"[I] have to thank you for my fair bride," Lionel Rothschild wrote to his mother, Hannah, from Frankfurt on May 15, 1836. Charlotte was clever, beautiful, and sixteen. Lionel, the eldest of Nathan Mayer's four sons, was already twenty-seven. Although they were first cousins, Charlotte hardly knew him. There weren't many alternatives for the world's wealthiest Jews if they wished to marry within their faith and maintain their status. Lionel might have been surprised by his own reaction, since theirs was an arranged marriage that could easily have failed to please either of the pair.
The betrothal was no surprise to the shrewd and formidable Hannah Cohen Rothschild, wife of the richest man in London. She had arranged it with the elegant, society-focused Adelheid Herz von Rothschild, spouse of Nathan Mayer's brother Carl (or Charles), head of the Naples branch of the banking octopus. Their primary home was in Frankfurt, where Adelheid stylishly entertained many of the prominent non-Jewish families, who seldom if ever reciprocated the invitations.
Adelheid knew a good, even a grand, match when she saw one. Yet she wanted no wedding before her daughter, however precocious, was seventeen. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, dreamy and inexperienced, Charlotte had learned about life largely from books and had been protected from other suitors.
The family had been prominent for just two generations. There were nineteen grandchildren of the founding father, Mayer Amschel Rothschild of Frankfurt. Eight would marry one another. Five others married within the family but across the generations. Two never married. Only four (all daughters) "married out."
The family patriarch, Lionel and Charlotte's grandfather, had begun his startling career as a teenage money changer and coin dealer in the Grand Duchy of Frankfurt, and gone on to create one of history's greatest banking dynasties. Mayer Amschel had died a very rich man in 1812. His venerable wife, Gutle, now in her eighties, exhibited her rejection of every vanity by stubbornly refusing to leave the old Jewish ghetto, the narrow, grimy Frankfurt Judengasse. Much of her life had been spent in the Stammhaus "zum grunen Schild," where the family firm had first thrived. The unpretentious house "of the green shield" hints at how the family got its name. In the 1560s a predecessor named Isak lived in a house in the ghetto identified as "zum roten Schild" from the symbol on his door. After legal surnames were mandated, the identification survived changes of address in the Judengasse, even new doorway symbols of a Hinterpfann (warming pan) and, finally, the green shield. Charlotte's father, the most handsome of Mayer Amschel's sons, had relocated, once anti-Semitic laws eased, to a mansion and a country house befitting his income and style. (He had another home in Naples.)
Four of Mayer's five sons had prefixed to "Rothschild" the posh German von or the French de, thanks to baronies granted by the Austrian Emperor in 1822. Only Nathan Mayer, in London, ignored the title, taking public pride in being simply "Mr. Rothschild." But in 1825, harboring private second thoughts about the cachet of the barony in class-conscious England, N. M. applied to the Royal College of Arms to register it. Since he had only "denizen" (permanent residence) status and was not a citizen, he was denied use of a foreign honorific. Such technicalities were ignored by Hannah, Nathan's wife, who called herself Baroness de Rothschild although she knew she had no legal basis for it. N. M. made a virtue of being an unpolished but acknowledged gentleman, a condition which money could buy.
With or without the aristocratic prefix, Lionel would inevitably succeed as head of the nearly mythic English branch of the firm at New Court, St. Swithin's Lane, notable for having bankrolled the Duke of Wellington's armies which defeated Napoleon. (Nathan had, perhaps too hastily, turned down a knighthood in August 1815 which recognized his achievements.) Born on November 22, 1808, in rooms above Nathan Mayer's offices at 2 New Court, Lionel was the second oldest of seven children, and the oldest of four boys. The family lived among so much bullion stored in the living area of the building that, according to an obituary decades later, "the family literally walked on gold." According to malicious gossip, Nathan kept pistols under his pillow to secure his person and his fortune. He never did, but it was useful not to deny the rumor. Below their apartments, Nathan, having become a financial magnate, was alleged to have received an unnamed prospective client whose self-importance it was necessary, for business reasons, to diminish. Since the great dispenser of state loans was still busy, he advised, at first kindly, "Take a chair."
"But I am -- " interposed the visitor.
"Take two chairs, then," said Rothschild.
Lionel grew up in the years after the Napoleonic wars that had prompted the large state expenditures for which, across Europe, the Rothschild brothers were relied upon for their efficiency and their probity. Yet wealth and status opened no public school doors for Nathan's four sons in England. But for boy cousins in Europe, and his younger brothers at home, Lionel had no companions in London and grew up shy and withdrawn in a household of strong-minded parents. Lionel's and his brother Anthony's first tutor, in 1815, when they were seven and five, was a Pole who strode about their home schoolroom in a tall hat and with a cane stuck into one of his tall boots. When he failed to work out, Nathan replaced him with a mentor named Garcia, apparently a Sephardic Jew, once a bookkeeper, who was subsidized to set up an academy at Peckham, where the boys became his first charges.
At home the stocky, balding Nathan Mayer offered himself as an implicit model. Already able to purchase whatever material pleasures life offered, his sons in their early teens needed, Nathan thought, the spur of competition and risk, and the sense of joy in hard work. That was how one maintained success in business and made it grow. "It takes ten times more cunning to preserve a fortune," he preached, "than it does to make it, and the task requires sacrificing body and soul, heart and mind."
