The Richest Woman in America (3 page)

BOOK: The Richest Woman in America
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Afterward, it was the Quaker tradition for the Robinsons to join Abby’s family for dinner at her father’s house. A lively widower who had once captained a whaling ship, Gideon Howland had taken a
cousin, Mehatable, as his bride, but she died soon after the birth of Abby, their second child. With no one to care for his young children, Gideon moved in with his father-in-law, Isaac Howland, and continued to live with the late Isaac’s second wife, Ruth.

Gideon’s older daughter, Sylvia, physically weak from a spinal problem at birth, had been spurned by Edward Robinson in favor of her younger sister. Strong-willed and outspoken, Sylvia remained a spinster in the house with Gideon. While the widow Ruth concentrated on running the household and overseeing the servants, twenty-eight-year-old Sylvia, well known for her quick tongue and lack of charm, fought for control. Every few years she changed her will.

The family slipped into their seats in the dining room and bowed their heads in silent grace, then dined at the polished wood table. New Englanders savored the fresh fish caught daily in their waters and the fruits and vegetables they stored all year: steamed scallops; fried clams; oyster chowder thick with pork, potatoes, onions, and peas; corn bread; and apple crisp thick with rich cream. Although the meal was plentiful, the talk at the Howland table was terse. Gideon’s insobriety added to the tension. Emotions simmered under the Quaker silence. Below the smiles of serenity, Abby and Sylvia stewed over sibling jealousies; Ruth and Sylvia bristled over their turf.

While the family chewed in silence, Edward did little to ease the strain. He and Sylvia eyed each other suspiciously: he, certain she was trying to sabotage him; she, convinced he was after the family fortune. Consumed by wealth and the intent to increase his means, he admitted that “making money was the great object” of his life. He pursued his fortune like Ahab pursued the great white whale.

Ordinarily, he focused his thinking on commerce and calculated his talk: the new building his partner Gideon just put up on the riverfront; the arrival of one of their ships; the price that whale oil was bringing. But now with his wife in a family way, his dreams floated toward his future son.

They had no doubt their firstborn would be a boy and they would call him Isaac. He would carry with pride his father’s deep Rhode Island roots and his mother’s Mayflower ancestry. Robinson took satisfaction in knowing his son would inherit both the wealth and the pedigrees. It wouldn’t be long before he would take the young boy
down to the Howland wharves, where he would educate him in the intricacies of enterprise: he would teach him how to read the ledgers at the countinghouse; he would pat him on the back when the young man bargained well for a captain and crew; he would swell with pride when his son squeezed the profits as he did.

It was the duty of every heir, Robinson believed, to increase the family riches. With that in mind, he would teach his boy to loan at interest and tell him never to borrow a cent. “Never owe anyone anything. Not even a kindness,” he always preached. Kindness rarely entered his world. How well his wife discovered this when, on November 21, 1834, instead of a son, Abby delivered a baby girl. They named her Hetty Howland Robinson.

Devastated by the birth of this child, Robinson insisted upon a male heir. Before the infant Hetty was nine months old, Abby’s stomach swelled again with child. Once more the future danced before Edward Robinson, and this time his dreams came true. Once more he saw himself mentoring the future entrepreneur, teaching him the secrets of stocks and bonds, commodities, profit and loss. But if disappointment befell him when his firstborn turned out to be a girl, Robinson seethed when his second born, Isaac, died at a few weeks of age.

In the graveyard of the Quaker meetinghouse they buried their infant Isaac. But they could not bury Edward Robinson’s anger. His wife, fearful of his rage and depressed over her loss, took to her bed. Edward fumed at his fate, Abby sobbed in her pillow, and both rejected their only child. Like the biblical Ishmael, the unwanted Hetty was cast aside. Dismissed from the house, she was sent to live with her grandfather Gideon.

Chapter 2
A Polished Reflection

house is a tangible object, a stack of bricks or stone or wood; but home is ethereal, a sense of comfort and protection, a feeling of belonging. Hetty never belonged. Not in her parents’ house. Not in her grandfather’s dwelling. Gideon’s stone house shivered with the frost of personal feuds that not even a little girl could melt. Backs stiffened, lips pursed, the dry-breasted women passed each other in silence and often ignored the child. Though they may have wanted to help her, they had little comprehension of her needs.

Like a wounded animal afraid of being hurt again, the girl snapped at the smallest slight and threw tantrums whenever she felt unloved. Her aunt Sylvia, who took on the role of surrogate mother, had neither the patience nor the physical strength to care for her; Ruth, older and worn from raising Isaac’s daughters, became her grandmother and arranged a place in her room for Hetty to sleep. When she was sick, Ruth nursed her back to health; the rest of the time a servant sent by Abby looked after the child.

As Hetty grew up, a tutor schooled her in the ABCs. The girl was quick with numbers and good at reading, and she caught her grandfather’s notice. A man with a fleet at sea needed the latest information, from shipping rates in London to the price that oil fetched in Peru, from yields on bonds to the price of common stocks. With his eyesight failing, he snapped open the evening newspapers, handed them to Hetty, and asked her to read aloud. In her child’s voice she called
out the stock quotations and commerce reports, warming her grandfather’s heart. And sometimes when he needed help with his correspondence, he called on her. That was how she absorbed some of his business methods, she later said. That was when he told her she would inherit some of his money.

