The Witch of Wall Street

800px-hetty_greenHetty Green was a famously shrewd investor on Wall Street when women still had to sneak “a growler” at the back door of a saloon. Having been to enough bars in my early 20’s to witness drunken women collapsed in dark corners with their skirts up I sometimes wonder if bringing the tradition of women drinking at home back might be a good idea. 😉

Hetty was a Quaker so maybe she didn’t drink. She was miserly, too, so probably wouldn’t have paid for a martini (invented during the Gold Rush, btw).

When her father died he left Hetty a fortune to invest. She’d opened her first bank account at age 8 and read to her blind grandfather all the financial news of the day so was well prepared for taking her place among the Wall Street warlocks of the day.  Her dying father suggested that he’d been poisoned by someone seeking his fortune and that Hetty should expect the same.

What can we say about misers?

“Hetty Green’s stinginess was legendary. She was said never to turn on the heat or use hot water. She wore one old black dress and undergarments that she changed only after they had been worn out, did not wash her hands and rode in an old carriage. She ate mostly pies that cost fifteen cents. One tale claims that Green spent half a night searching her carriage for a lost stamp worth two cents. Another asserts that she instructed her laundress to wash only the dirtiest parts of her dresses (the hems) to save money on soap.” WIKIPEDIA

Eccentric men of history abound and some probably didn’t wash their hands. I fear women sometimes don’t like being harshly judged as men often are. My sons recover more quickly from dressings down by rivals and friends than my daughters do. It seems Hetty didn’t suffer fools lightly, but modern women tend to take real offense at being called horrible names. It’s as if they feel they should be treated better than men somehow.

Hetty made sure when marrying to get her spendthrift investor husband to renounce all rights to her fortune. Being such a cool-headed woman of finance who bought low and sold high, who kept tons of cash on hand to swoop in during panics to buy up other people’s heartache and who was even called upon by the city of New York to lend money to keep the metropolis afloat more than once, I wonder what the attraction to her husband was. I suspect she was drawn to his lack of control for a time. The marriage failed.

But as people say, the marriage wasn’t a complete failure. They raised two beautiful children (don’t you kind of hate that saying? I’d still prefer not to have had a failed marriage).

Hetty’s son broke his leg as a child. Hetty was rich but wanted to save money so she brought Ned to a free clinic for the poor. They screwed up his leg and after much pain and suffering (on the part of poor Ned) his leg was amputated.

An independent woman making wise investments on Wall Street is admirable (if you don’t mind preying on weakness, greed and stupidity in some cases), but being such a cheapskate with your own children seems kind of witchy to me.

What do you think? Is calling a woman a witch going too far?  Where is the line drawn between cheap and sensible?


Goodreads Book Giveaway

Weary of Running by Adrienne Morris

Weary of Running

by Adrienne Morris

Giveaway ends December 12, 2016.

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No Trophies for Effort!

Their outfits were comfortable but frowned upon by polite society (yet they were taken in and treated well at almost every town they visited).

What if a shadowy stranger in New York offered you $200,000 (about what $10,000 was worth in the 1890’s) to walk across America in weird clothes and with only what you could carry. Would you go? Now imagine it’s before an electric grid and fast food. The newly built railroad tracks will be your only guide.

Helga Estby convinced her teen-aged daughter Clara to  accompany her on the bold endeavor–strike that–the desperate endeavor after a series of unfortunate events. Helga’s husband Ole may have wished for her not to go (what would the close-knit community of Norwegian immigrants think of Helga?), but the shame of being unable to provide for his large family after a debilitating injury  silenced much of Ole’s disapproval. They were desperate and not for the first time. Only a few years before Helga had fallen at a city construction site and been badly injured–her eldest daughter and Ole had taken over running the household until she was well again and a settlement with the city put them in funds  for a while, but the Panic of 1893 hit and all work dried up. Farms went under as mortgages were called in and life for the Estbys began to unravel again.

Helga and Ole were doomed to a boom and bust cycle. Young love left Helga with child and unmarried. Ole came and hid her shame. Did they love one another? Did they see something of themselves in each other? Their life was one of settlement and upheaval, one of putting down roots and ripping them from the comfortable homes and sod houses they lived in as they traveled west seeking stability.