Admonishing the young Nathan Mayer for the untidy state of his accounting books, his father in Frankfurt had once warned that "lack of order will turn a millionaire into a beggar." Everything that Nathan now did was brusque and efficient. There was no small talk, even with his four brothers. The Prussian ambassador, Alexander von Humboldt, took sardonic delight "in the combination of bad manners, sharp wit and lack of deference which Nathan brought to polite society." N. M. (as he preferred to be known) considered deference as akin to insignificance, and skill in dealing as akin to nerve. Although not as insensitive as he preferred to be characterized, he once told the music master of one of his daughters, as he jangled the coins in his pocket, "That's my music."
In the ruthless mercantile world of the City, where financiers were segregated into interest groups, each was allocated a pillar area on the trading floor of the Royal Exchange. Jews received the remote right-hand corner column. Nathan did not intend to be that obscure. In the bullion crisis of 1825, the Rothschilds maintained the solvency of the Bank of England. Without "old Rothschild," the Duke of Wellington conceded, "the Bank must have stopped payment." Later, in 1835, Nathan made possible the end of slavery in the British West Indies by raising, together with his brother-in-law Moses Montefiore, #15 million. It was a riskily immense sum, one that enabled the government to compensate slave owners for freeing their chattels. Nathan's faith in the stability of the government proved justified when the former slave owners bought government bonds with their payments, and the public's imagination was again fired by the Rothschild house's interest, whatever its profits, in the public good.
While Wellington had long been in Nathan Mayer's debt for services rendered, both civil and military, his friendship had its political limits in an age of open discrimination against Jews. As prime minister, he was urged to follow parliamentary emancipation for Catholics with legislation permitting Jews to sit in the House of Commons. Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, who, with Moses Montefiore, led the Jewish Association for Obtaining Civil Rights and Privileges, tried to persuade Rothschild to join in an appeal to the great duke for alteration of the oath. (To sit in Parliament, one then swore "upon the true faith of a Christian.") When Montefiore reached Rothschild on the road from Stoke Newington on January 29, 1830, N. M. was in a carriage with Lionel and Anthony. Montefiore explained his mission and then changed conveyances with the boys to parley further with Nathan as they clattered on.
Soon after, Rothschild met privately with Wellington, appealing to the Duke, "God has given your Grace power to do good -- I would entreat you to do something for the Jews." The Duke, whose prayers had often been answered by Nathan, replied that although God bestowed benefits in moderation, he would at least read over the petition. Finally, Wellington allowed the motion to provide an alternative oath to be presented in the House of Commons that April by Robert Grant, M.P. for Norwich, and to be debated. It narrowly lost. Even had it succeeded, it would have been overwhelmingly defeated in the hidebound Lords. The next year, Montefiore persisted and went with his wife, Judith, Hannah's sister, to visit Nathan for discussion of further strategies. N. M., according to Montefiore's diary, "said he would shortly go to the Lord Chancellor and consult him on the matter. Hannah said that if he did not, she would." Although Lord Brougham would have spurned an audience with a woman, the episode reflected Hannah's activist impulses. The oath was a stumbling block to Jewish acceptance by England's democracy that would become a major challenge for Lionel.
At a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on April 16, 1829, N. M. appeared by invitation and reported that he had consulted with Wellington and the Lord Chancellor "and other influential persons...concerning the [legal] disabilities under which Jews labour, and recommended that a petition praying for relief should be prepared, in readiness to be presented to the House of Lords whenever it may be thought right." But Nathan advised that it would be politic that only English-born Jews should sign, which excluded him. The deputies asked two not of their number to add their signatures, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid and young Lionel, who was barely of age. The appeal would fail, but the episode was an introduction to an issue that would have an impact on Lionel's life for the next three tumultuous decades.
Nathan Mayer's usual brash manner, described as "a licence allowed to his wealth," was often toned down by secretaries to whom he dictated letters, but his impatient exchanges with his brothers in Frankfurt and Vienna remained uncensored. One of his agents, Meyer Davidson, Hannah's brother-in-law, a connection which permitted him some courage, once wrote to Nathan, "I have to confess, dear Mr. Rothschild, that I was embarrassed for your own brother [Salomon], when I found these big insults in your letters. Really, you call your brothers nothing but asses and stupid boys....It makes your brothers quite confused and sad." Nothing would change.
After Garcia's efforts at schooling, N. M. employed an English tutor, John Darby, who remained with Lionel until he was eighteen. In 1827 he took Lionel and Anthony on a tour of central Europe, from Frankfurt (where their cousin Charlotte was a child) through Prague and Vienna, and home via Baden, Strasbourg, and Hanover. En route they attended lectures at Heidelberg and Gottingen and in Weimar met gaunt old Goethe. Anthony then returned to Strasbourg to study in company with his brother Nat, who was two years younger, while Lionel assumed his hereditary vocation in London. His mother Hannah was already thinking of a proper match for her son. Lionel's older sister, another Charlotte, had recently married Anselm, Salomon von Rothschild's eldest son. Their uncle James, the first to marry within the family, at thirty-two in 1824, had wed his sophisticated nineteen-year-old niece Betty, Salomon's only daughter.
