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Interview

No longer just pretty faces, Rothschild family women take center stage in new book

Captivating, meticulously researched historical work brings to light myriad ways banking dynasty’s ‘silent’ mothers, daughters, and wives exerted key soft power for three centuries

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Detail from portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild (1819-1884) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1836. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
    Detail from portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild (1819-1884) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1836. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
  • Detail from portrait of Hannah de Rothschild (1851-1890) by Frederic Leighton. (Public Domain/Courtesy of author)
    Detail from portrait of Hannah de Rothschild (1851-1890) by Frederic Leighton. (Public Domain/Courtesy of author)
  • Detail of portrait of Rózsika Rothschild (née von Wertheimstein) (1870-1940) by Philip Alexius de László, 1914. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
    Detail of portrait of Rózsika Rothschild (née von Wertheimstein) (1870-1940) by Philip Alexius de László, 1914. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
  • Knesset speaker Kadish Luz accompanies Dorothy Pinto Rothschild at the opening of the Knesset building in 1966. Construction of the parliament building was funded by Rothschild and her late husband James. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
    Knesset speaker Kadish Luz accompanies Dorothy Pinto Rothschild at the opening of the Knesset building in 1966. Construction of the parliament building was funded by Rothschild and her late husband James. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
  • Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) appears on 'After Dark' television program in Britain in July 1988. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)
    Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005) appears on 'After Dark' television program in Britain in July 1988. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)

Invariably, the name “Rothschild,” is associated with the famous centuries-old Jewish banking dynasty. All men.

Of course, there have also been countless women in the Rothschild family, but until a recently published book, their contributions and achievements have been neglected by history.

“I think it was just the presumption that they were wives and mothers, and incredibly glamorous, and there was not much more to them,” said British author and former journalist Natalie Livingstone.

Published in the UK last year and in the US on October 25, “The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty,” sets the record straight by shining a light on the amazing lives of some of the most prominent and interesting mothers, daughters and wives in the Rothschild family’s British branch.

Livingstone introduces readers to Rothschild women who mixed with royalty, fought for Jewish emancipation, and were the brains behind their husbands’ political victories. Some were economic geniuses, talented athletes or great scientists. Others were among Zionism’s most fervent early supporters. One flew planes in World War II and drag-raced with jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

In conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in London, Livingstone, 45, said her interest in the Rothschild women was piqued by an essay about “the silent members” of the family written in 1994 by the accomplished naturalist Miriam Rothschild for a catalogue produced in honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of founding patriarch, Mayer Amschel Rothschild. His 1812 will “explicitly forbade his female descendants or the wives of his male descendants from any share in the bank’s wealth or its decision-making processes,” thus unfairly relegating them to footnotes to the family’s narrative.

Readers would be forgiven for being confused by who’s who in the massive Rothschild family. The author provides a partial family tree at the beginning of the book, but the genealogy is still somewhat difficult to follow due to the widespread practice of cousin marriage among the Rothschilds throughout the 19th century.

Author Livingstone is fine with readers coming away muddled by all the Rothschild names.

“The key takeaway from the book is that these are extraordinary women. If you look at any area of life from art to literature to science to politics to sport, there is a Rothschild woman who pioneered and paved the way,” she said.

Rothschild dynasty matriarch Gutle Schnapper Rothschild of the Frankfurt ghetto (1753-1849). (Public Domain/Courtesy of author)

The following is an edited version of The Times of Israel’s interview with Livingstone.

The Rothschilds are known for being private. Many members of the family even ordered their papers burned after their deaths. I assume your research for the book was challenging.

Many Rothschilds indeed burned their records, especially the women. It was difficult to find the right material. But once I found it, it was extraordinarily illuminating. My research took a lot of persistence and detective work, a lot of trying to join not obvious dots… But once I managed to find various letters, diaries, and journals that really gave me an insight into the way these women wrote, thought, felt, and saw the world. It was so compelling, complete, and absorbing that at that point the book sort of wrote itself.

For example, Charlotte Rothschild (1819-1884), Lionel Rothschild’s wife, wrote that “we Rothschilds are inveterate scribblers.” She spent a lifetime writing diaries and letters which are not only elucidating when it comes to the social and political climate but also speak so much to what a literary talent she was. She had an amazing way of looking at the world and an amazing turn of phrase. She was funny and witty, but she was also incredibly profound. She also used her work as a catharsis. When her daughter Evelina (1839-1866) died in childbirth, the only way she could heal her profound pain was to write a collection of essays.

Where did you end up finding the women’s writings?

Evelina Rothschild (1839-1866) in 1865. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of them are in the Rothschild Archives in London. A lot of Charlotte’s writings were there, as were those of [founding matriarch] Gutle (1753-1849). It was a challenge because people usually come to the Rothschild Archives to write about economic history.

My most amazing discovery was in the Waddesdon Archive at Windmill Hill. There I found a collection of letters between the Rothschild women written just at the beginning of the First World War in which they discussed Zionism and their passion for creating a Jewish state. They talked a lot about their relationship with Chaim Weizmann. From that, I was able to piece together the unbelievable connection between the Rothschild women and the Balfour Declaration.

The third load of material was in the archives of the husbands. For instance, I couldn’t find anything that Constance Rothschild (1843-1931) had written other than her autobiography “Reminiscences,” but I found a load of her diaries among the papers of her husband at the British Library. A lot of the time the writings of these extraordinary women were shunted into the archives of the men.

