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The Life and Times of Hetty the Hoarder, the Witch of Wall Street

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There was an old woman often seen plodding up and down Wall Street at the turn of the 20th century. She walked alone. Her black, faded dress was dirty and ragged at the seams. She carried a case with her with a pitiful lunch tossed inside, usually graham crackers or dry oatmeal. She was such a familiar sight, with her grim face and strange dress, everyone called her “The Witch of Wall Street.”

She was Hetty Green, and she was worth $3.8 billion*.

Building Billions

Hetty was born into a wealthy whaling family in 1834. She was an only child, and her mother was too sickly and fragile to help raise her. Instead, her father and grandfather saw to her care. They trained her to handle money shrewdly from a young age, reading her stock market reports as other parents read bedtime stories.

Hetty was a financier. Her handwriting was sloppy and riddled with misspellings, but she surely knew her numbers. More importantly, she knew how to increase them. She oversaw tremendous real estate deals, bought and sold railroads, and made loans. She was particularly adept at prospering during the downfall of others; buying falling stocks, foreclosing properties, and even holding entire banks, entire cities, at her mercy through enormous loans. Depending who you asked, she was either a brilliant strategist or a ruthless loan shark. Collis P. Huntington, the man who built the Central Pacific Railroad and personal enemy of Hetty, called her “nothing more than a glorified pawnbroker."

Hetty’s audacity was apparent early on. When her aunt, Sylvia Howland, died in 1868 and left $2 million to charity, Hetty was incensed. She challenged the will in court, presenting what she claimed was a previously written will that left everything to Hetty, with a clause that specifically invalidated any subsequent versions of the will. The courts determined that clause and Sylvia’s signature were a complete forgery, and Hetty lost the case. It was one of very few losses that Hetty would allow in her lifetime.

Tough Love

Love was not something that could be tallied in an office, and Hetty struggled with it. She believed (rightly) that she was surrounded by gold diggers, and did not trust the men who showed interest in her. She was 33 before a man who possessed his own modest wealth wanted to marry her. This was Edward Henry Green, with whom she had two children, Ned and Sylvia. Unfortunately Edward wasn’t nearly as good with money as Hetty was. Even though she had made every effort to keep their finances separate, the pre-“women are humans” 19th century banks kept using her money as if it were his. Hetty put a stop to this, and Edward moved out of the family home. His finances rapidly declined. Hetty, however, refused to fit the mold of a complete villain, and nursed her husband during his dying months. She then wore widow’s reeds for years after his death, making her Wall Street appearance all the scarier.  

Joys of Motherhood

Their two children lived a poor existence with their mother. Sylvia was not a pretty girl; she wore cast off clothes and made few friends. She mostly silently shadowed her mother, sleeping next to her on a cot in whatever rented room they happened to be living in. Ned, some would say, suffered even more. When he was a teenager he was struck by a child driving an “express” dog cart, pulled by a St. Bernard. Ned’s leg was already lame for reasons lost to history, but the accident left it in serious need of medical attention. Hetty, ever the dutiful mother, took her son to a free clinic in the city. Unfortunately, Hetty was too recognizable, and the doctors demanded payment as they would from anyone they suspected of faking poverty. 

So Hetty decided the leg would likely knit itself if given time, especially with her helpful home treatment of “oil of squills” and “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.” Ned’s leg worsened, until, after suffering a fall down a flight of stairs while visiting his father, Edward realized the depth of the injury and called a doctor. The leg was amputated, with Ned’s father using his own dwindling money to pay for it, rather than haggle with Hetty.

“A Bunch of Robbers!”

In fairness, Hetty’s medical frugality applied to herself, too. After 20 years of suffering a hernia, she finally allowed Dr. Henry S Pascal to examine her in 1915. When she disrobed down to her “old and none too clean” underwear, Pascal saw that she did indeed have a severe, bulging hernia. Her solution had been to jam a stick against the swelling, held in place by her underwear and the pressure of her own leg. The doctor told her the extremely painful hernia need an immediate operation. When he told her the cost, $150, she scowled and picked her fallen stick off the floor, replacing it in her underwear.

“You’re all alike! A bunch of robbers!” she said, and left the doctor’s office.

Hetty’s peculiarities increased as she aged. She changed residence with a skulking frequency, moving from one small, unheated apartment to another. This was her attempt to hide from both the press and tax collectors. She believed that this, combined with taking confusing and varied routes to work (at an office provided free by her bank, of course) also kept kidnappers and robbers at bay. One source details her great discomfort when sleeping in a strange place. She wore safe deposit keys to various banks on a chain around her waist at all times, and slept with a revolver rigged to her hand with strings when staying in a strange motel. 

“I am called close and mean and stingy.”

She also became fonder of public speaking as she entered old age. These interviews are the world’s only chance to hear the “Witch” defend herself, and to wonder if history has been too hard on the oddity of a powerful woman. “I am not a hard woman," she told one reporter. "But because I do not have a secretary to announce every kind act I perform I am called close and mean and stingy. I am a Quaker, and I am trying to live up to the tenets of that faith. That is why I dress plainly and live quietly. No other kind of life would please me.”

Hetty died at the age of 81, in 1916. Ned tried to make his mother look good. He spoke of her many charities, though not one was ever actually named and none came forward to identify themselves. He spoke of an old decrepit employee his mother had kept on out of compassion, but was quickly contradicted by other office employees who remembered the man in question and Hetty’s dismissal of him when he was no longer useful.

Rebellious Children

Ned and Sylvia took different paths when they received their inheritances. Sylvia, who had married a man of reasonable means late in life, made few changes. But Ned craved adoration and high living. He married his first lover, a prostitute named Mabel whom his mother had hated. Together they sought popularity and acceptance, spending money in a grand fashion to accomplish it. They built mansions, bought a private island, and kept a passel of young ingénues referred to as Ned’s “wards.” Ned even constructed the largest and most awkward yacht then known to man, and then found himself too seasick to ever use it. He indulged in the new sciences of radio, broadcasting from his own radio station at his Round Hill estate, and allowing MIT access to his equipment for study. When Ned died in 1936, he had miraculously managed to maintain a decent fortune, and left the majority to his sister, Sylvia.

And what did Sylvia do, the quiet, unattractive girl who was now one of the richest people on earth? What did she do with the money of a woman who could not abide giving anything away? She performed an act of rebellion, perhaps her only one.

She left the fortune, around $443 million* at the time of her death in 1951, entirely to charity.

*In today’s dollars.

Sources: Charmers and Cranks by Ishbel Ross, and The Day They Shook the Plum Tree by Arthur H. Lewis.

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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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