The other family practice, begun with Anselm, was to initiate a son in his home Rothschild bank (in his case, Vienna), send him to apprentice at a brother's branch, and then test him on a foreign mission (Anselm's was Berlin, the Prussian capital) before settling him down in one of the five houses. When Lionel's educational tour ended, he returned to St. Swithin's Lane to take temporary command -- "Lieutenant General," quipped Uncle James -- when Nathan Mayer left for Frankfurt, to a partnership conclave of the brothers. Possibly the first suggestions for a shiddach -- Yiddish for "marital match" -- between Lionel and Charlotte arose then, although neither party would know of it. Lionel was eighteen; Charlotte only eight. "You are the General now all on your own," James then wrote encouragingly from Paris before departing by carriage himself, "and you will no doubt attend to business very nicely." A few days later he wrote again to persuade Lionel to "make some nice business deals" while his father and mother were away, to validate that he was becoming "a clever and good businessman."
Learning the counting-house routine was insufficient for Lionel's energies. Like his younger brothers, he loved to ride, and in 1828, despite a regulation which made Jews ineligible, Lionel applied to serve in the London and Westminster Light Horse Volunteers. By a considerable majority the regiment voted that August to repeal the Christians-only rule, and Lionel's name appears next to last (probably the order of admission) on the original roll of the Volunteers. Reversing religious bias could be accomplished, he learned, but the next time, the effort would take much longer.
From Frankfurt that August, Hannah wrote to Lionel while "Papa and his brothers with Anselm" were deliberating the renewal of the "perfectly secret" partnership contract "in the Tower in the Garden" at Amschel's home. Sending both professional and personal guidance, she announced her satisfaction (and his father's) with Lionel's handling of "the important concerns of the Counting House," but counseled that he was to drive home from the bank "in a close carriage as open ones are very liable at any time to give [one a] cold, particularly so when the atmosphere is wet and changeable." The unwelcome motherly advice was curiously at odds with his expectations to ride -- in whatever weather -- with the Volunteers.
The London Rothschilds were the chief benefactors of the Jews' Free School in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, near Bishopsgate in the City. At Hannah's instructions, Lionel was to order their supplier ("as usual") to have school uniforms made for the children at her expense before she returned ("I cannot say when we shall"). With her were Anthony and Nat, on leave from their studies. Nat, she reported, was "very much grown and is the exact height of Papa." After both boys accompanied their parents back to London, Anthony would return for an apprenticeship in the Frankfurt firm, something spared Lionel. Hannah went on to talk of tea at the home of his Aunt Adelheid -- Lionel's future mother-in-law -- and of Adelheid's sister and her daughters, one "a pretty little girl." There was not a word about Adelheid's own Charlotte.
A daughter of the London banker Levi Barent Cohen, Hannah was that rare wife then, even among Rothschilds, who was a savvy financier, however informal her position at New Court. For years she traveled not only with N. M. but on her own for the family firm. Her businesslike letters to her husband were devoid of endearments (although their relationship was devoted and warm). She usually addressed him in such correspondence as if he were a colleague rather than her husband. In a letter from Paris at the time when the troubled Dutch-controlled provinces that became Belgium were to be separated, she wrote, "I suppose in England this fall [in bonds and shares] will cause some alarm but there is no occasion [for apprehension] as it appears more of a financial [matter] than a political one. You must look at it coolly, dear Rothschild." When Lionel, on an apprenticeship to Paris, failed to write his daily update to his father in London, she admonished Nathan Mayer gently while away herself early in July 1830, "My dear Rothschild your letters of today are rather grumpy. Lionel did not write on account of Saturday [being the Sabbath] but I hope you are now quite satisfied that we do not neglect an opportunity [for investment]....Today the reports are of a much brighter cast and the [government] funds also are assuming a better appearance." She advised "more patience" in waiting for higher yields.
In addition to filling in at the efficiently run counting house at de Rothschild Frères, Lionel would undertake missions to Brussels, where the family quickly became the dominant financiers to the new nation, and to other capitals. In London, one of Lionel's sisters wrote, he was already "a complete man of business." Before departure for New Court from 107 Piccadilly he would "pay his respects in the morning and we do not see him again until dinner at 7." His brothers often called Lionel, jovially, "Rabbi" -- which had no religious significance but suggested his role as their senior and their exemplar.
New Court had been the family's City residence, above the bank, until N. M. rented 107 Piccadilly in 1825 from banker Thomas Coutts, purchasing the ninety-nine-year lease on March 31, 1831. Despite social prejudice, civil disabilities in England for Jews were comparatively unburdensome. Although a statute barring Jews from purchasing property was not rescinded until 1845, it was no longer enforced. By 1804, when Nathan was granted denization, he had owned property in Manchester and would soon, in London, have not only his establishment at New Court but a suburban eight acres between Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill.
If the evidence of William Armfield's family canvas of 1821 is reasonably genuine, Lionel grew up in a warm home environment. While the apartments in the bank off St. Swithin's Lane were kept for convenience, the spacious house with large garden at Stamford Hill, on the River Lea, which flowed south into the Thames at Blackwall, was an easy commute for N. M. Just above Stoke Newington, north of Islington and Hackney, where prosperous Jewish families had begun to build homes, Stamford Hill, across the river from Walthamstow, offered country air. N. M., no collector of art although Hannah had a favorite by Bartolomé Murillo and would acquire more pictures, displayed in his drawing room the portraits of sovereigns with whom he had done business. Some had gratefully presented him with their likenesses -- the kings of Holland, Portugal, and Prussia, and the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Possibly originating with such canvases may be the apocryphal story (also imputed to James) that when Rothschild was asked by a journalist whether he would like to become king of the Jews in a restored Palestine, he said, "Oh, no! I would rather be a Jew of the kings than a king of the Jews."
