Left in Andover: A bit of Hetty Green in Weston

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In 1966, I inherited my older sister’s job as a housekeeper at the newly rebuilt Weston Playhouse, designed by architect and esteemed native son Ray Austin.

What I most dreaded was cleaning the toilets. Luckily for me, all the bathroom fixtures in the upstairs actors’ quarters were still virtually new, as was the whole building, making the work relatively easy.

The Green home in Bellows Falls, now torn down, and its balustrade now in Weston

But I was 15, a shy Cinderella indulging in fantasies of crossing the line separating me from the glamorous actors I was cleaning up after. I made do by absorbing all the stardust I could — with my mop.

As an add-on, Ray Austin asked that I give his own nearby house, where he boarded some of the actors, an occasional once over, and to take particular care in dusting and polishing his prized balustrade. I did so religiously, aware of its provenance.

This building, a former wheelwright’s shop that Ray had rescued in 1930 and relocated a quarter turn around the Weston Green, had never had an indoor staircase. Ray, with his astuteness for architectural detail, acquired the balustrade from the recently demolished Hetty Green house in Bellows Falls and installed it along with a magnificent circular stair.

Like most people from this area, I was aware, but leery, of Hetty Green (1834-1916), the richest woman of America’s Gilded Age, due to her not entirely deserved reputation as a cruel miser.

Hetty Green.

In 1867, Hetty married Edward Green, a Bellows Falls native, and spent considerable time here, in the end claiming Vermont residency for tax purposes.

A few winters ago, I got around to reading The Witch of Wall Street: Hetty Green by Boyden Sparkes and S.T. Moore (Doubleday, 1930), marked $5, from Dad’s old book collection. Although the authors do humanize her in a passive-aggressive sort of way, they also roast her:

“Both of Mrs. Green’s children were breast fed. They were, consequently, sturdy. She was nursing them in the midst of what must have been exciting business transactions, and it was during their babyhood that she first demonstrated her amazing investment skill. It was as if the pulling of those tiny mouths excited in her a wild hunger for money, no more to be compared with her previous yearnings than the normal she-wolf is to be compared with the ravenous appetite of that animal when it is nursing a litter.”

Cover of ‘The Witch of Wall Street.’

In 1874, Mary Cray, “Irish hired girl” to Edward Green’s mother in Bellows Falls, worked herself into a frenzy scrubbing, polishing and cooking in anticipation of Hetty’s first visit to her mother-in-law’s home. No doubt the elegant balustrade with its fiddlehead design newel post received special attention.

I empathize with Mary’s disappointment and anger when Hetty arrived from New York, disheveled and sooty from the long railway journey, declining the role of stardust to the household. Sparkes and Moore elaborate:

“The Greens were a disappointment to all in Bellows Falls who had expected them to give the place an air it had not previously possessed. They had expected, no doubt, to see four-in-hand gilt coaches, flunkies in velvet-and-gold liveries. Instead they saw a woman who took less pride in her appearance than did most of the women of Bellows Falls; and two children who showed no evidence of having been reared in luxury.”

Hetty Green’s beloved son Colonel ‘Ned’ Green (1868-1936). In the popular imagination, Hetty starved him on oatmeal and murdered him by not promptly seeking medical care for him after an injury. In fact he led a long and useful life.

The Hetty Green Motel in Bellows Falls made a certain amount of sense to me, a local business capitalizing on local history. Unfortunately, the derelict building and horrific reviews of it on TripAdvisor serve to reinforce the worst possible interpretation of Hetty Green, who died in 1916, and had no connection with it. In her own words:

“Just because I dress plainly and do not spend a fortune on my gowns, they say I am cranky and insane.”

In her day, traveling was a dirty and dangerous business, especially for a woman alone. In an attempt to be judged not by her looks but rather for her accomplishments, she may have erred too far in the opposite direction.

But it is hardly possible to exaggerate the hurdles Hetty Green overcame in her lifetime, becoming a major American financier to be ignored at one’s own risk. Indeed she banished her own husband indefinitely for disobeying her instructions in a financial matter.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Raymond Makul says:

    Hetty died in New York City. She was to be buried in Bellows Falls. Her son Ned chartered a private train with private railroad car to bring her remains back to Vermont. The casket arrived under a blanket of white Carnations.

    Hetty was probably spinning in that casket over the extravagance.

    When Ned was a child, Hetty would buy him cookies at the bakery. But she bought the broken cookies being sold at a discount.

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