated her fortune by spending $5,000,000 a year, most on his collection of jewels, rare stamps, and coins. Sylvia, at age thirty-seven, married Matthew Aster Wilks, age fifty-six, the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor. When asked if she approved of the marriage, Hetty replied, “I am happy if my daughter is happy.” Money was her constant; she spent her 77th birthday clipping coupons. O. Henry alluded to her in a short story when a girl settled on a cheaper room, “I’m not Hetty if I do look green,”


The richest woman in America passed away at age eighty-one in 1916, with $100 million fortune, 2.5 billion in contemporary currency. For muscling in on the billionaire boys’ club whose members were Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller, she earned the epithet The Witch of Wall Street. However, the financial genius, for following her own drummer, and making it in a man’s world, she should instead be hailed as The Wizard of Wall Street.