By the time they took up farming in the Far West they’d had piles of well-loved children, but an accident and a mortgage to pay tore at Ole and Helga. Unemployed men with shame sitting on their shoulders are often tough to bear around the house. Fretful women are no picnic either so when the opportunity arose for Helga to march east she grabbed it. Maybe husband and wife were relieved. Maybe they felt it was their only chance.

The name of the wealthy female donor who offered the $10,000 reward to any lady proving she was strong and smart enough to make the arduous journey on her own has been lost to history.

How desperate Helga must have been to trudge through snow and rising rivers with no real safeguards, no assurances!

Helga and Clara carried small pistols and once or twice had to use them, but for the most part found American people to be generous and curious about their journey. They met with mayors and governors, women’s suffragists and vagabonds. Newspapermen always remarked on their intelligence, pluck and respectability.

As the end came in sight Helga worried. They were a few days past the deadline, but in the agreement the donor had made allowance for the occasional sick day. Clara had been sick and injured along the way, causing a small delay, but the newspapers in New York sang their praises and looked forward to covering a happy ending story.

The wealthy donor informed them that they were too late and there would be no happy ending. Helga and Clara were penniless in the big city. Gone from home for months they were now in need of work and a place to stay until they could save funds to get back to their family. A letter arrived from Ole. The note as I imagine it was brief:

Our daughter Bertha has died of diphtheria. You were not here when she asked for you. I did all I could do. The other children wait in the cold shed and I call to them but can’t see how they are for fear of infecting them. I made a coffin feeling quite alone in the world. The neighbors keep their distance.

Helga notes there is no reassuring sentiments of love. She worries and begs city officials for loans. Finally a generous railroad man buys her and Clara tickets west. Ole and the other children meet Helga with cold and bitter distance. Helga looks for Johnny her son. Ole shakes his head. Diphtheria had taken him, too and they were lucky not have lost everyone.

The children–and Ole–never forgave Helga for leaving them. Would they have felt differently if she’d won the money? I doubt it. Despite it all children resent a mother’s distance when troubles come. Ole, I imagine, had more complex feelings. His wife had taken a stand and had done no better than he had. Did he admire her courage? Probably–but he had already known she was courageous. I bet he blamed himself, but sometimes took out his anger on her.

Years later Helga’s manuscript was found and burned by her still bitter daughters. A daughter-in-law found a few newspaper clippings and saved them. And that is how we know about Helga today.

When telling my husband about Helga’s walk and how it ended with the donor withholding the reward my husband reminded me of my disdain for trophies at children’s soccer leagues given out for effort, not excellence. What do you think? Should Helga have been given the money?



Turn Your Itchy Scalp into Millions!


Sarah Breedlove was not the type to crawl up into the fetal position when tragedy struck. Sarah’s parents celebrated the birth of their first child not born into slavery–but not for long. First Sarah’s mother died. Her father remarried–and died. An orphan, Sarah went to live with her sister and her abusive husband. To escape the abuse Sarah married Moses Williams, but soon after the birth of their daughter Moses died.

There are some people who under similar circumstances might turn from God or throw themselves into the deep end of a pool having not learned to swim. Sarah Breedlove was not this sort.

All the way to St. Louis with her young daughter squirming on her lap Sarah fought the urge to scratch her itchy scalp (or at least that’s how I imagine it). After years of lye soap and nerves Sarah suffered from dandruff so severe she was balding. Not a good look for a future millionaire, but I get ahead of myself.

Sarah’s brothers owned a barber shop in St. Louis in which Sarah learned about hair care. She found work as a washerwoman, vowing to save her dollar a day pay for an education. Fate used her itchy scalp in another way. Sarah took a job on commission selling for another black hair care entrepreneur (capitalism has its success stories)  ANNIE TURNBO MALONE.

Sarah moved to Denver and married a newspaper and advertising man who encouraged her passion and helped her develop an advertising campaign for her new mail order company. Madame C. J. Walker as Sarah was now called traveled the country with her husband selling not only her hair care products but the idea that African American women could be the captains of their lives even in a time of lynchings, poverty and prejudice. She recognized that even in the turbulent times she lived that hard work and good marketing smashed glass ceilings.

