The Witch of Wall Street

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Contrary to the widely held belief of most 23-year-old dot-commers, Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay, is not the first &uot;World’s Richest Lady to Make It on Her Own.&uot; Arguable, that title may rest with one Hetty Green.

Had there been a Forbes Four Hundred list when she died in 1916, she surely would have been among the top twenty. According to some historians, she remains to this day one of the forty richest Americans ever.

Hetty made her money the old fashioned way … never spent a penny she didn’t have to, and invested wisely in businesses she understood.

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Her family came from Mayflower stock. In the early 19th century, they built a fortune in the New England whaling industry. She inherited a piece of the family fortune, including some from her father who learned early in life that the easier money could be made on Wall Street. It was from him that she inherited a love and a nose for trading properties and stocks.

Even though her inheritance provided a handsome annual income, it wasn’t enough for Hetty. Never, it seems, would she have enough. Stories of her miserly, penurious ways abound. This was a lady obsessed with money itself — not the power of money, not what is would buy, but simply bigger piles of money.

No matter how minor the sum, she would part with none of her money without a huge emotional sacrifice. A story is told that she spent most of a night tearing apart a carriage to find a two-cent stamp that had fluttered from an envelope. During the time she spent looking for that stamp, Hetty’s vast fortune earned enough in interest to equal an average family’s annual income.

As good as she was at not spending money; she was equally adept at making it.

In their book The Witch of Wall Street, Hetty Green, authors Boyden Sparkes and Samuel Taylor Moore quote her views on investing: &uot;I don’t believe in stocks. I never buy industrials. Railroads and real estate are the things I like. Before deciding on an investment, I seek out every kind of information about it. There is no great secret in fortune making. All you have to do is buy cheap and sell dear, act with thrift and shrewdness, and be persistent.

In 1885 Hetty just barely survived the failure of the investment bank of Cisco and Son, holders of her vast sums of currency, stocks, bonds, real estate deeds, and certificates of deposit. She quickly moved her money to Chemical Bank in New York. They were kind enough to offer her an office to work from, but Hetty wouldn’t risk being called a New Yorker and being made subject to New York taxes. So the world’s richest woman, when visiting her money, would work at whatever desk or counter was available. If none were available she would sit on the floor, clipping coupons. She would even bring her own lunch, which she heated on the radiators.

She was a familiar sight on Wall Street in her later years, dressed in drab utilitarian clothes, trudging from bank to bank, brokerage to brokerage, conducting her business. She refused to pay for a cab, &uot;Couldn’t afford one,&uot; she would complain.

She spent her last days moving through a succession of rooming houses and cheap hotels, all to avoid paying New York taxes. Fortunately, she died before the income tax became a staple of American economic life!