This story ends with a $9 million fortune, but it's not a "get rich quick" story.

And although its protagonist wound up quite wealthy, I hope you won't be inspired to imitate her--even though a lot of misguided people are saying she's an inspiration.

Her name was Sylvia Bloom, and she worked for 67 years as a secretary at a Wall Street law firm, riding the subway each morning, and going home each night to the modest apartment that she shared with her husband.

During that time, it's now been revealed, she accumulated $9 million before she died in 2016, at age 96. She lived such a quiet, parsimonious life that nobody had any idea of her wealth.

Nobody, including apparently the husband with whom she shared that modest apartment all those years (rent-controlled, by the way, which is kind of a big deal in New York). He was city firefighter who later became a teacher and worked a side job as a pharmacist, and who died in 2002.

Bloom's niece, Jane Lockshin, said she learned of her aunt's wealth only shortly before her death, explained the strategy to the New York Times:

"She was a secretary in an era when they ran their boss's lives, including their personal investments," she said. "So when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him, and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a secretary's salary."

Now, in death, the bulk of Bloom's fortune is now going to a worthy cause, funding college scholarships for New York kids. Lockshin is the treasurer of the largest beneficiary.

Okay. So, now you have the facts. What to make of the story?

Let's start briefly with a question that's a bit uncomfortable to raise: was Bloom's strategy 100 percent legitimate? As Ira Stoll noted in Reason, at least one lawyer at Bloom's firm pleaded guilty to "insider trading for misusing confidential information about one of the firm's clients."

Stoll doesn't want to go so far as to call this illegal, so I'll repeat use his phrase: the strategy of drafting off her bosses' trades "poses potential legal and moral complexities." 

Set that aside. As the Times points out, these kinds of stories make news from time to time: the unassuming, almost painfully frugal person, usually living on a salary, who leaves behind a fortune that nobody imagined they could possibly have had.

Among them: Donald and Mildred Othmer, who left $750 million when they died in 1995 and 1998 respectively. (They'd entrusted their investments to an old family friend whom they'd first met in the 1960s, named Warren Buffet). 

There was also Grace Groner, a Chicago-area secretary woman who left $7 million (mostly the result of a single $180 investment she'd made in 1935 and never touched), and a Milwaukee bachelor and corner grocer named Leonard Gigowski who left $13 million to a scholarship program. 

There are similarities: unmarried more often than not; almost universally childless. Not that everyone has to get married or have kids to find happiness, of course, but it's striking.

The news often breaks not with their death, but with a later story of an outsized and unexpected charitable gift--much appreciated by the beneficiary.

And, the stories include at least one anecdote of almost comic frugality. In Bloom's case, the Times says she refused to pay for taxicabs in New York to the point that on 9/11 she insisted on walking across the Brooklyn bridge and then waiting for the subway.

All of which leads me--and frankly, I hope more people, including you--to ask a single question: Why?

Why live so frugally? Why work so hard to accumulate the money? Why not give it away during your lifetime, if charity and good works are the ultimate goal?

In Bloom's case, if Stoll is onto anything with his insider trading conjecture: Can you imagine anything sadder than potentially taking legal risks for which people go to prison--only to squirrel the money away and never do anything with it?

(An aside to my wife: If you're reading this, and you've squirreled away millions but you think you're doing us both a favor somehow by keeping it a secret--No. Stop. We need to talk.)

I keep thinking of an alternative rock song from 1988 by the band, The Godfathers: Birth, School, Work Death.

So, read about people like Bloom and the Othmers and Groner and Gigowski. Study their investment strategies. Take the lessons. But don't become them. 

If you do make money, spend it. Invest it. Give it away to charities--heck, to random people whose lives you might change in a meaningful way.

And most importantly, do so while you're still around to see what happens.

Otherwise, what's the point?


 

Published on: May 7, 2018
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