In the Armfield group portrait in the contemporary anecdotal tradition, the family dog is chewing N. M.'s hat -- Nathan is bald, but for a fringe -- while Mayer (then "Muffy"), only three, tries to pull a letter from his father's hand, possibly symbolic of the banker's seldom leaving business entirely to his hours at the bank. Legs comfortably crossed, he sits in a favorite armchair. To add further narrative, the artist shows Hannah dropping her bonnet at the feet of their eldest daughter, Charlotte. By 1825 there was a third Charlotte, in Paris, the eldest daughter of Uncle James. Names would repeat themselves among the Rothschilds.
Lionel's uncle Amschel had acquired his house beyond the Frankfurt ghetto in 1811, before the Napoleonic liberties were suspended with the Emperor's defeat and exile. Although Jewish civil rights in Germany receded, the commercial importance of Amschel's brother Carl made it possible for him to purchase his own house in Frankfurt in 1818, just before Charlotte was born. Yet Lionel noted in a letter home in 1827 with some bitterness that the Habsburg domains he had visited remained even more rigidly restrictive than the disparate states of the German Confederation. "Jews are very much oppressed, they can hold no situation under [the] Government, nor possess any land property, not even a house in the town...and must have permission to hire lodgings." His uncle Salomon, even as a friend of Prince Clemens von Metternich, who ran the regime of Emperor Francis (which borrowed large sums from Salomon's Vienna branch of the firm) needed permission to rent hotel rooms in the Renngasse. Eventually he leased the entire building. Not until 1842 could he buy the hotel, long his home, outright and, for good measure, the adjoining house.
Lionel's education had ended at twenty, when he began writing business letters for his unschooled father and self-schooled uncle James, whose English and French were often harsh and awkward. Lionel was back in London when an improvised and largely placid "bourgeois revolution" unseated the incompetent Charles X of France and his corrupt court. Through the family courier system, Nathan in London and his eldest brother, Amschel, in Frankfurt, learned the news from James in Paris before foreign governments learned of it. As French financial markets struggled to survive, James, as his own sons were only children, sent anxiously to Frankfurt for young Anselm -- "as he really has character." Then Baron James asked also for Lionel, writing N. M., "Should you, dear Nathan, not need him you know how much pleasure it would give me to have him work here with us." James was even willing to apprentice one of
N. M.'s younger sons, "whom I always treat like one of my own children." Business, he confided, was at a standstill, but he hoped to turn the new "July Monarchy" to his advantage.
To Nathan in London Lionel reported on July 31, 1830, "The streets are crowded with persons, all laughing and as gay as if they had come from some dance." The Garde Nationale had surrendered their arms and marched off to the cheering of Parisians wearing red, white, and blue revolutionary cockades and waving "three-coloured flags." In case troops loyal to the King tried to put down the insurgents, Lionel wrote, "in the Boulevard & streets every hundred yards the fine large trees [were] cut down and the pavement taken up & piled against them & [also] broken doors &c so that nothing can pass." These obstacles, he explained, were "barricades."
Already both a fiscal conservative and a political liberal, Lionel claimed to Nathan that it was a "glorious week for France," as citizens "behaved in a way that will be admired by every person....It will be a good lesson for other governments." Prudently, Uncle James offered his support to the new government and even dressed his son Alphonse, three, in a miniature Guards uniform to show where their loyalties lay. Then luck intervened, and the avowedly liberal temporary regime, needing internal as well as international respectability, offered the post of lieutenant general of the army, and then the crown (in a constitutional monarchy) to Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orléans. Prince Talleyrand, a survivor of ousted regimes, was sent to London as ambassador and proceeded to bank with Nathan.
James managed to ingratiate himself with the new government, although he worried that the "Citizen King" might not last. Financial losses at the rue Laffitte were covered by New Court, but prices kept falling and James worried that the prestige of the firm was falling with its fortunes. "Uncle James is [so] much shaken by the revolution," Lionel wrote to his father on June 18, 1831, "that I assure you he is no more what he was." Although James was "immediately frightened" by events and bought and sold erratically, this was a reaction he never repeated. Confidence was a Rothschild asset.
Until conditions stabilized, the other family houses supported James, with London sending so much silver and gold to Paris to meet obligations at the rue Laffitte that while other financial houses faltered, the French, thanks in part to the de Rothschild Frères connection with the regime, regained some assurance in its stability. While James was dubious that the "Citizen King" could weather further crises, each month became less strained. In France, Lionel (who almost commuted between London and Paris in the early 1830s) received dispatches about Reform Bill turbulence in England with concern that the political unrest he still saw in France would leap the Channel and affect New Court. From Paris in 1831, realizing that the English establishment soon would have to compromise on political change or face something much worse, Lionel told his parents, "I am very pleased to see that this [future] Reform Bill has had a little effect on the aristocracy. It is a good thing, [as] some of these great persons were really insupportable." If the bill passed, he suggested, "it will have the same result as the revolution here" -- and he predicted with more optimism than was warranted, on the basis of the French example, that the great gulf between the classes insisted upon by the aristocracy "will soon be done away with, & the society in England will be more like that here, which is by far more agreeable." Yet, thinking also like a financier, he added that if "in England the king gives the people more than their rights," it could have "bad consequences."
