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The Richest Woman in America: The Life and Times of Hetty Green

3.39  ·  Rating details ·  871 ratings  ·  153 reviews
A captivating biography of America's first female tycoon, Hetty Green, the iconoclast who forged one of the greatest fortunes of her time.
No woman in the Gilded Age made as much money as Hetty Green. At the time of her death in 1916, she was worth at least 100 million dollars, equal to about 2.5 billion dollars today.
Abandoned at birth by her neurotic mother, scorned b
Hardcover, 281 pages
Published September 25th 2012 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Average rating 3.39  · 
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John  Bellamy
Dec 01, 2012 rated it liked it
Whatever its peculiar defects—of which more later—there is much to admire about Janet Wallach’s biography of Hetty Green. Firstly, it is highly readable, written in a lively style that successfully evokes its characters and scenes from the past in vivid word-pictures. Secondly, it also triumphs as a true “life and times” of its subject, a narrative in which the amazing Hetty is faithfully placed within the events and culture of her era. Thirdly, and most importantly, Wallach’s book also succeeds ...more
Jenny Brown
Aug 18, 2013 rated it did not like it
This is the most poorly written book I've read this year. Apparently Wallach's publisher saved money by skipping the copyedit. The misuse of language is jarring--for example cowboys in Texas are described as "rustling" cattle in a sentence where the author means herding, not stealing. The sentence structure is clumsy. There are long stretches of writing that read is if they were copied from 19th century newspapers, though there is no attribution.

But far worse are the numerous errors of fact, wh
Nov 03, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Two and a half stars, rounded up.

Hetty Green was born into a Quaker whaling family in Massachusetts in the 19th century. Early on, she sought to gain her father's attention by learning as much as she could about the family business. While she didn't succeed in gaining her father's respect during his lifetime, she developed a sharp head for numbers and investments and ultimately transformed her inheritance into a fortune worth an estimated 2 billion in today's dollars.

This book was interesting en
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
I've read all I'm going to of this book, about a third of it. If you want a detailed examination of the economic ups and downs of the US in the mid 19th century, you might find it interesting, but as a "biography" of a person it's a total fizzle. After Hetty returns from New York, having rejected the season, she is wheeled in once or twice in every chapter but only as background. The writing style is terrible, overly florid when describing and full of lists of names etc. which saps the already d ...more
Jan 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
If you're really into financial dealings - the ups and downs of the stock market through history, mortgages, railroads, and other transactions - then you'll probably give this a couple more stars than I did. I think I wanted more of a personal account of Hetty Green. Was warned when the author indicated in the prologue that Hetty had left no diary, no personal papers, and that her life story had been pieced together from newspaper accounts which are admittedly biased or inaccurate. Still, I do e ...more
Lauren Hiebner
Jan 09, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
The author Janet Wallach says in Author’s Notes that this is not a traditional biography but rather “it is an impressionist painting, a series of brushstrokes meant to shed light on a woman and her times”. Unfortunately, the numerous overused similes and metaphors distract from the story of a remarkable woman, Hetty Green. Hetty Green was an amazing woman in a business world of men. She lived a frugal, simple Quaker life and yet conducted ruthless business deals that helped make her the richest ...more
Sarah -  All The Book Blog Names Are Taken
Wavering back and forth between 3 and 4 stars. Interesting read and Hetty Green is fascinating. But there are a few 'facts' that don't make sense, so I wonder how many others may be inaccurate. Full review to come.


Rating: 3 Stars

I went back and forth on this one for a while. At times I felt like 4 stars were deserved, but after taking some time away from the book I really can
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Hettie (alternately Hetty) Green was born into a family that rejected her. Her father, convinced that he was having a son, was terribly disappointed. When his son was born, 9 months later, only to die, he was bereft, as was her mother. She was further rejected and was sent to live with her grandfather.
Hettie had a very strict and rigid Quaker upbringing, and she learned the lessons well, exhibiting the values and standards of the Friends, for most of her life. She was frugal, moral and honest, i
Mar 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Hetty Green lived her life the way she wanted, not the way other people expected her to. She tricked men who tried to trick her. She had a head for numbers. She was kind, smart, and funny. She seems to have done a pretty good job with the hand she was dealt in life as a child.
Dec 06, 2012 rated it really liked it

“To New Englanders of every sort, prosperity was a virtue.”—page 17

Hetty Howland Robinson Green (1835-1916) was my kind of gal—smart, frugal, tough-minded, strong-willed, and wealthy—whose rock-solid Yankee New England values and ethics might have closely paralleled my own.

