Shrewdness and Gumption
Younger readers of the Guinness Book of World Records during the 1960s and 70s probably reserved a special chamber in their tortured little psyches (one shared with that image of Margaret Hamilton riding her bicycle through a Kansas twister in The Wizard of Oz) for that photo of Hetty Howland Green, branded by the McWhirter brothers as the "world's worst miser" -- that one where she is marching through Manhattan cloaked in a drab black dress and hood, clutching greedily at some variety of commercial paper like Simon Legree clutches Little Nell’s mortgage.
While it is true that she achieved terrifying new extremes of avarice while preserving her investment corpus (letting her son go lame and suffer a leg amputation rather than taking him to a doctor, goes one example), undoubtedly inhabiting a pathologically compulsive plane, history has been unfair to the Witch of Wall Street.
"Her talk about things in general is full of quaintly original sayings, New England shrewdness and 'gumption.' She is 'down' on trusts, lawyers, professional reformers and 'new woman' fads. She believes in the bicycle but draws the line at bloomers." -- H. Tyrell, Demorest (May 1897).
Her Quaker father taught her to value plain living and profitable investments, getting her to read the stock market reports to him as soon as she could make out numbers. Finishing school in Boston did not break her spirit, and after inheriting the million-dollar fortunes of her parents and her maiden aunt, she spurned the attentions of fortune-seeking suitors, settling on a man of independent means, Vermont trader Edward Green -- but not before getting him to sign a prenuptial agreement whereby she would not be responsible for his personal debts.
She bore Green two children while wheeling-and-dealing in the London financial markets, favoring real estate and railroads rather than more ephemeral stock investments. Within a few years, Green had spent himself into penury, and Hetty separated from him, building her $5 million dollar inheritance into a fortune of $25 million by the time she left Green through reinvestment and providing high-interest loans to desperate entrepreneurs.
Taking plain living to an extreme, she wore the same shabby greenish-black dress, washing only the hem to conserve water and soap; conducted her business from the inside of a vault at the Chemical National Bank; stayed in dingy apartments; and heated her oatmeal dinners on radiators. While visiting a friend, at the age of 82 Hetty suffered a stroke arguing with her friend's cook over the merits of using skim milk in a recipe instead of whole milk, and died shortly thereafter, on July 3, 1916, in Manhattan.
Although her one-legged son Ned was a spendthrift and her daughter Sylvia was a financial neophyte, Hetty had resolved to keep her entire fortune in the family, leaving the two of them $100 million. When Ned died, Sylvia was the guardian of a $200 million estate, which she bequeathed "like someone throwing handfuls of money from a tall building" (according to one Time-Life writer), apportioning it among hundreds of charities, churches and universities.