Thursday, October 29, 2009
Baron Guy de Rothschild, Leader of French Arm of Bank Dynasty, Dies at 98
Baron Guy de Rothschild, the patriarch of the French branch of the famous banking dynasty who rebuilt and expanded its Paris bank after it was seized during World War II and then saw it survive another government takeover in the 1980s, died Tuesday in Paris. He was 98.
The Rothschild family announced the death, Agence France-Presse reported.
Lean and charming, the aristocratic Baron Guy was an heir to the House of Rothschild, whose several branches were financiers of kings and princes when Europe was a royal family affair.
Besides his financial acumen, he was celebrated in Paris, London, New York and elsewhere for the family wine, Château Lafite Rothschild, and for his thoroughbred racehorses. His enormous country home outside Paris, the Château de Ferrières, was regularly the scene of extravagant costume balls and dinners that set new standards for the Parisian high life.
After the fall of France in 1940, the pro-Nazi Vichy regime seized the family bank, which had been moved from Paris to the small southern town of La Bourboule in the Auvergne region. The next year, the baron slipped away to New York and then to London, where he joined General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces.
History repeated itself some 40 years later, when, in 1981, the newly elected Socialist-Communist coalition of President François Mitterrand nationalized the bank that the baron had reclaimed and built up again after World War II.
Although he had retired as chairman of the bank in 1979, Baron Guy was so disgusted by what France had done to his family for a second time that he again decamped to New York, where he helped run a small Rothschild business there.
But before leaving, he published a famous front page article in Le Monde accusing the Socialists of pandering to French anti-Semitism. It concluded: “A Jew under Pétain, a pariah under Mitterrand — for me that is enough.”
But fortune was to smile on the French Rothschilds again during the baron’s lifetime. In 1984, his eldest son, David, and a cousin, Eric de Rothschild, finally received permission from the Socialist government to found a new bank, which they had to call Paris Orléans Banque because they were banned from using the family name.
That restriction disappeared in 1986, however, after the Gaullist Jacques Chirac became prime minister. The bank was renamed Rothschild et Associes Banque and later Rothschild et Cie. Banque, reclaiming its old offices on the Rue Laffitte.
In his 198os autobiography, “The Whims of Fortune,” the baron wrote of the anguish of seeing his life’s work twice destroyed by government seizures. But the 1982 nationalization was particularly painful. Only three years earlier, he had merged the family’s holding company, Compagnie du Nord, with the bank. Thus, when the bank was taken over, the French state also acquired the family stake in many of the mining and industrial interests that he had built up.
“It is clear that the nationalization of banks does not have the Rothschilds as a specific target,” he said in an interview in The New York Times in 1982. “We have been caught up in it as if in a hunting accident, caused by the men whom the French people had the weakness to give the guns to for a time.”
Although Baron Guy was proud of his policy of investing heavily in industry, the bank was doing poorly before nationalization. Profits slumped in 1977, falling to less than half their 1976 level and remained disappointing until the state took the bank over.
And when the younger generation of Rothschilds recreated the bank in the mid-1980s, they did not follow Baron Guy’s path. Instead, they concentrated on traditional financial activities, like corporate finance, money management and advising on mergers and acquisitions. They also further developed the family’s Bordeaux wine interests, which included Château Lafite and Château Mouton Rothschild.
Guy Édouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild was born in Paris on May 21, 1909, the son of Baron Édouard de Rothschild, who had headed the bank before Baron Guy, and the great-grandson of James, who founded the French branch of the Rothschild empire in 1812. Other branches are in London, Vienna and Naples.
After law studies, Baron Guy entered the Paris bank in 1931. He found it a sleepy place. Its main activity, he said in his memoirs, was “gently prolonging the nineteenth century.”
In 1937, he married Alix Schey de Koromla, a member of an old Jewish-Hungarian family and his third cousin once removed.
The 1930s were politically difficult years for the French Rothschilds. Their railway investments were nationalized by the Popular Front government, and they experienced anti-Semitic attacks as one of the so-called Two Hundred Families, who were said to control France.