But “Uncle Gid,” as he was called by all, had a penchant for drink and a thirst for fun that often kept him away. Hurt and in need of attention, young Hetty, her nostrils flared, her eyes burning, screamed and stamped her feet in fits of temper that threw the women into a tailspin. Most of the time they relented, but once in a while they refused, and the girl hobbled off like an injured bird and retreated to her parents’ house, searching for love where none existed.

Quakers viewed anger as a distraction to be mastered. Along with music, dancing, theater, and romantic fiction, it diverted a person from the spirit inside. How lucky the men, whose anger propelled them in their pursuit of money. How unlucky the women, forced to suppress their rage; and how often it emerged in nervous conditions.

Too weak, too busy with doctors to pay attention to Hetty, Abby left it to her husband, who used the Quaker silence to rein his daughter in. Thrifty with words, thrifty with money, thrifty in spirit, he had little time for her temper. “
Hetty, daughter, art thee angry?” he asked. If she answered, “Yes,” he told her not to speak for fifteen minutes. At the end of that time he asked again. “Art thee angry?” If she said yes, he told her not to speak for an hour. At the end of the hour, if her anger remained, he told her to stay silent for three hours, and if she still proved stubborn, she was forbidden to speak until morning.

But her father’s rebukes failed to keep her down. The admonitions may have stifled her mother, but they could not muffle her.
Young Hetty’s rage exploded when she was sent to the dentist alone. She howled at the unfamiliar doctor who ordered her into the strange chair, and she howled even more when he forced the cold metal instruments into her mouth. While another young patient, William Crapo, sat in the waiting room, she screamed for help and screamed to get out of the chair, but no family member rushed to her side; only a servant tried to calm her with a shiny coin, which he promised had come from her mother.

If money equaled affection, Hetty grasped the equation. At the
age of eight, dressed in her plain Quaker clothes, she gathered the precious coins she had saved from her weekly allowance, asked the Howland driver to hitch up the horses, and rode into town. As they approached the big brick savings bank, the child jumped out of the carriage, marched up the steps to the building, poured out her money onto the cashier’s desk, and opened an account. Not only did she earn compounded interest, she made her family proud. It was a story they told to friends in town and to those who gathered at
Round Hills, the Howland farmstead.

even miles south of New Bedford, a well-trodden dirt path led away from the stench of whale oil and toward the briny air of the sea. Travelers passed farm fields and fruit orchards before they arrived at the high stone walls that protected the sheep meadows and grassy fields rolling down to the edge of Buzzard’s Bay. The wooden house with gabled roofs and dormer windows that stood on a hundred acres was Sylvia’s much-loved summer home and Hetty’s favorite place to escape. Here she practiced driving a carriage, learned to ride sidesaddle, and even splashed in the sea.

The highlight of every summer came when scores of Howlands gathered for a family reunion. The frugal Quakers, who all chipped in to share the costs of the day, drew deep breaths of fresh air and caught up with their kinfolk while they inspected the familiar grounds; Hetty and the other children raced one another across the silvery fields, rode through the paddocks, and barreled down the big hill. As the day progressed and their hunger built, the crowd of adults and youngsters moved to the top of the rise, where they listened in silence as one of their own read from Scripture. Then, making their way inside the big tent set up for the occasion, with the crockery paid for by the participants and the camp chairs donated by cousin Moses Grinnell, they sat down to a feast of good, substantial food—roast turkey, cooked beef, lots of bread and fruit pies—followed by cigars for the men and a round of postprandial speeches for all. The summers lingered in her memory, but the joy that Hetty felt disappeared in the fall of her tenth year.

There was no feast at Eliza Wing’s establishment in Sandwich,
Massachusetts. But there was plenty of Scripture. It was painful enough that once again she was cast from the house. Now she was sent to the strict boarding school to keep her from being spoiled. The girl arrived to find a miserly course of fare. The money her family paid for her tuition helped cover the cost for the poorer girls who attended. There were no generous meals, or pretty clothes, or comfortable rooms. Quaker discipline and the Disciples ruled her nights and days.

The school required that she read three chapters of the Bible every day and five chapters on Sunday. At the end of the year, when she had finished reading it all, she could put down the book and close it. The regime was no less severe when she sat down to eat. At her first dinner, the food set before her looked dry, and when she asked for something to drink, she was given only a glass of skimmed milk. The outspoken Hetty remarked on the fresh food and thick cream on the Howland table and refused what was on her plate. “Skimmed milk,” she recalled later. “Skimmed milk when pitchers of cream were set on our table at home as a matter of course.” When the same plate of tasteless food appeared at supper, she was too hungry to turn it down and managed to chew half. When the remainder was put in front of her the following morning at breakfast, she swallowed hard and learned her lesson.

The classroom instruction did not go down any easier. The rote memorization and long lists of dates left her with little interest in literature, history, science, or even spelling. But the memories of the girls too poor to pay their own way and the Quaker values of justice and thrift stayed with her. She treated everyone, rich or poor, as equals, and guarded her pennies as others would guard their gold.

The only relief from the harsh routine at Eliza Wing’s came during school vacations. Back in New Bedford her grandfather’s zest for life kept the family alert. Yet even they were surprised when Gideon purchased the first piano in town. Music may have been forbidden by the Society of Friends, but like so many people, Uncle Gid made his own deals with God. In the dark of night, when the neighbors’ curtains were drawn, he ordered the upright carried into the house and up to the third floor. Hetty found delight in running her fingers over the smooth ivory keys.

BOOK: The Richest Woman in America
3.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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