Author Janet Wallach © Vance Jacobs 2012
When Hetty Green died in 1916, she was worth at least 100 million dollars, or more than two billion in 2012 currency. In her just released book “The Richest Woman in America,” (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday) New York City native Janet Wallach captures the nuance of Green’s fascinating life against the backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era marked by government scandal and financial crises. When everyone else was selling, Green bought railroads, real estate, and government bonds, thereby becoming the "queen of American finance,” in Wallach’s words. The author of eight books -- including “Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell,” a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and “Chanel: Her Style and Her Life” -- Wallach is also the mother of two sons and founding director of Seeds of Peace, a non-profit educational and leadership training program (created by her late husband John Wallach) for teenagers from countries in conflict. Here she joins us to let us in on a typical day.
I cannot imagine life without a real newspaper. The first thing I do, around 8:00, is open my front door and look down to see if the Times is there. With a slight sigh of relief, I pick it up and head to the kitchen. I read it slowly, savoring the news along with my breakfast, knowing I should be at my desk, but happy to postpone those moments that will produce both agony and a small sense of victory. How long can I sit at the kitchen table before the guilt settles in? Do I really need to know about politicians in Florida, dictators in Africa, or what the weather is in Brazil? No matter, I will be well versed if I happen to go to a dinner party where such things are discussed. Not that I have been to a dinner party in months, but you never know.
It’s nearly 10:00 by the time I toss on some comfortable clothes and sit down at my disheveled desk. Dressing up will only make me want to go outside, so it’s better to wear jeans and a t shirt. and then I won’t be tempted to leave my apartment. I usually have stacks of books piled near my desk, either those I’m reading for research on a book I’m writing, or those I’m reading to find a new subject. At the moment I’m in a search mode and feeling anxious that I don’t have the next subject. Most of my ideas will be thrown out, either because there is not enough information, or because I feel that I can’t connect with the people. I like to write about women I can admire; smart, independent women who made a mark on the world. Sometimes my subjects are so strong and outspoken -- Hetty Green, Gertrude Bell, Coco Chanel -- that I think I would have been intimidated if I had ever met them in person.
I’m fortunate to belong to the New York Society Library, the oldest library in New York. Members are allowed to roam through the stacks of old and rare books and check out unlimited quantities. It’s exciting to rush home late afternoon with a pile of books in my arms, not knowing what I might uncover. If I find a subject that interests me, I mark the important pages with sticky notes. Then I go back and write out my notes on five-by-eight inch cards. I discovered their usefulness years ago, and they're one of my best tools. When I’m working on a book I will use different colored cards to indicate various parts of a person’s life. For example, when I was taking notes about Hetty Green, I used green cards to indicate financial notes, pink cards to indicate society. The dilemma is always what to do with the note cards after I finish a book.
Something about working on a book always stimulates my appetite. I love to cook after I’ve put in a day’s work. By 7:00, I’m chopping onions, slicing vegetables, preparing stews or pastas. It’s good therapy and really relaxes the mind.
Working at home is one of the greatest luxuries in my life -- not having to dress up, food whenever I want it, distractions galore. The worst distraction is the Internet. Email is my undoing. Google is both the best thing in the whole field of research and the most dangerous. I can find sources and material on the web that were unimaginable only a few years ago. At the same time, I’m driving down a road with endless choices: Where will this one take me? Where will that one? So I wander around, straying too far from home. And yet, sometimes I arrive at a treasure house of information.
"Write what you know" is probably the best known advice for any writer. I spend as much time reading as I do writing. You can’t write if you don’t know the subject, and the only way to learn about it is to read as much as possible. I would guess that writers are the biggest supporters of the publishing industry.
My family and friends know that I have very little patience. But when I’m writing I can spend hours, days, even longer on a single sentence or paragraph. I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Time has no meaning. Sometimes I look down at the clock on my computer and I’m shocked to see how late it is. That’s when I know I’m really engaged. I am so lucky to be a writer. It’s what I always wanted to do, and I love every minute of it.