Perhaps growing up a mere fifteen miles and a brief century removed from Hetty’s origins [New Bedford, Massachusetts], bore some influence in that regard. I hope so. It pleases me to th
Jul 12, 2012 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Nick, Matt, and those who enjoy history and finance.
Recommended to Doreen by: Won it on Goodreads!
This book rates a 3.5 at least, but I just couldn't give it a 4. It is a biography only by the broadest interpretation of the word. I expect a biography to provide information centered on a person's private life, profession, accomplishments, adventures, etc. And though a biography may contain peripheral people and events, I expect the majority of the book to relate directly to the biographee. That is not how this book is written.

Hetty was a private person, not a flashy attention-seeker, so there
Sep 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Started this book with high hopes since it was by the wonderful author of the Desert Queen, Janet Wallach. Wallach has ability to paint picture of the times she is writing about so vividly that they come feel very real as one reads or listens. Unfortunately, this AudioBook, (this version that ran about 8 & 1/2 hours long), was narrated by what I thought at times was a robot trying to express empathy. Actually I think Siri, the iphone voice would have done a better job. It was Maddening to try to ...more
May 05, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2013-reads, audio
Every listening session I found myself drifting away from the narrative and having to yank my focus back to attention ... then five minutes later it would happen again. This grew exhausting and a little worrisome (what was wrong with me?). But I got behind the wheel one evening during that week and to my surprise was immediately caught up in a "Selected Shorts" story in medias res. So I determined that it wasn't my listening that was entirely to blame: at the start of each section/chapter (and p ...more
Jun 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
I had never heard of Hetty Green, and I found her intriguing. She was extremely successful as a financier at a time when the field was dominated by men. She was a sharp investor who did her homework. She believed in good causes and helping the middle class. And of course, she also seemed a little paranoid and had a habit of dressing down. She was covered often in the press, but many people didn't know what she looked like. Today it would be much harder for her to fool the public.

Her practical a
Nov 26, 2012 rated it liked it
I really enjoyed this biography about the richest woman in America. It's surprising how much Hetty Green did for this country and the city of New York, yet she isn't talked about in history books much, if at all. She saved the City of New York from bankruptcy several times, grew the railroads more than other railroad magnates, and accumulated more wealth than most of the country's leaders of the time. Her eccentric ways earned her a reputation as the "witch of Wall Street" but she was certainly ...more
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: awesome-women
Well written in narrative style. Great at giving context to the times and providing hilarious vignettes into Hetty's life. I am starting to be fascinated by the Gilded Age and it's interesting to me how some names ie Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor, have stuck with us and others like Green have been lost. By all accounts, she was famous in her day but I imagine she wasn't sensational enough for dramatisations to be made about her. I enjoyed the end with the "wisdom of Hetty Green" too. ...more
Ed Thereault
Mar 09, 2013 rated it liked it
The book feels incomplete, more like an outline or a synopsis of a much richer story. The sprinkling of gilded age luminaries, social customs, and institutions, (the metropolitan museum, the Waldorf Astoria, shops and restaurants, etc) was the kind of information spouted by docents in the Newport Mansions and historical societies.

In short, the book is not bad, it is just superficial.
Oct 24, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: research
I had hoped to learn more about Hetty the person, but most of the book is about the gilded age -- sort of a mishmash of facts (?) about railroads, financial booms & busts, real estate, even the Wizard of Oz, but very little new about Hetty, except some about her final years. I was disappointed.
Jul 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: giveaways
Though I thought it was going to be more centered around her private life, it was a really good book filled with an immense amount of details and facts about Hetty Green's life ...more
Nov 13, 2012 marked it as to-read
I just learned about Hetty Green last year when I was staying near Bellows Falls, VT where she lived. Who knew? I am interested to find out more about her.
I listened to the audiobook version. I didn't really care for the reader. Her manner of speaking was very halted and choppy, which was distracting.