Sarah hired women. This is key. She didn’t bemoan the fact that men hired men. She hired women. She trained them to be “beauty culturalists.” She organized clubs and rallies for women who aspired to greatness. Here was a rare woman not threatened by other women. Sarah bred love wherever she went. She even hired the first licensed black architect in New York VERTNER TANDY to build her mansion.

One might wonder if Sarah only helped other women because it helped her company, but that was not the case. Sarah stressed to her women followers the essential thing to a life well-lived: helping others. She threw herself into politics, but more importantly threw her money into philanthropy, donating much of her wealth to orphanages and campaigns against lynching. Some say the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but boy, it was. Think of the sorry state of Indians on reservations. They got some land. Black Americans were given something better and more powerful: a political voice. It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure and not a perfectly safe ride, but look at Madame Walker.

Sarah never waited or asked why me? (maybe she did sometimes but never let the why paralyze her). Sometimes, most times, it’s better to look at heroes than problems. Sarah Breedlove lost so much and came from so little. Plagued with dandruff (something that might send a lesser lady into hiding) she never said I can’t do this because I’m black and I’m a woman and I’m an orphan and I’m poor and uneducated.

Sarah washed other people’s dirty underthings, healed other people’s scalps and hearts and died a rich woman. The first African American woman millionaire was Madam C. J. Walker.






Books I’ve Known And Loved

51ruU2pYgFL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_When Harriet Hanson Robinson explained to her busy (and presumably happy) single friend that she felt sorry for her  because she wasn’t married and could not  be a complete woman there was no hint of bitchiness.

Harriet was a contented creature of her time. In my early feminist days I would have found this hard to believe. I’d have crept around looking for the crumbling facade, the misery, the bitterness of a woman who spent her days washing heavy laundry and sewing for the entire months of May and June each year.

Harriet married a morally upright man who for the life of him could not keep from stepping on toes–landing him often out of work or underpaid. It seems Harriet was drawn to Mr. Robinson by his integrity, but I suspect she loved his ability to make light of life’s trials as well.

Harriet, who mingled with some of the famous families of Concord, Massachusetts (and had strong opinions about them all–she thought HENRY DAVID THOREAU a fake and a hypocrite and guessed his mother kept him well-fed by the pond), was the sort of strong woman who could make something from nothing without complaint. In fact she prided herself on running a household without the help of “an Irish.” She’d experimented with house help briefly when her husband was making some money but found after a few attempts that teaching young Irish girls how to work up to her standards was impossible.

So here’s the thing: I expected this book to be about an exception to the rule. I expected Harriet to be this modern woman in disguise. Maybe the author Claudia L. Bushman had expected that as well for she seems at times baffled by Harriet’s pride and devotion to her dreamer husband,  average children and life of housework.

There is a sense that the author of A GOOD POOR MAN’S WIFE had hoped Harriet in her private diaries might let loose against the order of her times. How is it she remained so cheerful? Why wasn’t she devastated when it became clear she would not be a world famous poet? Her honest appraisal of her rather lackluster children is seen as an ambivalence to motherhood (as a mother I find this a real stretch).

In the year after the death of her beloved son Harriet wrote a bittersweet poem of life and marriage:

My Choice–to William Robinson (her husband)

In shady paths, serene, content I grew,

Nor knew for me what gifts fair life enclosed:

When sudden–with her gilded lyre held forth,

Came Poesy–bright maid, who smiling said:

“Take me, dear child, take me and Heaven espouse”

I struck the lyre, and knew ambition’s joys,–

The praise of men, and all the world’s applause.

The love,–with soft beseeching arms appeared,

And said with low drooped eyes; “Come thou to me!”

In doubt I stayed, in sorrowing tears, I moaned.

But god-like still he waited long and sought.

Till I, forgetting men’s applause, my dreams

of high renown, with cries to him I fled.

And now, serene, content, with him I roam

In sunlit paths. Nor care what life contains.

Since love I keep, which holds embraces all.

