Rothschild Banks on America Now : Baron Lives in New York, Continues Financial Activities

Times Society Editor

Five arrows tightly bound in a sheath. It's the meaningful symbol of the close ties that bound the five sons of the first Rothschild, Amschel Mayer of Frankfurt. They were all highly individual, exceedingly successful, very rich and very resourceful. And for their entire lives they remained close.

Amschel Mayer urged them on his deathbed in 1812 to keep together, because united they would succeed, separately they might fail.

Amschel (the Rothschild and the titles came later) brought his brood of five sons and five daughters out of a Frankfurt ghetto by amassing a coin collection for Prince William of Hesse. The boys went on to spread the Rothschild expertise with money around Europe--to England, France, Austria and Italy--but Amschel, who remained in Frankfurt, was until his death their rallying point.

James, who settled in Paris, Nathan, who established the London branch of the family, Salomon, Amschel and Karl (who became Carlo when he moved to Italy) might have had their differences, but they followed their father's advice, remained tightly knit and passed on their father's advice to their sons. (Amschel's five daughters were expected to marry properly and in the Jewish faith, but they were not part of the Rothschild empire building.)

More Five Arrows

Later, when the luxury-loving James (he worked all day at the bank and entertained four nights a week at his rue Lafitte home) became a baron, he included the five arrows in his coat of arms.

In 1968, Amschel Mayer Rothschild's great-great-grandson, the elegant Baron Guy de Rothschild, titular head of the French Rothschilds, adopted the five arrows as a symbol of the Rothschild Bank in France. And Guy's cousin, the bon vivant Baron Philippe de Rothschild, has put the five arrows on labels for the Mouton Rothschild wines, part of his inheritance from his father, the Baron Henri.

The family motto that Amschel's descendants follow is: Concordia, Integritas, Industria (harmony, integrity, industry).

Although they go their own ways, Rothschilds share mutual causes, activities and life styles: finances and investments, Jewish philanthropies, Israel, art collecting, living well and helping those who are not as fortunate as they are. They donate magnificent homes to the state (Paris' Elysee Palace was once a Rothschild home), donate art to museums and money to medical research, hospitals, orphanages.

And according to Baron Guy, many Rothschilds share a penchant for what is known as the "Rothschild style." In his autobiography, "The Whims of Fortune," first published in French and this year published in English (Random House: $19.95), he describes it as "a Napoleon III decor, personalized not only by art objects of all sorts, but above all by a sense of comfort and intimacy that intermingles furs, flowers, plants, family photographs, precious miniatures and rare books." Edouard de Rothschild's Chateau Ferrieres (where his son, Guy, spent his early years) was, as he describes it in minute and nostalgic detail, a perfect example of that Rothschild style.

A Touch of Mischief

Impeccably tailored, blue eyes showing a touch of mischief, he conducted an interview over lunch at Le Saint Germain in Oxford-accented English. (An English nanny taught him English before he could speak French.) His memoirs, he said, were "on the national best-seller list (in France) for 22 weeks straight."

The U.S. book tour is "a bit of an effort," he said. "In France, radio and television is nationalized. Once you've said something and you've answered some questions, you've spoken to the whole public."

The huge success of the memoirs in France came as a surprise. "I had no idea it would happen. I wrote the memoirs because I had finished being an executive (he retired from the French Rothschild Bank in 1979 at the bank's mandatory retirement age of 70) and therefore I worked less and writing it was one of the things that had been suggested to me. And I thought, 'Why not?' I've lived virtually a century, I bear witness to many things (among them World Wars I and II when the Rothschilds lost their French citizenship and their property, and the German occupation of France). I've lived the most extreme ups and downs, nothing that would have been expected when I was a baby in my cot."

He has lived, he attests, through the "most unexpected and diverse challenges, through physical dangers (as a soldier with the French army, later with the Free French in England) and political and economic challenges."

Varied Interests

Between sips of port, he continued. "My interests are very varied--racing, Jewish activities. I did 33 years of what I call public Jewish service, as chairman of the United Jewish Social Fund. But when I married a Christian I resigned. It was only proper."

In his memoirs, he says, "I wrote each chapter on a completely different subject so people could, if they didn't like a subject, read about something else." And he decided that the memoirs would be something for his grandchildren "to read when they grow up."

While in Los Angeles, the baron stayed with his sister Jacqueline, the widow of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. "I'm very fond of her," her brother murmured, "and we're very devoted to each other." Unlike her very social brother (he says his second wife, Marie-Helene, caught him up in her whirlwind social life), she is not social. But she is "one of the best senior American tennis playing women . . . formidable. And she sculpts. One of her sculptures is in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Town (City) Hall." Baron Guy's other sister, Bethsabee, lives in Tel Aviv, promotes Israeli crafts and manages her own ballet company, the Bat Dor.

In 1981, Francois Mitterrand's government nationalized the French Rothschild Bank. In the spring of 1982, Baron Guy left France for America. (His memoirs were published in France a year later.) "I've been living in New York since two years now," he said. "I come and go, but I live more in New York than in France." His wife, Marie-Helene, a slim and stylish blonde, "stays mainly in France." It has to do with her frail health, a subject he does not wish to dwell on, and the fact that she is more comfortable in their town house, the Hotel Lambert on Paris' Ile St. Louis.

Their separation is "a bit of a strain." But, he insisted, "it's in no way a loosening of a couple."

