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Major Merger

Thursday, May 21, 2015
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On a fine day this spring, James Rothschild climbed the stone tower of 14th-century St. Nicholas church in Rushbrooke, the village that was his childhood home. Almost a hundred feet below, a landscape of green fields, lakes and woodland stretched away as far as the eye could see. This was Rothschild country, the 2,000-acre Rushbrooke estate near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England. His late father loved this land and farmed it diligently; his mother bred horses here. James gazed out over the fields where he and his sisters once played, took out his camera and photographed the rambling old farmhouse that held so many memories. Then he turned his back on the scene, climbed down the worn stone steps and walked out of the church.

Villagers were mystified. What did it mean? A few weeks later, in April, the entire Rushbrooke estate, including the stud farm, three farmhouses and 26 cottages, was placed on the market at an asking price of $37.40 million. Then Rushbrooke folk thought they had an explanation for James’ climb up the tower: he had been saying goodbye.

The Rothschild dynasty held sway over governments and kings. The family bank financed wars and great public works alike—they once bailed out the Bank of England—and they built a string of palatial homes, filling them with dazzling treasures. It may be felt the sale of Rushbrooke marks the end of a chapter in the family’s rich story, but it probably signals a brilliant new beginning. This summer James marries Nicky Hilton, sister of Paris and an heir to the Hilton hotel fortune. Their romance and engagement have been accompanied by considerable public scrutiny, but James’s preparations for life as a married man have been more discreet. Earlier this year he quietly sold his house in Queensdale Walk in London’s Holland Park area. According to Land Registry records, the sale raised $2,558,720. Then he and Nicky were spotted browsing real estate brokers’ windows in neighboring Notting Hill, home to some of London’s most fashionable, celebrated—and wealthy—residents.

James, who has just celebrated his 30th birthday (dob: 14-5-1985) is a vice president and partner at the Monument Capital Group, whose headquarters is in Washington, DC. He and Nicky already have a transatlantic lifestyle, but James’s mother, Anita, a member of the Guinness brewing and banking dynasty, lives in London, as do his two sisters, Alice and Kate, so there is an expectation he and Nicky will have a home there. London is, after all, the seat of power of the Rothschild clan. The British branch of the family is descended from Nathan Mayer Rothschild, one of five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a coin dealer who in the late 18th century lived and worked on Jews Lane, Frankfurt, Germany. The single street was a malodorous ghetto where, one traveler observed, “Even those who are in the blooming years of their life look like the walking dead.”

Mayer Amschel sent his sons to the capitals of Europe to make the family’s fortune, and Nathan settled in London. He established the N.M. Rothschild bank—still based in its original building in St. Swithin’s Lane—and dealt on London’s Stock Exchange. When Wellington’s armies fought Napoleon he was paymaster, providing the government with cash. When Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Nathan used his impeccable network of contacts in Europe to get the news first. Instead of sharing it—even the government was unaware of the victory at first—he used the knowledge to make a killing on the exchange. Nathan was astute and acquisitive; the young man who had been a pariah in anti-Semitic Frankfurt was courted by ministers and tycoons.

His brothers were also making tremendous fortunes and between Waterloo and the First World War, the Rothschild family bank was the most powerful in the world.

“Not even the biggest of today’s international banking corporations enjoys the relative supremacy enjoyed by the Rothschilds in their heyday,” the historian Niall Ferguson noted.

It would be impossible to calculate just what the British Rothschilds were worth over the past two centuries (their money financed the Suez Canal, for example) but their homes stand today as testament to their extraordinary wealth. Since their first arrival in Britain the family has built or bought no fewer than 44 grand houses, among the most magnificent homes in Europe.

The family seat is Waddesdon Manor, a breathtaking palace built in 1874 by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. It was styled on a Renaissance chateau, and its soaring turrets and carved stone facade lend it a fairy-tale air. The house, about an hour’s drive from London in the Buckinghamshire countryside, was inherited by Lord Rothschild, James’ great-uncle, in 1988, but he chose not to live there. It was donated to the heritage charity, the National Trust, and has 350,000 visitors a year. “It’s too big—not an easy house to live in,” Lord Rothschild said. His home is at Eythrope, a country house four miles away, on a curve of the River Thames. The family still entertains at Waddesdon, and parties there, as Nicky will no doubt discover, are fabulous affairs. Lord Rothschild has undertaken a major restoration, while adding to Waddesdon’s many treasures. It is said to contain 25,000 significant works of art. The house was always meant to be a showcase for the family’s vast collection, featuring important paintings, sculpture and some of the world’s rarest and most valuable porcelain. There are exceptional examples of Meissen—including two life-sized animal figures—and a dinner service that belonged to Marie Antoinette. The wine cellars contain 10,000 bottles, some laid down 150 years ago.