As confidence returned to Parisians, life became more agreeable for Lionel and for the rue Laffitte. "The newspapers write so much about the ministers speculating with us," he confided to Nathan and Hannah on August 19, 1834, "that they don't like to receive us [in their offices] every day." Working for Uncle James was an education, but Lionel rejected his forthright and clever uncle as a role model for an Englishman. Never a French citizen, James thought of himself first as a Rothschild and second as a Jew. Although James never lost sight of the traditional religious observances, he was more loyal to Judaic spirit than to the letter of religious requirements. During Passover in 1829, while James kept de Rothschild Frères open to keep business from going elsewhere, Lionel pointedly would not turn up, and when his brother Nat worked at 19 rue Laffitte during Passover in later years, he wrote home that "although we go to shul" -- synagogue -- "and eat matzot, in Paris it is impossible to shut up shop." A cosmopolite in France was safer and freer than was a Frenchman, or too overt a Jew.
Lionel had also learned under James that he was in one of the most hazardous of occupations and that it was vital to enjoy its rough-and-tumble, as, having been born to it, he could never escape it. But for the singular episode of fright, James savored every moment.
Following the stormy French years, Lionel was posted to Madrid to watch over Rothschild banking interests there, which soon ranged from loans to the government to the monopoly of mercury extraction in Spain. As merchant -- rather than deposit -- bankers, the family firm dealt with governments and their rulers, and rarely with a private individual. In chronic financial difficulties, the Spanish government had put its interest in the Almadén mines up for auction, and Lionel, with more authority than the resident Rothschild agents, outbid the competition. The mines were a major world source of "liquid silver," crucial to the refining of precious metals, and the firm often dealt in bars of gold and silver. In the tightest of times nothing kept its worth like the real thing.
For services to Spain, in 1835 Lionel was awarded the Order of Isabella, named for the queen of Columbus's time. (It was Ferdinand and Isabella who had expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.) He also expanded his education in more earthy directions. For discreet amorous flings, Spain was even more attractive than France, where Uncle James seemed to know everyone and everything. In Madrid he enjoyed his seasoning on his own as a banker, and his extended bachelorhood happily remote from his father. He admired N. M. greatly, but Nathan was also an irascible counting-house autocrat. Distance kept them close.
To Anthony ("Billy"), already the stud of the brothers, Lionel confessed, hoping to delay the betrothal journey to Germany that would end his independence, "I will do whatever my parents and uncles think best about staying or returning. If Uncle Charles [Carl Mayer] is gone to Naples, it will not be necessary for me to go soon to Frankfurt a few months earlier...as I have no particular fancy to get married just immediately; a few weeks earlier or later makes no difference without our good parents' wish to go to Frankfurt [for a wedding]." He saw no urgency in sealing a cousinly engagement.
No sensitive foreign assignment for the family firm seemed likely to be as awkward for Lionel as courting an arranged bride. His choices of a spouse were as severely limited as those of any monarch in Europe -- perhaps even more so. His alternatives, realistically, had diminished to zero. Lionel's amorous propensities had been easily and anonymously satisfied away from London (as James's letters hint), but he was expected to marry a Rothschild and, accordingly, keep the family's vast multinational operations financially uncomplicated. No other female cousins were Rothschilds of marriageable age.
Now that Lionel's contented bachelor life was ending, he realized with concern that although his mother and his aunt had come to an understanding before their children had done so, the allegedly lovely and accomplished young Charlotte could still withdraw. If Lionel did not suit her, she would soon have other supplicants -- even his own brothers and cousins.
Matchmaking at a distance -- and distances made communication arduous and slow in 1835 -- often required, well in advance, the exchange of letters and small portraits. (Photography was a few years away.) Lionel had curly black hair and was passably handsome, but even a contemporary overly boyish likeness suggested that at best he was of middle height. Charlotte was darkly beautiful, as if an authentic child of Naples, and slender and graceful -- a portraitist's delight. Lionel was prepared to be an admirer; still, when he saw her, he was smitten. Everything changed. The child he only dimly remembered had flowered into an irresistible beauty. Suddenly, he was ready to relinquish Paris, and even Madrid.
However timid at first, the sheltered Charlotte proved willing. Yet to exchange the known quantity of Rhenish Germany, with a female cousinhood and warm friends at hand, and the sunny warmth and happy vistas of her second home in Italy, which she might never see again, for the legendary fog and chill of England seemed a heavy price for settlement of her future. In gloomy London she could have only what money could buy. Until her seventeenth birthday the next June, Lionel would have to court her beyond mere material things. And that was a problem beyond his experience.
In Frankfurt, a messenger was sent to the Judengasse to inform the venerable Gutle. Determined to survive into the wedding day and beyond, she would live well into the 1840s, and once, memorably, summoned a physician to complain about the inefficacy of his prescriptions. "Que voulez-vous," he commiserated, "unfortunately we cannot make you younger."
"You mistake, doctor," Gutle explained, "I do not ask you to make me younger. It is older I desire to become."
The new Frankfurt senate, of what was now a Free City after Napoleon's fall, had revoked Jewish legal emancipation and restored a demeaning oath for Jews in the law courts. The city fathers had also reinstituted the discriminatory limitation on Jewish marriages, liberalizing the quota from twelve a year to fifteen. Only two of such marriages could be with outsiders. Despite its wealth and influence, the bride's family would have to petition compliantly on behalf of their Charlotte.