In New York, home for the baron is an East Side apartment luxuriously furnished in the Rothschild style by his wife and a London decorator. There he lives alone, going to his office in the mornings, reading and writing at home in the afternoons. And in the evening he "accepts invitations and gives dinner parties. I'm social because I don't want to get closeted in loneliness."

He finds Americans "hospitable to foreigners," but, for a man with so many friends in Europe and a large family, life in the New World is difficult. In France "we go to my country place, half an hour from my home in Paris . . . the small house I kept. We love it there and have friends stay with us, and my life is more free and gay. But I'm not complaining."

He wants to set the record straight on why he moved to New York. "Let's be explicit," he said sternly. "Everyone believes I left France because of politics, because of what happened. Because our bank was nationalized and we were kicked out and that meant that the French Rothschilds, particularly the younger generation, were in economic exile in their own country. I was determined not to let the French Rothschilds disappear off the map. So I moved to America, which is the center of world finance, so as to make it quite clear to the international community that we haven't given up, haven't disappeared. And among other things that the French half of our firm, Rothschild Inc., is very much alive and very much as potent as the English half.

"In the meantime, my son David (by his first wife Alix de Schey von Koromla) stays in France and with one of my nephews started a small financial firm that is now already a bank, has a bank charter, and is what Americans call an investment bank. And it will be a Rothschild bank in New York."

Still Spunky at 78

According to the baron, still spunky at 78, "It's a process of not giving up and of rebuilding. And it is not a political protest in any way."

(In October, 1981, soon after the nationalization of his bank, the titular head of the French Rothschilds was more bitter. In a letter to Le Monde, which the Paris daily ran on its front page, he had said, "A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand--for me it's enough. To rebuild on ruins twice in a lifetime is too much.")

Still a loyal French citizen, he bristles when the subject of French anti-Semitism is brought into the conversation. "I want to be very explicit because I've noticed Americans tend to believe that the French are much more anti-Semitic than they are. It's an unearned reputation. I do not deny that anti-Semitism exists, but I have to defend my country. No one has ever heard in France of a restricted building. There's no place, no building, no hotel where anyone has ever asked if you're Jewish."

And then he mentions as proof the response to his book in France. "I received more than 1,000 letters after the book was published, and there was only one with raving anti-Semitism, the work of a mad man who did not sign the letter."

As for terrorism in France, he declares that "it has nothing to do with the French. My argument with the French is that they have been too liberal in granting asylum."

He has obviously inherited his love of horses and racing from his grandfather, Alphonse, who established his Rothschild blue-and- gold racing colors in 1842, and from his father. "By now," he said, "we must have the oldest racing colors in France." He has maintained his horses and said quite firmly that "I'm in no way going to reduce them. (At the present he has a horse being trained by Charlie Whittingham in Southern California.) My father loved it (racing and breeding thoroughbreds), and in my book I try to make the reader understand how one gets such a thrill. It's a challenge and a bit of a business, not just pure luxury."

It was racing that brought the Baron Guy and his future wife together. It was 1952, the year that marked his real entry into racing (he inherited the stable upon the death of his father in 1949), and he was attending the closing ball of the Deauville season at the casino. A young couple, Count and Countess de Nicolay, won the last raffle, Chateau Lafite wines. They were horse owners, too. Although the baron and the countess were both married, their attraction for each other grew and the courtship moved slowly through the racing seasons. They met again in October at the Arc de Triomphe, in November for the end of the racing season, in the spring at Longchamp. His best horse, Exbury (named for a Rothschild estate) was the result of the mating of a Rothschild horse with a De Nicolay one. Finally, in 1957, they were married.

The Rothschilds are so fussy about whom they marry that they often marry cousins. This time the baron married the great-granddaughter of Helene Rothschild (granddaughter of James and great-granddaughter of Amschel Mayer). Helene married a Christian, a Van Zuylen, and was disinherited by her mother. Baron Guy finds it amusing that he has gotten "my revenge. Now a Van Zuylen has married a Rothschild."

Marie-Helene was born in New York, the daughter of a Dutch-Belgian diplomat, Egmont van Zuylen, and Egyptian beauty Marguerite Nametella. Marie-Helene, her husband said, has "turned out to be more of a Rothschild than I was . . . . With her, there was no evading the continuation of our family traditions--with perhaps the added dash of fantasy inherited from the Van Zuylens."

Famous for Their Parties

Before France's socialist government put a damper on extravagant fetes, the Guy de Rothschilds were famous for their many parties. Marie-Helene, a perfectionist, planned them all with meticulous attention to all the details. The most famous of them all were two costume balls at Ferrieres, one a Proustian extravaganza, "In Remembrance of Things Past," the other a Surrealist-themed gala.

Nowadays the Rothschild style of entertaining is more subdued. But Marie-Helene, dressed by her friend Yves Saint Laurent in white lace, had a chance to shine again this spring when she produced a benefit gala for the opening of the restored rooms in the Musee des Arts Decoratit at the Louvre. Women's Wear Daily devoted five pages to the party, which the fashion paper called "the party of the year." Her husband was there to view the creme of Paris and New York jet-setters enjoying themselves in the Valerian Rybar and Jean-Francois Daigre decor. Baron Guy gives his wife credit for working hard and for being a "fabulous promoter. Ours is an association of mutual admiration."

Asked if he has any regrets, he answers candidly. "I'm sorry I didn't paint the town blue when I was a young man. But it's not a burning regret. I would like to make up the huge deficiencies in my culture. I read with pleasure, but I only read the things I like. I'm disappointed with myself because I can't read Proust. It bores me."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°