The author did a good job informing the reader that Hetty Green was a force with which to be reckoned. I really enjoyed learning more about her personality, her Quaker roots, and her New England families. I find it interesting to read biographies where one's childhood and background heavily influence the subject's later life, in a way that results in
Nov 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I remember seeing an old copy of the book of world records had categories for richest people. In it, in addition to the richest man at the time was also an entry for Hetty Green under "World's Greatest Miser". It was brutally unflattering. It said things like she would eat her oatmeal cold because she didn't want to pay for the heat and that her son lost her leg because she didn't want to pay for the doctor.

So, when looking for audiobooks for a vacation drive at the library, imagine my surprise
Dec 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'd never heard of Hetty Green, but she was once the richest woman in America. Born into an old whaling family, she inherited a fortune, then grew it dollar by dollar by investing in railroads, real estate, and more than a few municipalities - at one point, she was New York City's largest lender. (She also owned an entire town near Chicago, which I find fascinating.) Fiercely independent, she threw her husband out of the house after he gambled with - and lost - some of her money in a stock marke ...more
Mar 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A twofer month - 2 excellent books about women of substance!!!! I had never heard of Hetty Green mentioned at all but never amongst Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, etc., and she bested them all by investing her own money without help and setting her own terms! Fascinating, and she raised 2 children and taught them the same principles about accumulating money and spending it reinvesting. She was a Quaker and had a wonderful set of Wisdoms reiterated at the end of the book a few of which are:

Watch your pen
Aug 23, 2018 rated it liked it
When I read a "biography" I expect tons of biographical information, heavy background information and, in this case, what happened to the estate. Well, I think this book fell short. I did however find all the historical information quite interesting (i.e. the many recessions, Lincoln's assasination, etc.). The author provides a listing of all of her sources of information which is fine but who has the time to find all these sources and obtain more information? I really think the book could have ...more
Mystic Miraflores
Mar 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This was a very interesting book. I had never heard of Hetty Green before and I found out why toward the end of the book. She didn't have any descendants as her children didn't have their own offspring. So the Greens have died out, unlike the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts (so far). Nor are there charities or buildings named after the Greens, unlike the Huntington Library, the Getty Museum or the Hirschorn Museum. Hetty was definitely a woman before her time. Ms. Wallach did a lot of research to ...more
Apr 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
I'm enjoying american history biographies recently - never would have guessed! This was a good one to audiobook in the car, since the lack of plot (hint: she makes money by investing) probably would have made it a slog for me to read. But being a captive audience duirng NPR's membership campaign allowed me to soak up the atmosphere and think about the timeline. The characters could have used a bit more development rather than just saying Sylvie was lumbering over and over, but I enjoyed it nonet ...more
Apr 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Giving 3 stars because some of the "facts" don't seem to add up. However, you do get a sense of the life and time period of Hetty Green and her family. The trials and courageous dealings with making a fortune in a male-dominated time period. She believed in helping people and stayed true to her Quaker upbringing, being a spend-thrift and actually living in middle-class neighborhoods. She needs a place in our history books. ...more
Sep 15, 2017 rated it it was ok
The life of Hettie Green is fascinating, but this book falls flat. The writer is obsessed with lists, the editor didn't do their job, and the constant shifting between world history and Hettie's life is done with no ease. I wouldn't recommend this book, but I'd encourage you to research Hettie Green as she was an extraordinarily accomplished woman. ...more
Jan 16, 2019 rated it liked it
I like to think I know a good deal about gilded age figures, but I hadn’t heard of Hetty Green. A woman who became rich by investing her inherited fortune smartly, being frugal, and not letting men take over her finances. She is an incredible figure with both good and bad qualities, but somehow the book fell a little flat to me which should be hard to do given her incredible story.
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