With that formality accomplished, Charlotte wrote to a cousin in Berlin on September 16, 1835, to announce her engagement, and from London on September 25, Hannah acknowledged to her future daughter-in-law the "happy conclusion" to the event that she and Nathan Mayer had been anticipating -- "that you gave your consent to this union with our good Lionel." She enclosed a pearl necklace "as a token of love." It arrived via the already fabled Rothschild courier service -- the most efficient post in Europe, resorted to by crowned heads when they wanted to ensure delivery. Later, Queen Victoria would tell her uncle Leopold I of the Belgians, "My letters...which are of any real consequence I always send through Rothschild which is perfectly safe and very quick."
Hannah was the diplomat of the London Rothschilds. Well-educated and charming, she could have written to her future daughter-in-law in English, or in German, Italian, French, Spanish, or Judendeutsch -- a curious system of writing German in Hebrew script (akin to Yiddish) often employed by the family for confidentiality. The cosmopolitan Rothschilds needed, and used, them all. Some of Charlotte's letters to London on Lionel's return could have been penned in a variety of European languages in which she was fluent, but for amorous privacy she often employed Judendeutsch. On his return to New Court, Lionel reassured Charlotte awkwardly -- writing letters to young women was outside his experience -- that without her, his life of interminable if unpredictable business would seem newly tedious. "Here we have seen no young person, not even of the family -- we go home early and go to bed early, and are all day in the Counting House. Now, Dear Charlotte, let me ask you what your occupations have been since my departure. Do you go out walking often? Your family, your aunts of whom I can tell you many stories? I must now conclude with my very best love and assurance that I love you more than ever." In another letter he insisted, now less stiffly, that he had "no amusement nor occupation, but that of preparing for and thinking of the happy times when I can call you Dearest Charlotte mine and mine for ever."
Lionel returned to Frankfurt, and Charlotte, in December to plan their future in London, which only he could do, as she could not visit England unchaperoned until she became his wife. Then Lionel left reluctantly for family business in France, writing afterward that the "long hard" coach-and-horses drive of thirty-six hours in winter, "hardly without leaving the carriage," would never have been undertaken "had it not been necessary to make some preparation for the only person for whom I would make every sacrifice." He explained that his temporary residence in Paris now seemed too lavish, but that Uncle James wanted his associates at the firm to demonstrate appropriate style. Living ostentatiously implied Rothschild business success.
Except in Paris, Lionel explained to Charlotte, "such an establishment would appear ridiculous. The first floor, the daily habitation, is nearly as splendid [as the sumptuous ground floor], so much gold that for the first few days one is quite dazzled." The rather cynical playboy had vanished.
Charlotte praised Lionel's attempts at elegant German -- he was trying desperately to win her regard -- and she responded in both her impeccable English and traditional Judendeutsch, in the metaphors of fashionable romantic novels accessible to a girl of sixteen. Very likely weaned on Goethe's passionate The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which every literate German adolescent still read, she also had at hand sentimental epistolary fiction in several languages -- Samuel Richardson's seven-volume Clarissa, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloise, even Ugo Foscolo's popular Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis, all on love and sexual scruples and marriage. Even the heroine's name in Werther -- Charlotte -- was her own, but Goethe's Lotte has two aspirants for her hand, her betrothed Albert and the melancholy, unlucky Werther, who has only a few weeks of happiness with her before taking his own life in despair. The novel-in-letters inspired sensitive yet sheltered teenage girls to take pen to paper and evoke the Charlotte in themselves.
While Lionel wrote "assurances of my most devoted love" and that he was "as sincere as a man can be," she responded, "My heart is palpitating with joyful emotions," though as yet they hardly knew each other and had little that was real to share. Despite her command of languages, words, she conceded on January 8, 1836, "are unavailing to depict the sentiments which pervade my soul" -- and she went on to describe the unusual winter sun in Frankfurt glowing over "the still-lifeless trees." He was now her "beloved Lionel," and she confessed, "Oh, how I bewail your having already quitted us!"
On reassignment to Uncle James, where in earlier days he would have felt liberated, he carefully deplored not only the artificial splendor of his lifestyle, but the "most terrible weather" (unlike tedious Frankfurt) and wished he were "already nearer" to his bride. Despite confessing that Paris "never was gayer," he offered Charlotte an epistolary "thousand embraces" and remembered to add, cautiously, "I have not one minute to myself." His most "agreeable occupation" was "writing to [her]," and he had declined "parties of amusement with old friends" because he could not enjoy them without her. Separated from her, he wrote, he wished that he were able to put the right words together to describe his devoted love: "But I cannot; even in endeavouring to do so my pen has fallen from my hand and more than a hour has passed thinking of you, without taking it up." In return she wrote to her "beloved reader" -- a novelistic device Charlotte borrowed -- that her parents had given a grand ball to celebrate the birthday of King Ferdinand IV of Naples, during which new portraits of the King and Queen were "unwrapped" amid "thousands of flowers." Seizing at further hints from romances, she added, "I did not partake of the amusements of the evening. The possession of a magic mirror would have enabled you to behold in me the melancholy sister of sorrow."
Still struggling for the appropriate romantic language, Lionel confided, "I have so much to say to you and feel so much the want of conversing with you, Dear Charlotte, that my ideas are confused. I begin with the same and end with the same, and then find myself in the same place; if I cannot have the happiness of telling you so verbally within a short time, I shall go mad."