A fourth category was writing that hadn’t been ascribed to the women. In the 1840s Louisa Rothschild (1821-1910) and her sister [Charlotte Montefiore] embarked on a socially minded project called the Cheap Jewish Library,  a collection of amazing short stories by brilliant Jewish women writers like Grace Aguilar and Charlotte Montefiore herself.

Unfortunately, these pamphlets and short stories were not allowed to be written under the women’s names, so it was only by looking at letters and piecing together the bits of information that I discovered that The Cheap Jewish Library, which was attributed to Rabbi David Aaron de Sola, was actually the work of two Rothschild women.

In each of the four parts of your book, you focus on a different handful of contemporaneous Rothschild women. Did you choose these particular women because there was the most material available on them?

‘The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty’ by Natalie Livingstone (St. Martin’s Press)

This is basically how it worked out. However, I wrote about Gutle, even though there were only seven surviving letters by her and very little source material. I had to write about her because she was the founding matriarch and you had to understand what she meant and the contributions she made.

There were some Rothschild women I wish I could have written more about. I mention them, but because their documents and medical records were destroyed it was impossible to get engaged about who they were. This was the case with Liberty Rothschild (1909-1988), but it was essential to mention her because her story was so deeply tragic. It has to be told… She had very little life herself, so I felt it was my responsibility to acknowledge her. I came across this amazing self-portrait she drew and it was so haunting. You look into her eyes and you see the depths of her suffering from schizophrenia.

You write that “being a Rothschild wife was stressful and thankless work.” What do you mean by that?

There were so many obligations and demands on a Rothschild wife. There were demands to have multiple children and the necessity of having a boy so there would be an heir. That was incredibly stressful.

The wives had to manage grand [city and country] houses, arrange the social lives, and be at the men’s beck and call. It was thankless because these were extraordinarily bright women and a lot of the intellectual work and artistic and scientific contributions they made were not attributed to them.

Can you give an example of this?

Hannah de Rothschild (1851-1890), later Countess of Rosebery, in 1871. She was the daughter of Baron Mayer de Rothschild and his wife Juliana (née Cohen). (Public Domain/Courtesy of Author)

The first striking example for me was Hannah Barent Cohen (1783-1850) who married Nathan Rothschild. She had wonderful financial acumen. She started buying and selling French government securities in the summer of 1830 while visiting Paris. She read the market like a soothsayer and wrote to her husband advising him what to do. She knew how to ignore short-term fluctuations and look at the market long-term. Nathan realized his most valuable asset was his wife, so from that point, she became absolutely indispensable to the business to the point that on his deathbed Nathan said to his sons they could not make a decision without consulting their mother. This is not the story that we hear about. It wasn’t convenient to save information like this.

Wasn’t Hannah also instrumental in the fight for Jewish emancipation in England?

Jewish emancipation was very much Hannah’s cause. She passed the baton to her son Lionel’s wife Charlotte. Without the contributions of Hannah and Charlotte, I am certain that Lionel would not have become the first [unconverted] Jewish member of parliament. Charlotte did an enormous amount of work for her husband. She wrote his manifestos and leading articles in The Times — which obviously were not ascribed to her. She canvassed on the streets of London. She was absolutely indispensable. She was the political brain. Yet when it came to Lionel taking his oath in the Houses of Parliament, Charlotte could only look down from the gallery. She also does not appear in the famous painting of the event [by Henry Barraud]. Immediately her contribution was airbrushed out of history.

The Balfour Declaration stating Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild. You discovered that some of the Rothschild women played critical roles in bringing about the declaration.

Lady Constance Battersea (née de Rothschild) (1843-1931), c. 1904. (Public Domain/Courtesy of the Author)

Rózsika Rothschild (1870-1940) was a political idealist, so when she came across the young chemist [and Zionist leader] Chaim Weizmann she had a conversation with him. She was struck by what he had to say.
There is this amazing quote in one of her essays: “I love fanatics and idealists. I find them highly attractive. Chaim Weizmann is both.”
Rózsika saw the potential in him. She understood his cause and was the one who brought it to her husband Charles, and his brother Walter. She was the one who drove and created the relationship between Weizmann and the Rothschilds.

It was actually the women of the family who did far more to bring about the declaration than Walter, who was a zoologist, not a Zionist.

When Rózsika and her cousin Dolly (Dorothy) Rothschild (1895-1988) met Weizmann, he was very rough around the edges. He wore his shtetl background very proudly. To be vivid and convincing about his argument for the necessity of a Jewish state he used to tell these incredibly bloody anecdotes about horrific pogroms and massacres at the dinner table. They kind of repulsed a lot of the English political elites, who were not used to such graphic language. Rózsika and Dolly taught him to communicate and modulate his tone for the dining room, the drawing room, and political contexts. If not for this, Weizmann would not have been able to lobby in the way he did.

Do you have a favorite Rothschild woman?

Natalie Livingstone (Mary McCartney)

For me, the stand out is Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005). She produced an extraordinary body of work. Not only was she a pioneering, self-taught scientist, but she was also a very precocious environmentalist. Before there was [fashion designer] Stella McCartney and the vegan movement, there was Miriam Rothschild. She refused to wear leather. She was very conscious about the way animals were killed. She was vegetarian. She was a pioneer of sustainability.

She also contributed to the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which led to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. She was self-taught, yet she was able to make a name for herself in so many different fields even though she had not been set up to do so, and despite the fact that she wasn’t a man. She smashed through every single glass ceiling imaginable. She was witty and had a really wicked sense of humor. She was a truly astonishing renaissance woman who deserves to be a household name and definitely merits a separate biography.

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