VISITORS to the Jewish Museum in New York can view an 18th-century catalogue of rare coins at the current exhibition on ''Court Jews.'' The elaborate leather-bound catalogue once belonged to Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the man behind a financial empire that fueled capitalism in the 19th century and beyond.
A portrait of Mayer Rothschild's wife, Guttle, is also part of the museum's exhibit. So are oil portraits of his five famous sons -- Amschel, Nathan, Salomon, Calmann and Jacob -- who left the Frankfurt ghetto of their birth to become powerful financiers as Europe's House of Rothschild.
Mayer himself was not one for portrait-sitting. Happily, however, there is now something better: ''Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time,'' by Amos Elon (Viking, $24.95). The Vienna-born Mr. Elon, the author of ''Jerusalem: City of Mirrors,'' has written a terrifically readable biography that does more than illuminate the formerly shadowy figure who served princes in what is now Germany. Through the prism of Mayer Rothschild's life, Mr. Elon gives us a fascinating glimpse into how Europe -- and by implication, the New World -- made the journey from mercantilism to modern entrepreneurship.
Born in 1744, Mayer Rothschild was raised in Frankfurt's Judengasse -- the sole, narrow street of a congested ghetto whose residents were locked in at night and on Sundays. Like many other Frankfurt Jews, the Rothschilds took their surname from their earliest home along that street -- in their case, the house of Roten Schild, or the Red Shield.
Forbidden, as a Jew, to farm or trade in spices or to own property, Mayer's father, Isaak, was a money changer -- a decent-enough enterprise given that Germany was then a collection of principalities under the Holy Roman Empire, and each prince insisted on his own currency.
As a boy, Mayer Rothschild was fascinated by the coins he saw at trade fairs, and at the age of 13 he took a banking apprenticeship in Hanover. There, in that more liberal region, he met Jewish court agents: men who served the nobility by using financial skills and connections forged in ghettos throughout Europe. When he returned to Frankfurt, his coin selling -- he was an expert at 18 -- put him in touch with Prince Wilhelm of Hesse-Kassel, 100 miles north. As Mayer's business grew (he invented the mail-order catalogue as a way of trading between fairs), he petitioned the prince repeatedly for an appointment. Finally, at 25, he became Prince Wilhelm's court agent.
As he had hoped, it changed his life. He married Guttle Schnapper, whose father was also a court factor. And the prince -- who once sold conscripted Hessian soldiers to George III to fight in the American Revolution -- became a major client.
Business flourished, 10 children filled the cramped ghetto house, and Mayer expanded into cotton, coffee, furs and letters of credit to shopkeepers. As his five sons reached their later teens, they joined his businesses. Two became court factors for a prince who was the region's hereditary postmaster (a monopoly guaranteed by this noble's habit of opening the mail to inform his superiors of political and military matters). Mayer himself, famously generous with beggars, was chosen to head the Judengasse welfare board. Still living in the ghetto, he was by then so prosperous that when he sent his son Nathan to set up trade operations in England, the young man took with him $1.5 million in today's dollars.
Mayer, too, was becoming more familiar with the wider, non-Jewish, world through his travels on behalf of his prince, his other businesses and his contract with the Austrian Army, which was fighting the French Revolution being exported by Napoleon. In 1802, he changed his name from the more Hebraic ''Meyer.'' He also sponsored a ghetto school to educate Jewish boys in secular matters.
Later, when Prince Wilhelm fled Napoleon's advance, Mayer and his sons ran a cloak-and-dagger operation to protect the noble's financial interests and to smuggle in goods from England -- products declared contraband by the occupying French forces. In some ways, this adventure was a harbinger of the far-flung Rothschild empire to come: sons in London, Hamburg, Amsterdam and Prague coordinating trade and banking operations. Later, his youngest son, Jacob, opened a Paris office, and the family connections helped finance Wellington's army in Portugal against the French.
This was also a time when mail to Frankfurt's Jews was censored and delivered late in the day. Nonetheless, Jews were allowed to view but not open their envelopes earlier in the day at the post office. Pere Rothschild devised a system of color-coding envelopes to keep himself more quickly informed about changes in the value of the pound sterling. Blue meant the currency had risen; red signified a fall. Thus, ''half a day is saved,'' he explained.
Mayer Rothschild died in 1812. A decade or so later, his sons were presiding over five linked branches that became the House of Rothschild: Amschel (later Anselm) in Frankfurt, Nathan in London, Jacob (James) in Paris, Salomon in Vienna and Calmann (Carl) in Naples. As investors, builders of railroads, patrons of art and Jews admitted to the highest precincts of power, the Rothschilds were still hobbled by the anti-Semitism of their era. (Salomon lived in a Viennese hotel because he was banned from owning a house.) But they were leading figures in international finance, creating a modern empire from their father's money-changing.
Mr. Elon's feat is in chronicling all this with clarity and drama. ''Founder'' skillfully weaves history into this story of human endeavor to create a memorable narrative of Mayer Rothschild's time.
Is it all right to interrupt those garrulous phone solicitors with a firm ''no, thank you,'' and a hang-up? Or impolite to clear your computer screen when a co-worker starts reading over your shoulder? And what about fax messages addressed to you at the office -- should you assume they are private? The answers, according to Miss Manners, that doyenne of decorum: Yes, no and no. In the case of the fax, she explains, postcard etiquette applies: ''The rule is that no one must read an open communication, but that no one must assume that everyone else has not read it. Got it?''
Such conundrums of modern communications are addressed in ''Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication,'' by Judith Martin (Crown, $15). As always, the author's gentle persona is trying to teach civility -- applying it this time to both medium and message. A sample admonishment: Do not accept invitations to dinners, weddings or performances if you are on call and must bring your infernal beeper. Shocking as it may seem, Miss Manners says, ''business does not take precedence over socializing.''
Proper etiquette for E-mail, voice mail, speakerphones and the Internet is also covered. The rules for cyberspace chat rooms? The author reminds us that ''it has always been rude to hog the floor, to conduct a private conversation in front of others and to push commercial wares in social settings.'' And no lurking, please; for heaven's sake, introduce yourself.