When Batsheva de Rothschild, who runs a dance company in Tel Aviv, was touring in Kenya recently, she was asked at a press conference for her name. ‘Rothschild,’ she said. ‘Ah yes,’ came the rather surprising reply, ‘just like our giraffe.’ And indeed the local five horned giraffe is named after a member of the family, the eccentric Walter Rothschild who devoted his life to obscure scientific research and ended his days in tragedy when he was ruined by a blackmailing peeress and compelled to sell to Americans his beloved collection of 295,000 stuffed birds.
So much for the legend of the all powerful Rothschilds who control the whole world behind the scenes: many have led powerless and even rather sad lives, although the story does reveal their obsessive energy and the way they turn up in the most unexpected places. Since the more mainstream Rothschild men devoted their talents to acquiring money and mistresses, race horses and objets d’art, Derek Wilson’s account of the family reads like a great Jewish soap opera.
It is easy to enjoy the rather confusing abundance of playboys and powerbrokers, distant cousins and dynastic marriages. Yet the Rothschild story also touches on all the crucial and often painful issues of Jewish Life over the last two centuries. It was during the turmoil of the French Revolution and Napoleonic period, at the very beginning of Jewish Emancipation, that the famous ‘Frankfurt Five’ established the Rothschild dynasty, with four of Mayer Amschel’s sons taking up residence in London and Paris, Naples and Vienna. The comparatively tolerant atmosphere of England and the dynamism of Nathan Rothschild or ‘N M’ soon paid dividends, as he became the principal financier to the British government – and the man who provided the money for Waterloo.
Success bred success and this attracted a measure of antisemitic hostility, which the Rothschilds, unlike their poorer co-religionists, were usually able to rise above. Baron Louis, for example, was imprisoned by the Nazis for a while in 1938-9, but his connections managed to negotiate a release. (His ‘usual patrician sang-froid’ emerges in a remark to the guards who came to open his cell door: ‘It’s far too late to disturb any of my friends. I’ll leave in the morning.’)
Such a situation led inevitably to guilt and an ambivalent attitude to assimilation. Although the Rothschilds have tended to take on and even exaggerate the colourful and extravagant habits of the aristocracies of their adopted countries, they have always supported a wide variety of Jewish and non-Jewish charities. Few have decided to live in Israel, yet they played a central role in establishing the early Zionist settlements in Palestine. Some have even flirted with socialism: Lord Rothschild’s Cambridge friendship with Guy Burgess and the family’s almost pathological secrecy have led to continuing (although no doubt unjust) speculation that he was somehow involved.
The same issues surround the vexed question of inter-marriage. In the early days, the Rothschilds married only within the family, or at least among other wellborn Jews. Erring daughters could expect to be ostracised. Now even male Rothschilds regularly marry out of the faith, and one French member of the family chose a blond actress, specialising in nude scenes, who was the illegitimate daughter of a labourer.
The author gallantly does his best for her: Nadine, we are told, ‘had taken every opportunity to develop her mind as well as her body, learning all she could in her travels about art, fashion and culture – the things smart people talked about’. (As someone who seems to have enjoyed the lavish hospitality of most of the living Rothschilds, Wilson understandably reveals more than a trace of sycophancy.) Other people might find the baronne’s frequent television appearances and books in praise of wifely self-abnegation more than a little ridiculous. Still, it cannot be easy to be a part of ‘perhaps the most remarkable family of recent history’; at least Baron Edmond can be sure of finding his slippers waiting for him after a hard day at the office.