Review: “Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon” by Charles Slack


A review by Brit.

The 1900s in America were known as the Industrial Age and the Gilded Age both. It was a time of extreme wealth, and extreme flaunting of wealth. But amidst all the millionaires and Jay Gatsby types, there was Hetty Robinson Green. She wore dresses that were years past fashionable. She cooked oatmeal on radiators and hopped from apartment to apartment to avoid paying taxes as a resident. She was also worth $1.6 billion dollars in today’s money.

Most biographies you read tend to idolize the subjects at hand. This book definitely falls prey to some of that, particularly with it’s care to debunk myths about Hetty. For example, she wasn’t actually so frugal that she let her son’s leg problems get so bad that it had to be amputated. She did her best as any mother would. But it is true that she often took him in disguise to be treated at free clinics… because she knew that going there as “the richest woman in America” would make them jack up the prices.

Hetty definitely isn’t a financial how-to guide. But it doesn’t shy away from talking about how Hetty herself became rich. It describes her moves to buy certain assets at certain times, taking the motivations of everyone involved in the deal into account. I’d recommend that readers unfamiliar with finance have a smartphone nearby just so they can look up certain phrases or names (e.g. different kinds of bonds). But overall, you don’t have to be a finance nerd to enjoy this book. The author goes above and beyond with additional historical details that add context to everything. He’s even courteous enough to add brief explainer sentences when someone re-appears in Hetty’s life (such as Collis P. Huntington, a railroad magnate who butted heads with Hetty and her son).

The main reason I would give this book only 4 out of 5 stars is because I don’t think I could recommend it to everyone that asked me for a good book to read. This book is a great read for anyone interested in history, money and how people influenced history in unexpected ways. But don’t expect a book you can skim lightly. This is a dense, absorbing read. You won’t want to set it down.

My rating: 4/5 stars.

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