Called up as a young cavalry officer in 1939, Baron Guy did well in the war’s disastrous first days, winning a Croix de Guerre in northern France before joining the British retreat from Dunkirk. He returned to France in time to be demobilized after his country’s defeat.
In 1941, he left France with his wife to join his parents in New York, where the couple’s son, David, was born the following year. Baron Guy then threw in his lot with the Free French and set sail for London. He narrowly escaped death when his ship was torpedoed and sunk. Rescued, he celebrated his safe arrival with an 1895 bottle of Château Lafite from the family vineyards.
After the war, though he feared Europe would take “an anticapitalist turn,” he took back control of Messieurs de Rothschild frères, the “drowsy bank” he had known between the wars, and set about making it a powerful financial force.
He recovered industrial properties confiscated under the Nazis and forced these companies to make more use of the family bank. He built up new interests in the oil and mining sectors.
At the same time, he expanded the bank into corporate finance and money management and began competing for public deposits, opening new branches in Paris and elsewhere in France.
These were also the years when Baron Guy brought Georges Pompidou into the bank and eventually made him his manager.
When political crisis over Algeria’s struggle for independence brought General de Gaulle back to power as president of the newly constituted Fifth Republic, Mr. Pompidou eventually became his second prime minister and, after de Gaulle’s death, president of France.
The British historian Niall Ferguson wrote in his 1998 history of the Rothschilds, “The World’s Banker,” that Mr. Pompidou’s links with Baron Guy “did much to sustain the myth of Rothschild power on both the left and the right.”
In 1962, Baron Guy began to build new ties with the powerful London banking house of NM Rothschild & Sons, becoming chairman of a new joint company, Rothschilds Continuation, which was intended to promote cooperation between them.
A number of other joint ventures followed, and in 1968 Baron Guy became a partner in NM Rothschild, while Evelyn de Rothschild, the London bank’s chairman, became a director of the Paris bank.
In 1976, the 150th anniversary of the Rothschilds’ arrival in Paris, Baron Guy announced a shake-up of the family’s business. The bank’s name was changed to Banque Rothschild, and the family’s holding company, Compagnie du Nord, gave it a major injection of new capital by buying a 70 percent stake.
At the same time, he unveiled plans to redevelop the bank’s offices on the Rue Laffitte. And he built up his father’s horse-breeding and racing interests, winning the French Derby once.
In 2003, after Evelyn de Rothschild retired as head of N.M. Rothschild in London, the English and French firms merged to become Group Rothschild. Ownership is now shared equally between the French and English branches of the family under the leadership of Baron David de Rothschild.
After divorcing his first wife, Baron Guy married Marie-Helene van Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar in 1957. An American-educated Dutch noblewoman, she was, like his first wife, a distant cousin of his, though also a Roman Catholic. Because of her religion, he felt obliged to resign the presidency of the Jewish Consistory, the organization created in 1905 to represent French Jewry. A year later their son, Édouard, was born.
Marie-Hélène, Baron Guy wrote in his memoirs, “changed my life.” Under her influence, he acquired new prominence on the Paris social scene and became immersed in real estate. At her urging, he restored the Château de Ferrières, where he had been brought up. It was there that they gave a series of famous balls.
In 1971, some 800 guests, invited to the Proust Ball for the centennial of the writer’s birth, followed “the Guermantes way” through the chateau grounds to dine at tables with Proustian names like Swann, Odette, Charlus and Saint-Loup.
The following year, Salvador Dalí himself attended the Surrealist Ball, for which the invitations were in mirror-writing while the dinner menu and seating instructions were deliberately incomprehensible.
In 1975, when Baron Guy decided to close Ferrières and present the chateau to the University of Paris, Marie-Hélène persuaded him to buy, as a new family home, the magnificent Hôtel Lambert at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis with its famous Gallery of Hercules.
The Baroness Marie-Hélène died in 1996. Baron Guy’s survivors include his sons, David and Édouard, who remain active in the Rothschild enterprise.
“We are a family,” Baron Guy once said, “not an impersonal corporation.”