Unlike the narrator in Robert Frost’s THE ROAD NOT TAKEN Harriet has taken the trodden road of 19th century womanhood, but like Frost’s narrator she is happy about the choice she’s made even knowing the dreams left behind on the other road. Again the author sees this as a telling sign of Harriet’s possible regrets despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary scrawled across the pages of her journal. I see this poem– in the context of Harriet’s life– as one  about the choices we all make–leaving some good things behind for  things that are better (hopefully). In Harriet’s case there’s no reason to believe she wasn’t quite happy with her choices.

Lowell Mill Girl: A Life of Personal Responsibility

Harriet Hanson Robinson never let a group define her.
Harriet Hanson Robinson never let a group define her.

When does having a sense of group consciousness stand in the way of personal responsibility and self-actualization?

“Harriet called the mill her “Alma Mater,” and felt that its “incentive to labor” and the discipline of the work were of great value. “We were taught daily habits of regularity and of industry; it was, in fact, a sort of manual training or industrial school.”

Girls in this position did not see themselves as members of the working class–the term and concept working class was an invention of industrialism that was still in formation in the 1830’s. Group consciousness was absent from these girls, who viewed their stay in the mills as temporary, a stepping stone to a better life or else a deliberate sacrifice for others. Rather than improve the lot of all workers, they hoped to rise above it, individually.”  from A Good Poor Man’s Wife by Claudia  L. Bushman

Identifying with a group in our day seems to bring strife and irrational blaming of other groups. Wonder what the mill girls would say.



Tasha Tudor Field Trip

ImageTasha Tudor August 28, 1915-June 18, 2008

For those of you who like quiet risk-takers and women who don’t follow the herd, here’s your lady! Tasha Tudor is my favorite inspiration because while her artwork and stories are adorably innocent and whimsical, she took her public (mostly children) and her professional life very seriously. While she obviously loved her subjects (people and animals populating a 1830’s world) she boldly stated that there was nothing sentimental about the need to make money at it.

ImageTasha’s mother taught her to paint.

The New York Times in 1941 said her pictures “have the same fragile beauty of early spring evenings.” And while some of us backward leaning people might envy the real-life fantasy world she seemed to live in, I get the sense she worked damned hard to get there. Tasha once said that in life you could have anything if you had the patience. Image

Tasha had two failed marriages and children who didn’t always appreciate dressing in homespun clothes, but in her sweetly feminine way she held to her principles and dressed like the 1830’s sea captain’s wife she liked to imagine she was. She wrote and illustrated nearly 100 witty and beautiful books that have a timeless elegance and rare appreciation for animals and children without the preachy condescension of much modern children’s literature, but the real inspiration comes from the unwavering devotion she had to living out an unusual and hard life on her terms.

While raising 4 children, spinning her own fabric from materials grown on her  land and raising farm animals, she wrote and illustrated books at her kitchen table–did I mention she made her own bread? Even her name was a creation of her own. Some of us wish we could magically go back in time. She did it (obviously with a few bows to the present) and she did it with  an individualistic streak of brilliance.

The home she had meticulously built to 19th century specifications–even down to the nails. She gardened, too.


Tasha once opined that women lost something essential when they started wearing trousers (I hear some women grumbling) but she never played the frail old-fashioned girl. She was a woman of substance and power and one of my heroes.


Beautiful Librarian–Ina Coolbrith

Beautiful Muse--Ina Coolbrith

What soulful eyes! What great hair! But now I’m being shallow. Ina was so much more than her looks. Her poetry career held much promise, but she put her family first when illness struck. Someone once said that their family lived off of Ina’s poetry to which she replied, “How nice. That’s more than I was ever able to do.”
Her work as a librarian made her most proud. Jack London called her noble and Isadora Duncan remembered her fire and passion.
Although higher education was not open to her she was the first woman to furnish a commencement poem to any university.

She spoke for educational and occupational opportunities for women.
“And as a woman does not live by bread alone any more than a man, I would have in connection therewith libraries and reading rooms, lectures and music, that the mind and the heart might be fed as well as the body, and life be endowed with its greatest humanizing and moral influences, hope and happiness.”