The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty by Natalie Livingstone

In May of last year, a woman appeared at Mar-a-Lago purporting to be Anna de Rothschild, a daughter of the dynasty that began in 1770 when Mayer Amschel Rothschild married (up) in the Judengasse of Frankfurt. (Gutle Schnapper, his better-off bride, brought him capital for his business.)

That the luster of the dynasty is undiminished two-and-a-half centuries later was evident when “Anna” drove her Mercedes-Benz AMG G 63 through the resort gates and was much fawned over by dazzled guests. Only later did it transpire that the self-styled heiress was in reality Inna Yashchyshyn, a 33-year-old Ukrainian-born charlatan.

No pedestrian pseudo-Rockefeller hustle for Inna; had she claimed to be the love child of Nelson himself, that earnest limousine liberal, Mar-a-Lago would have yawned. The grifter knew her gulls. The Rothschild banking enterprise—the largest on the planet during much of the 19th century—was once hardly less synonymous with arriviste glitz than the Trump brand is today.

Yet a good half of this puzzling family, Natalie Livingstone writes in her entrancing The Women of Rothschild, “remain virtually unknown.” The distaff side of the dynasty has been mostly left out of standard accounts. Blame the “world of nineteenth-century finance, in which the family rose to prominence.” It “was a male one.”

As Livingstone tells it, Rothschilds who were excluded from banking glory for want of a Y chromosome got even through achievements which, though they have been “unjustly overlooked” by posterity, were astonishing in “range and scale.” You go, Rothschild girls!

Alas a lot of the “achievement”—slumming in London’s East End to succor the poor, plumping for husbands’ political careers—was conventional rich-lady stuff in the Rothschilds’ world, extraordinary only for the amount of money disbursed. Miriam Rothschild, the zoologist, remarked that the genteel mediocrity of her female relations was never unduly disturbed by the burdens of greatness: “There was no Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Golda Meir or even Lily Montefiore among them.”

The author and zoologist Miriam Rothschild, C.B.E.

But the family’s glory lay as much in fantasy as conventional accomplishment, and here the Rothschild sisterhood not only outshone the men but wove a romance which, Yashchyshyn saw, is still potent. Livingstone half-heartedly costumes her heroines as contemporary figures whose vision of “gender and sexuality” was innocent of all “binary” simplemindedness, but her gossip-feast of a book is really about the survival, in the ostensibly rational world of finance, of enchantments one would have thought had gone the way of sorcery and alchemy.

The Rothschild sisterhood not only outshone the men but wove a romance which is still potent.

The Rothschild brand, says Ariane de Rothschild, chairman of the board of the Edmond de Rothschild investment company, is the stuff of “dreams,” as much “myth” as reality. A myth born when a family speculating in sovereign debt stumbled on the magical possibilities of the bond market.

The Rothschilds’ success in pioneering a new form of fixed-interest wealth depended on information. Would king X’s extravagance lead to default? Was prime minister Y’s program diminishing the revenue? Couriers and carrier pigeons could supply gross facts, but to plumb the deeper psychology of rulers, the family needed access to governing elites. For Livingstone’s Rothschilds, this meant humoring hordes of British grandees, from the Duke of Wellington to Queen Victoria.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim’s Marriage Portrait of Charlotte de Rothschild, 1836.

James Mayer de Rothschild, the “Nero of finance,” gave market tips to the brother of Victoria’s first prime minister, Lord Melbourne. Lionel de Rothschild arranged for the settlement of future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s debts. Lionel’s wife (and first cousin), Charlotte von Rothschild, “hosted Tories, Whigs, Radicals and Peelites” in the couple’s house at 148 Piccadilly, though for all her aplomb she confessed to “selfish terrors” when she “realised she was expecting Gladstone and Disraeli for dinner on consecutive nights.”

Dizzy reciprocated Charlotte’s affection by improbably portraying her husband, who during 15 years never uttered a word in the House of Commons, as Sidonia, the voluble sage in his novels Coningsby and Tancred.

If 148 Piccadilly was extravagant, the Rothschild country seats in Buckinghamshire’s Vale of Aylesbury were lurid. Henry James made ironic sport of the “gilded halls” of Mentmore, the château which Joseph Paxton, the cast-iron man, built for Mayer Amschel “Muffy” de Rothschild in a style John Betjeman would christen “Jacobethan.” Otto von Bismarck likened Mentmore to “an overturned chest of drawers,” while Isaiah Berlin dismissed nearby Waddesdon as “moneyed & vulgar.”