The Rothschilds built several homes in the Vale of Aylesbury, where Waddesdon is located, including Mentmore Towers, reckoned to be among the greatest houses of the Victorian era. Mentmore, built for Baron Mayer de Rothschild between 1852 and 1854, housed another extraordinary collection of art and furniture said to rival that of Britain’s royal family. Mentmore passed out of the family’s hands, and its contents were sold in the 1970s. Among works that went under the hammer were paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Boucher. Also in Buckinghamshire is Aston Clinton House, which, like another Rothschild home, Tring Park, is now an educational establishment.

The Rothschild family still owns Exbury, an estate on the banks of the picturesque Beaulieu River in Hampshire. Exbury is famous for its exquisite gardens, which are open to visitors in summer months. In the west of London, at Gunnersbury Park, Nathan Rothschild’s mansion is undergoing restoration prior to reopening as a museum in 2017.

In the 19th century especially, the Rothschild built to impress. “We have arrived,” their palatial homes seemed to say. But solid gold dinner services, engraved with the family’s crest depicting five arrows representing the five sons sent out to conquer the world of business, were not to everyone’s taste.

“The showiness! The sense of lavish wealth thrust up your nose,” Edward Hamilton, private secretary to William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s prime minister, recorded. “One’s eyes long to rest on something which is not all gilt and gold.”

To the outsider it seemed the Rothschilds had a perfect life, cocooned in wealth and privilege. Yet as the 20th century dawned mental illness, suicide and scandal were to inflict terrible damage.

James Rothschild was among those who suffered from the tragedies that seemed to curse the Rothschilds. In July 1996, when James was 11, his father, Amschel, was found hanged in his room at the Hôtel Le Bristol in Paris. He had traveled to the city on business, and the French police concluded he killed himself. But why? Amschel, 40, was a much-loved and highly respected man, devoted to his family. His close friend William Waldegrave, Margaret Thatcher’s secretary of state for health and now Lord Waldegrave, wrote: “Amschel dead? It seems inconceivable . . . he loved Suffolk and his farm; he flew; he drove his beautiful old Grand Prix cars with elegance and panache. His love for his wife and his children was fierce and touching to witness. The sense of loss felt by those who loved him will perhaps never properly heal . . .”

It was suggested that Amschel had been dragged away from his farm to try to rescue an ailing part of the banking empire, Rothschild Asset Management. He was not interested in business, according to this version, and succumbed to depression. The “blues,” as the family calls it, are a Rothschild affliction. Hannah Rothschild, daughter of the current Lord Rothschild, is a writer and filmmaker who has explored the subject in depth. Hannah wrote a highly acclaimed book, The Baroness, published in 2012, about Nica, her great-aunt, who scandalized society in the 1950s when she left her husband, the French diplomat Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, and their five children to lead a bohemian life among New York’s jazz musicians. Nica was beautiful, rich and probably a little mad. She used to tear around New York in her pale blue Bentley Continental convertible, making a grand entrance at the city’s bebop clubs, flourishing a cigarette holder and clutching a flask of whisky disguised as a bible. Hannah Rothschild chronicled Nica’s friendships with the great names of modern jazz—Charlie Parker died in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel, and she lived with Thelonious Monk until his death in 1982—and it is an illuminating and moving portrait of one of the zaniest Rothschilds of them all. But an important part of the book is Hannah Rothschild’s inquiry into her family’s “schizophrenia.”

Nica’s father, Charles, suffered from bouts of depression and lapses into near catatonic states that terrified his family. He spent long periods in sanatoria, and Hannah Rothschild thinks it probable he was treated by Dr. Joseph Lang, Carl Jung’s protégé. In 1923, Charles killed himself at the Rothschild home in Ashton Wold, Northamptonshire. Nica’s sister, Miriam (later Dame Miriam, a renowned natural scientist and zoologist), told Hannah she had no doubts about the cause of the tragedy. She claimed the family’s long tradition of seeking marriage partners within the clan had led to inbreeding that “damaged their mental health.”

Charles’s brother, Walter, who was sent home from the bank because he was deemed unfit, was delightfully dotty. He would drive around his estate in a carriage pulled by a team of zebras, and he assembled an astonishing collection of stuffed animals, including a room-sized case containing stuffed dogs.

