Guy de Rothschild, 98; patriarch of a banking dynasty

Washington Post

Guy de Rothschild, the dynamic patriarch of one of the world’s dominant banking families whose business savvy helped revive and expand the multibillion-dollar enterprise after World War II, died Tuesday in Paris. He was 98.

His family announced his death but did not disclose the cause.

For generations, the Rothschilds had been economic advisors to European royalty, heads of state and even popes. Rothschild’s ancestors settled in Paris and started a French banking branch in 1817 that financed wars and railroads, mining and archeology. The family became one of the richest and most powerful in the world.


Baron Guy de Rothschild took control of the family’s Paris branch and set about modernizing operations after their near ruin during the Nazi occupation of France.

Besides holding the presidency of de Rothschild Freres bank -- which became Banque Rothschild after a major reorganization in the late 1960s -- he also assumed the presidency of Compagnie du Nord, the family’s investment and holding company, which had assets in the metal, mining and chemical industries.

Although he guided investments into blue chip firms, including Michelin, De Beers and IBM, it was said that Rothschild’s greatest role was overseeing an aggressive expansion of investments overseas, including oil digs in the Sahara and iron mining in Mauritania in northwestern Africa. He also financed lead mines in Peru and ski resorts in the Swiss Alps.

Several of the mining operations failed, but the bank’s continued diversification -- notably into U.S. steelmaker Copperweld Corp. -- helped it survive.

Rothschild also solidified the family’s political connections. He advised French President Charles de Gaulle, whom he had known since World War II, and formed a close relationship with Georges Pompidou, who became De Gaulle’s prime minister before serving as president.

Under the Socialist government of Francois Mitterrand, the family suffered a massive reversal of fortune with the nationalization of the country’s banks in the early 1980s.

Rothschild, leader of the French Jewish community, wrote a scathing letter to the newspaper Le Monde -- which printed it on the front page -- declaring that France had twice tried to vanquish his family.

“A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand -- for me it’s enough,” he wrote. Marshal Philippe Petain was the leader of the collaborationist French Vichy government during World War II.

Having prepared to leave for the United States anyway, Rothschild settled in New York in the hope of again regaining control over the banking business. The family did that in 1987 through the efforts of a son, David, who had taken over.

Guy Edouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild was born May 21, 1909, in Paris and raised at the family chateau in Ferrieres-en-Brie, just east of Paris.

With the start of World War II in September 1939, he joined a mechanized cavalry unit that was attacked fiercely by the Germans when they invaded France the next year. He was among three of 26 officers to survive the fighting.

Although many members of his family went abroad to escape the Nazis, he remained behind and saw the new regime confiscate the Rothschild estates and art collection. Rothschild, who had joined the family business after graduating from the University of Paris, played a major part in moving the firm to Vichy France in the south. Soon after, he was stripped of his French citizenship and embarked for the United States via Lisbon.

When he returned to Europe in 1943, he joined De Gaulle’s Free French Army and became a close aide. His decorations included the Croix de Guerre.

While reconstructing the family business, Rothschild cultivated a reputation as a social titan known for his fine wines and thoroughbred racehorses.

Besides David, from his first marriage, to Alix de Koromla, survivors include Edouard, a son from his second marriage, to Marie-Helene van Zuylen.