On Saturday evening, January 16, 1836, he sent her "a thousand kisses and the assurance of my for ever devoted attachment and love." The next morning, as his carriages were being packed for his return to London, he wrote that his first priority would be to find a house to let for a year, until she could choose one on her own. Still, sentimental novels intruded into mutual expressions of "attachment," for Charlotte began to question the effect of wicked Paris upon his "constancy." He knew, Lionel conceded from home, "that you have heard many things since my departure but have thought you never could have believed any of them." Then he apologized in another letter early in February for reading reproaches into her lines, but she had already denied everything but affection. "I like to imagine that my letters afford you pleasure, because I always peruse yours with heart-felt joy," she wrote, while her own were only "insignificant, uninteresting epistles." She teased Lionel that she hoped her affection had, in Paris, "enabled you to resist the beautiful Matilda's transcendent loveliness....Love me as I love you, and grant me some moments of happiness in these melancholy days of separation by writing very, very, often to your faithfully devoted Charlotte."
Lionel knew the beautiful, tempestuous grisette of twenty who was called "Mathilde" by her lover, the poet Heinrich Heine, a friend of Uncle James's and frequenter of the rue Laffitte. Heine's liaison with the willful Crescence Eugénie Mirat, who once destroyed his manuscripts in a fit of jealousy, was the talk of Paris, and Charlotte, distant in Frankfurt, knew of it. Even at her age it was difficult to be innocent in the worldly circles of the wealthy, although her own acquaintances were circumscribed by her faith.
Since her primary occupation was imagining her future life with Lionel, her letters were longer and arrived more often than he could write in return. On every day but Saturday -- the Sabbath -- he put in long hours when back at the London offices in the City. She confessed that her heart had been accusing him of "indifference" when a letter of his arrived, and she contrasted her "agonizing state of incertitude" to his "love and constancy," pledging to love him "as long as I exist." Even when visiting the family counting house in Frankfurt, Charlotte wrote, she indulged in "the agreeable occupation of conversing with you....I only should have reproached you with indifference, for your [too] few lines having caused me to weep for hours, and to philosophize the whole morning on the vicissitudes of human life in general, [and] the inconstancy of your sex in particular." Then his "kind letter...again rendered me happy." She was, after all, still sixteen.
Lionel assured her that he could hardly wait to leave England again to prepare for their marriage, scheduled for two days after Charlotte turned seventeen on June 13, 1836. He had already learned of balls celebrating the engagement, given by his future mother-in-law "to amuse the Frankfurt society." Although a Jew's outsider status was fixed and immutable, save by conversion, even the grand Damen who never deigned to invite a Jew condescended to come. A Rothschild soiree included the best orchestras, succulent food (even if kosher), and unending champagne, and drew the showiest gowns. Such spectacles were of no interest to Lionel, but he knew that he was likely to be on display himself once he returned to Frankfurt.
In one letter entirely in German, Charlotte assured him of her love "bis an der Tod" -- even unto death. She knew that she would soon -- ceremonially -- have to affirm that. In the exchanges through March, in English and in Judendeutsch, including reproaches that would not have been out of place in a Jane Austen novel, Lionel hoped that she was no longer dissatisfied with him. He had to confess, however, that the house lease he had negotiated for them had fallen through, but that he was able to close on another, in Hill Street, Mayfair. It was not very large but was, he claimed, "quite neatly and elegantly furnished." The rental was settled just in time. He would return on family business to Paris and then travel to Frankfurt to remain through their wedding.
Charlotte's informal education was winding down. It is unlikely that she had the same tutorials as her three young brothers, Mayer Carl, Adolph, and Wilhelm Carl, which included five science subjects, but she was probably supervised, as were her brothers, by Henri Blanvalet, a French physiologist. He coordinated the tutors and prepared assessments for Carl von Rothschild, who was often away in Naples, a city Charlotte loved for its lush extravagance. Decades later she recalled her childhood home in Italy as "a paradise on earth," with a garden that was "by far the most wonderful in the world." The diary of her uncle Sir Moses Montefiore records visiting Naples from Malta in January 1828, where he was greeted by the Rothschild family, including Charlotte, then eight. As she grew older, her father wanted her educated in Frankfurt. She spent little but holidays in Italy, which made Naples even more her city of dreams.
Carl's children (at least his young sons) wrote weekly reports for their tutors, while he was less demanding of Charlotte, who would be only a spouse. Still, all Rothschild girls, wherever located and educated, were encouraged "to be useful" to their future husbands. They were even supposed to learn enough about the family enterprises to understand, as Carl explained to Charlotte, how to run a bank. But to be female meant being taught the traditional upper-class subjects of drawing, painting, and music, all of which, like mastery of languages, came easily to her. She read Goethe and Schiller, and very likely Bettina von Arnim's just-published and partly imagined Correspondence between Goethe and a Child, having no idea that her future husband had met the great Goethe, or that Heine and Ludwig Börne, whom she also enjoyed, were practically dependents of her uncle James. (In their writings, Heine and Börne brazenly satirized James, who was amused.)
The family planned to gather in Frankfurt not only for Charlotte's marriage to Lionel, but for another conclave of the brothers, to formulate a new configuration of the partnership to accommodate the next generation of sons. A later, scurrilous, article would claim that the real reason for the meeting was that "Nathan [had] conceived the idea of perpetuating the name and power of the house by such consanguineous connections....With this view he called in 1836 a congress...at Frankfurt to consider the momentous question. They all favored it, and as an introduction to the settled connubial policy, Nathan's eldest son, Lionel, was united to his cousin Charlotte. Nathan was overjoyed at the adoption of his matrimonial system." Nothing in the allegation was true.
