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American jazz musician Thelonious Monk (1917 – 1982) (left) and his patron, British Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter (1913 – 1988), get into the latter’s Bentley (possibly an S2) outside the Five Spot Cafe, New York, New York, 1964

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Rothschild. A name that evokes dazzling wealth, sublime power, marbled hallways, fine wine and high finance. A dynastic thread, strung with grand houses and gilded lifestyles. A bank whose backing has been sought by sovereigns and statesmen, whose decisions could move markets, and whose prominence has endured two centuries of breakneck historical change. The Rothschilds’ opulence and influence has become the stuff of legend, not to mention countless sinister conspiracy theories.

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Hannah Rothschild, writer and film director, photographed at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on April 9, 2016

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The story is more complex than it seems at first glance. The Rothschilds’ grand houses and collections, easily mistaken as proof of immemorial wealth, were in fact gathered hurriedly in the mid-19th century by a newly affluent banking family seeking to fit in among an aristocracy that looked down on them as Jewish, German and – the horror – recently poor. The Rothschilds were the nouveaux riches of their day, a family who’d burst out of the bleak and oppressive Frankfurt ghetto determined to reinvent themselves. Suddenly and deliriously wealthy, they looked around them to learn how dynasties were most effectively forged. The author and filmmaker Hannah Rothschild has compared her ancestors’ approach to that of modern oligarchs and sheikhs: ‘They tend to emulate who they think is spending money well.’

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Nikki Hilton and husband James Rothschild


The urge to conform has waned over time, and latter-day Rothschilds are more at ease doing things their own way. Nowhere is that truer than among the family’s women. The current cohort includes socialites such as Nicky Hilton Rothschild, as much as literary scholars and economists.

It was the summer of 2015 when I started looking more closely at the dynasty sometimes referred to as ‘the Jewish royal family’. My first book, The Mistresses of Cliveden, which told the story of five magnificent yet woefully under-researched women, had just been published. Delving into their diaries, letters, and innermost thoughts prompted an epiphany in me. And over lunch at Scott’s that summer, my friend, the inimitable historian Andrew Roberts, came up with a plan. How about I marry my twin passions of Jewish and women’s history by writing about the Rothschilds?

If the Rothschild men’s story began amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, that of the women started quite differently: with a single clause in a single will. When he died in 1812, the ‘founding father’ of the bank, Mayer Amschel Rothschild, left behind an instruction that would echo through the family for generations. No daughter nor son-in-law nor their heirs would have a share in the business of the bank: ‘I would never be able to forgive any of my children if, contrary to these my paternal wishes, it should be allowed to happen that my sons were upset in the peaceful possession and prosecution of their business interests.’

With that decree, Mayer Amschel had preemptively consigned his female descendants to the footnotes of the family’s history. It left me full of questions. What had the Rothschild women done in response to that exclusion? Had they challenged it, evaded it, resigned themselves to it? What kind of lives and experiences had been lost from the historical record?

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