Earlier generations of Rothschilds did indeed marry inside the family. Marriages between cousins were common, and there were unions between uncles and nieces. The need to find a Jewish partner played a part in this, but there was another reason: the Rothschilds, to this day, have an unusually powerful sense of kinship. Hannah Rothschild put it like this in a quote from her great-aunt Nica: “We Rothschilds are a weird lot, but a close one.”

Amschel’s apparent suicide happened nearly 20 years ago, and there has been nothing to suggest the current generation of Rothschilds suffers “the blues.” Indeed, James appears to be indefatigably cheerful. He is often to be seen out with leading members of London’s afterdark set; his best friend is Jason de Savary, a commodities broker noted for his left-of-field sense of humor. James is close to Zac and Ben Goldsmith, sons of the late business tycoon Sir James Goldsmith. Ben was married to James’s sister Kate, who had a widely publicized affair with rapper Jay Electronica, leading to an acrimonious split from Ben. Despite this, James and Ben remain the best of friends. Zac, a Conservative member of parliament, is married to James’s other sister, Alice.

The Rothschild girls, especially Kate, have become great friends with Nicky, according to sources in their set, and are looking forward to having her in London. Nicky, 31, is already a regular item in British newspapers, and recent pictures of her in New York wearing a black miniskirt and high heels prompted the Daily Mail to write: “Nicky Hilton showed the world just how to wear a mini skirt and stilettos . . .”

Indeed, it would be surprising if she did not glide effortlessly into James Rothschild’s milieu. She already knows most of his friends and counts many of them among her own. A question still to be answered is the rather ticklish one of religion. The Hiltons are Catholics; Nicky and Paris both attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart girls school in New York. The Rothschilds, by tradition, are Ashkenazi Jews. The head of James’s branch of the family, Jacob, Lord Rothschild, is active in Jewish charities, and the family upports Yad Hanadiv, its foundation in Israel, which undertakes major projects. It built the country’s Knesset and Supreme Court. Yet there has been some low-level debate in England about the younger generation’s adherence to Judaism. Lord Rothschild has said he is not “particularly observant,” and while Rothschilds always used to look for partners inside the clan or from other Jewish families, the practice appears to have died out. On James’ mother’s side, the Guinness family is Anglo-Irish Protestant. Nat Rothschild, the 43-year- old son of Lord Rothschild, was the subject of a tease in the Jewish Chronicle, which posed the question “How Jewish is Nathaniel Rothschild?” It concluded he was only 48 percent Jewish, citing the fact that his mother, Serena, was not Jewish and that Nat had an early marriage in Las Vegas—without the presence of a rabbi. James and Nicky have doubtless resolved any religious question—if it is an issue at all—but for now they are not saying how.

Despite a difference in religions, the Hilton family has a history the Rothschilds would recognize. Like the Rothschilds, it all began in a very humble way. Augustus “Gus” Hilton left the family farm in Ullensaker, Norway, in 1870, aged 16, to try his luck in New Mexico. He opened a general store and, despite setbacks, prospered. His son, Conrad, fought in the First World War and returned to the United States in 1919 after Gus was killed in a road accident. Conrad was determined to start a bank, as the Rothschilds had done more than a century before, but his plans went awry and he ended up buying a hotel, the Mobley, in Cisco, Texas. The oil boom had begun, and soon Conrad was expanding his hotels all over the state. By 1954 he was describing himself as “innkeeper to the world”—with prizes like the Stevens Hotel in Chicago and the Waldorf Astoria in New York among his holdings. Conrad married three times; his second wife was the actress Zsa Zsa Gabor who ran up a tally of nine husbands. “I am a marvelous housekeeper,” she once said. “Every time I leave a man I keep his house.”

Conrad’s son, Conrad Jr., was a playboy who married Elizabeth Taylor, but the marriage ended after nine months because of his heavy drinking and allegedly “abusive behavior.” He died of a heart attack in 1969, aged 42. The business was taken over by Conrad’s son Barron, who is the grandfather of Nicky and Paris. Their father, Rick, is a successful businessman whose real estate company specializes in homes in Beverly Hills with an average value of more than $4.5 million.

Scions of the Rothschild and Hilton clans know, perhaps better than most, how great wealth works, but when it comes to eccentricity the Rothschilds probably have the edge. For many years, it was a tradition that when Rothschild children were taken to visit the head of the family at the bank, they were invited to lift, with one hand, a heavy bar on the great man’s desk. If they succeeded, they could keep it. It was an ingot of solid gold.
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