Rough magic, indeed, but it worked. Overcooked Rothschild interiors, stuffed with Gobelin tapestries and Louis Seize trumpery, seduced blasé aristocrats keen for culture debauch. Anti-Semites such as Sir Arthur Hardinge might mock fêtes “resplendent with Hebrew gold” or scoff, as Beatrice Webb did, at palaces “overflowing with objects of virtue and art, with no individuality or taste.” But the Rothschilds knew what they were about. Power has an affinity with the garish, that outward manifestation of inner will so strong it can’t be scrupulously correct.

Otto von Bismarck likened Mentmore to “an overturned chest of drawers,” while Isaiah Berlin dismissed nearby Waddesdon as “moneyed & vulgar.” It worked.

Hannah Arendt maintained that, like every other “bourgeois” middle-class person she knew, the respectable Jewish burgher is a parvenu who uses money to “disguise his ‘inborn’ lack of property” and signalizes good fortune in “crassly materialistic” taste. “The Jew, as parvenu, offered a caricature of the bourgeois citizen,” Arendt wrote, one that assuaged a feudal nobility in decline. The 10th possessors of foolish faces were happy to accept Rothschild invitations, provided the entertainments were a bit louche; Shylock, so their bigotry decreed, should pay for his pretensions by playing the clown.

The Rothschilds, in acquiescing, did the work of an age in which lowest-common-denominator taste paved the way for more general prosperity. No burning with a hard gem-like flame for them; they were prophets not of a higher beauty but of a new elite, neither chivalrous nor devout, but essentially flexible and financial. Land is stationary, and feudal aristocracy rigidly hierarchic; the easily converted wealth of stocks and fixed-interest bonds is fluid. Its liquidity requires a liquid elite. In bringing together old fortunes and new, the Rothschild women shaped the power establishments that make the modern machine run.

Bismarck likened Mentmore to “an overturned chest of drawers,” while Isaiah Berlin dismissed nearby Waddesdon as “moneyed & vulgar.” It worked.

To forge this heterogeneous plutocracy, they overcame traditions which kept marriage within the family or, failing that, within Judaism. It was a tricky business; some of the first goys to marry Rothschild brides seemed more enchanted with the dowries than the brides. (The greed that dare not speak its name.) Lord Rosebery, who married Hannah Rothschild, was rumored to have suppressed a strong homoerotic side; Cyril Flower, who married Constance Rothschild, was thought to have succumbed to the “Oscar Wilde madness.”

Constance was mystified by Cyril’s attachment to Wilde and his circle. (What is uranism, darling?) A “dreadful” story spread that Cyril had been “led astray.” Good King Edward VII, a family friend, “squashed the whole thing tho it was quite well known.” The relevant pages in Constance’s diary are inked out, but like many another undersexed grande dame, she transferred her affections to the poor.

Overcoming—not without a pang—much parochial poetry, the Rothschild women fashioned a wherever-people-are-rich-together romance of traditionless glitz that survives today. Like Esperanto, it has the merit of universal vacuousness. But in the 20th century, when the Rothschild banking partnerships faded, the Rothschild women were free to pursue new romances.

Overcoming—not without a pang—much parochial poetry, the Rothschild women fashioned a wherever-people-are-rich-together romance of traditionless glitz that survives today.

Miriam Rothschild made contributions to zoology, entomology, and environmentalism, wresting recognition from a skeptical establishment “by the sheer compelling merit of her research.”

Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, née Rothschild, was more than a “luscious, slinky, black-haired, jet-eyed Circe of high society.” If, as Arendt believed, “Jewish creative genius” was stunted by the parvenu morality of the Rothschilds, Nica found compensation in jazz: “I belonged where that music was.” She moved to New York and became the friend and protector of Thelonius Monk.

Baroness Pannonica “Nica” Rothschild de Koenigswarter with her dog Jack, circa 1930.

A line runs from the glitz of the Rothschilds’ banker-driven “new order of things” to the kitsch of today’s finance-driven technocracy, the homogenized complacency of the Davos elites. But another line connects what Arendt called the creative “pariah” strain in Jewish culture (exemplified by the poet Heinrich Heine) with Nica’s immersion in bebop, an outcast art nourished by the “sorrow songs” of slaves.

It was unfortunate, Arendt said, that glitz so often got the better of culture, “that the parvenu has been more important than the pariah; that Rothschild was more representative than Heine; that the Jews themselves were prouder of a Jewish prime minister than of Kafka or Chaplin.” But Livingstone shows how a later generation of Rothschild women, ceasing to be golden girls, worked to right those wrongs.

Michael Knox Beran is the author of several books, including The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy and, most recently, WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy