Like mother, not so much like daughter. Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (1871-1951), daughter of infamously miserly Hetty Green, willed the bulk of her inheritance to libraries, hospitals and other charities. Although she developed many of her mother’s idiosyncrasies, Sylvia’s final philanthropy allowed most of her mother’s fortune to ultimately work for good. Sylvia remembered New Bedford Free Public Library and St. Luke’s Hospital in her will.
Like mother, not so much like daughter. Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks (1871-1951), daughter of Hetty Green, willed the bulk of her inheritance to libraries, hospitals, churches, colleges and other charities. Although she developed many of her mother’s idiosyncrasies, Sylvia’s final philanthropy shows a concern for humanity that allowed most of her mother’s fortune to ultimately work for good.
Sylvia was born in London on January 7, 1871, the second child and only daughter of Hetty Howland Robinson and her husband Edward Henry Green. The family soon returned to Edward’s hometown of Bellows Falls, Vermont, where in 1879 Edward bought Tucker House, an old brick mansion, from the family of his grandfather Nathaniel Tucker. Hetty removed its heirloom furniture, kept it barred and shuttered, and shut off the lights early in the evening, by 7:30 pm. Once a place of comfortable hospitality, Tucker House became a house of drab austerity. Sylvia spent part of her childhood at Tucker House, where she would later take care of her invalid father.
In spite of her mother’s domination, Sylvia spent happy days as a child and young woman at Bellows Falls. Tucker House had expansive grounds, and Sylvia loved life in the country. She attended Immanuel Church and its parish school, where she enjoyed friendships with other young people and older residents. Friend Mary Nims Bolles reported that Sylvia “seemed proud of her mother and happy. She never intimated by word or act her mother’s peculiarities as trying and she cheerfully submitted to all the restrictions imposed upon her.” When Hetty moved her family to a cheap rooming house in Hoboken, New Jersey, Tucker House was rented for several years. In Hoboken, Sylvia would cook and sew to save money for her mother. She would often return to Bellows Falls in the summer, with the family or alone, and stay at the Towns’ Hotel, owned by Hetty’s friend Mrs. Towns.
Annie Leary, Hetty’s bridesmaid and lifetime friend, often acted as Sylvia’s “fairy godmother.” Annie often invited Sylvia to stay with her in New York and introduced her to high society through various social gatherings. But these contacts were limited, and Sylvia always returned to her mother in the Hoboken apartment or retreated in summer to Mrs. Towns’ Hotel in Bellows Falls. Eventually, Sylvia would find a husband outside of Bellows Falls, through her brief sorties in New York society.
On February 23, 1909, Sylvia married Matthew Astor Wilks, great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, America’s first millionaire. Sylvia was 38 years-old and John was 65. Ever concerned about the family fortune, Hetty made John sign a prenuptial agreement that waived all rights to her daughter’s estate. For 18 years of marriage, Sylvia enjoyed a home of her own and her husband’s companionship. After John’s death in 1926, Sylvia purchased a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she raised dogs and studied birds in her garden. Her last residence was a comfortable apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York.
As time passed, Sylvia developed many of her mother’s peculiarities. She usually wore black clothing, lived frugally, had few friends, became more reclusive and avoided publicity. When her brother Colonel Edward “Ned” Green died in 1936, Sylvia banned visitors to his Round Hill property that he had previously opened to the public. She had inherited Round Hill and the bulk of her brother’s fortune due to a prenuptial agreement signed by his wife. Since both of Hetty’s children were childless and protected by prenuptial agreements, her great wealth was left to daughter Sylvia to administer.
Estimated to be worth more than $100 million in 1946, Sylvia managed her finances through her Windham Realization Company, Inc. up through 1950. Her holdings included New York City mortgages, industrial securities, tax-free municipal bonds, farming and oil properties, as well as other real estate. When Sylvia died on February 5, 1951, her estate was worth about $95 million. Her will, found in a cabinet drawer under three bars of soap, provided $5000 to a cousin and the remaining millions to 63 charities and educational institutions. New Bedford Free Public Library, St. Luke’s Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital were among those remembered in Sylvia’s will. Three New Bedford branch public libraries, Wilks, Francis J. Lawler, and Howland-Green, were built with funds left in trust to the library by Sylvia Ann Howland Green Wilks. She also left $1 million to St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford and another $1 million to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Surrounded by detached frugality most of her life, Sylvia gave purpose to her inheritance through her ultimate generosity.
Bolles, Mary Nims. “Mrs. Wilks, Donor of Hospital, Spent Happiest Days in Bellows Falls; Attended School Here.” Bellows Falls Times, 9 Sept. 1954, pp. 1-3.
“Mrs. Hetty Wilks Dead at Age 80.” New York Times (1923-Current file), 6 Feb. 1951, p. 25.
“Mrs. Matthew A. Wilks Dies; Was Sister of Colonel Green.” The Standard-Times, 6 Feb. 1951, pp. 1+.