“The Women of Rothschild,” by Natalie Livingstone

Several clichés may come to mind when thinking about the Rothschilds — the epitome of wealth and power, a banking dynasty, and at one time, the richest family on earth. Yet we would relate almost all of those phrases to the several generations of influential Rothschild men. If another cliché holds true, behind each one of them is a strong woman. “The Women of Rothschild” investigates that exact angle, looking at two centuries of the women who did much of the behind the scenes interpersonal activities that allowed the men to pursue and attain financial dominance at a time when antisemitism was still blatant and often considered acceptable.

It was not only the antisemitism of the times that made the Rothschild women outsiders. The family itself considered the men to be of higher status than the women, to such an extent that Mayer Rothschild, the father of five sons and five daughters, specifically excluded all of his daughters and their spouses from inheriting any part of the family businesses. Also cut out from the family fortune was anyone who married a non-Jew, at least until the middle of the 20th century.

The time period covered is from 1744 to the present, but with the emphasis on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the family quickly grew in numbers and influence. It all started with the marriage of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1822) and Gutle Schnapper (1753-1849). Their ten children provided the next generation of the family. The author has chosen to present a partial family tree, only including those people who are mentioned in the text, but it is still a monumental diagram covering seven pages. Some names appear in more than one spot because marriage between cousins was acceptable and commonplace in the 19th century. Mayer encouraged first and second cousins to marry each other in order to keep more of the wealth within the family long-term. It is possible that the rather high number of infant deaths as well as mental illnesses in later generations may have begun due to the multiple cousin marriages, which could be an interesting topic for another book.

Gutle and Mayer were Ashkenazi Jews, living in Frankfort, Germany. After that original marriage, the scene moves to London and mainly follows the British branch of the family descended from Nathan Rothschild, who established the family bank with his four brothers, leading to their eventual dominance in the financial world. It is ironic that some of their success was due to a prohibition at that time, forbidding Christians to charge interest. This allowed Jews, who were still excluded from many parts of society, to establish themselves as professionals in the area of lending money.

The descriptions of family life for these women in the 19th century, based in part on their letters and diaries, makes it apparent that despite their wealth, being a Rothschild wife came with many burdens. They were expected to organize lavish dinners and parties for their husbands’ friends and customers, and while some of the women were supportive of each other, there were also rivalries and gossip. In more modern times, with the many changes in society and the expanding roles for women, Rothschild wives stepped out from the shadows of their husbands to pursue endeavors beyond just supporting the private lives of their families.

During the Nazi regime, the Austrian part of the family was forced to sell all of their business assets at a huge loss. Perhaps this is what motivated a few of the British Rothschild women to be very active in Zionism and in the support of establishing the State of Israel. Though not every branch of the family supported Israel, enough of the women did that there are several cities and other settlements in Israel are named in honor of family members, including Pardes Hanna, named after Hannah Primrose, Countess of Rosebery, daughter of Mayer Anschel Rothschild, and Bat Shlomo, which means “Salomon’s daughter” in Hebrew, named after Betty von Rothschild.

In more recent times, Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) is famous in the specialized society of entomologists for her research on fleas, being the first person to describe in detail the jumping mechanism of fleas. The Rothschild Collection of Fleas is on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London. Educated at Chelsea Polytechnic, she also worked in code breaking for England during WWII and housed German Jewish refugees in her home in Ashton. She spoke and provided financial support for animal rights, children’s nutrition, gay rights, and research in mental illness. Another of the more recent women, Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild (1913-1988) was a patron of the arts, particularly jazz, known for escorting jazz musicians in her Bentley. She promoted the music of Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, and was known as “the jazz Baroness.”

In all, the book considers 15 women in depth, so I have only been able to feature a few of them. The author has provided extensive details based on what was obviously a great deal of research. I found the style of the writing to be more like an academic text than a popular work. At 461 pages, including 73 pages of references and index, those interested in a general overview rather than a meticulous investigation might find this book too weighty. Yet it is an admirable, well-researched work that collects the information on an important aspect of the Rothschild family history in a way that will be rewarding for readers with that level of curiosity about the topic.