The Rothschild brothers would arrive with their families, except for those essential to keep the five houses going. Though few came by rail, the new transportation system would soon revolutionize travel, and the firm's sponsorship of and investments in it would be profound. Eighteen railway companies had been organized in England in 1836 alone, and a mania for railway stock was beginning, although as yet Nathan Mayer was no more interested than most other London financiers in what seemed risky investments. At first only James among the brothers was exploring the phenomenon of the chemin de fer.
For a traveling companion, Lionel turned to plump, amiable Gioacchino Rossini, who had become a good friend. Long a Parisian, Rossini, now forty-four, banked with James -- a rare compliment to an individual from the Rothschild houses. It had been seven years since the last Rossini opera, the popular Guillaume Tell. That April he was being importuned to accept a commission for a new opera, which the impresario of the Théâtre-Italien assured him would be his usual masterwork and create "an ecstasy of joy." Rossini now preferred composing less demanding music and was planning a holiday trip to Bologna when the invitation to Lionel's marriage arrived. Only one other non-family member would be coming, Mayer's German tutor, Dr. Schlemmer, who was preparing N. M.'s youngest son for Cambridge, which would admit, but not award a degree to, a Jew.
Rossini was delighted to be a wedding guest. James casually supplied the composer's expense account. On the journey out, Rossini and Lionel went by carriage and by rail from Paris through Belgium and the Rhineland, through Antwerp, Brussels, Aix-la-Chapelle, Cologne, Coblenz, and Mainz. Rossini was excited by the luxuriant banks of the Rhine, the impressive cathedrals they passed, and the galleries at which they stopped with pictures by Rubens and Vandyke. He did not enumerate them, he wrote to his friend Emilio Loup, "as I should want to have twenty pages....I am truly satisfied with this little trip, the entire purpose of which was to attend at Frankfurt the marriage of Lionel Rotschildt, my very dear friend."
Rossini was anxious about the Antwerp-to-Brussels railway segment. He had heard that boilers sometimes blew, and track beds sometimes collapsed. Nothing happened, but he was so unnerved by the experience that he composed a satiric piano piece afterwards, Un petit train de plaisir (comique-imitatif), which mimicked the clatter of a railway journey and which concludes with a "terrible déraillement du convoi," the deaths of two passengers, and the flight of their souls to heaven and hell. At the close, the music turns sardonically happy as the heirs of the victims celebrate their legacies.
More relevant to the occasion was an ode by a local poet, S. Messeritsch, in parallel Hebrew and German texts, on the marriage of Lionel and Charlotte. The lines prophesied the blessings of children and long years of happiness, and invited the citizens of Frankfurt to feel pride in the union of the shoots of a great tree. Another, equally apt, symbol was the family coat of arms; the bride's family had ordered an ornate silver service for the young couple with the family's Austrian arms at the center, surmounted by the entwined monogram "C.L.R." While Rossini mingled with local musicians like Felix Mendelssohn (distantly related to Charlotte through her mother), Lionel prepared for the wedding and his father and uncles began to gather for their negotiations.
The wedding would be solemnized under a canopy in the town residence of the bride, at 33 Neue Mainzer Strasse, an upper-class address on a courtyard once out of bounds to Jewish families. Its greatest moment was to be the materialization, however brief, of the legendary matriarch, the venerable Gutle.
In London the stout pillar at the Royal Exchange at which the bulbous profile of Nathan Mayer was often visible was unexpectedly bare. In Paris at the rue Laffitte the financial courtiers of James Mayer were nowhere to be found. Both brothers were en route to Frankfurt. In temporary charge of the Paris house was Anthony; presiding at New Court was young Nat. Just in case, because of their youth, two of Hannah's brothers, Benjamin and Isaac, now with their late father's banking firm, were tendered power of attorney for Nathan's London house. Everything seemed arranged with proverbial Rothschild organization and efficiency; yet in the suddenly frantic and even incoherent messages from Frankfurt to both young Rothschild brothers the wedding would begin to appear less celebration than catastrophe.
Copyright © 2003 by Stanley Weintraub
A Rothschild Love Story
Charlotte and Lionel
A Rothschild Love Story
Together, Charlotte and Lionel de Rothschild challenged and redefined their place in Victorian society. At her celebrated salons, England's leading politicians and policy makers met and shared opinions. Disraeli regularly argued politics with adversaries; Gladstone discussed religion with Charlotte; "Tom Thumb" (with P. T. Barnum) entertained; artists and writers and aristocrats mingled. Refusing to swear a Christian oath, Lionel was elected to Parliament half a dozen times before he could take his seat. After a decade-long battle, the House of Commons changed its rules, enabling Lionel and future Jewish or non-Christian members to serve.
Lionel (and, behind the scenes, Charlotte) influenced events worldwide, helping to fund relief to a starving Ireland, aiding persecuted Jews in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, brokering the purchase of the Suez Canal, and arranging for France's postwar reparations to Germany. Yet despite the distractions of their power, glamour, and wealth, and problems of health for which money could buy no solutions, they remained intensely devoted to each other and their family. Although Charlotte lost a daughter, then her beloved husband, and had to come back herself from severe illness, she remained unbroken.
Charlotte and Lionel presents the evocative tale of one of the least known yet most touching love stories from the glamorous decades of Victorian England.
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