'Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality'; - William K Vanderbilt

Amschel Rothschild's suicide reminds us how privilege can be a burden, writes Rebecca Fowler
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For the French authorities it was just the latest statistic in the modern curse of rising suicide across Europe. A well-dressed man on a business trip was found dead in his Paris hotel room, having hanged himself.

The tragedy would have passed by unnoticed in a harsh world where suicide has become almost commonplace. But as the offspring of the most famous banking dynasty in the world, Amschel Rothschild, 41, chairman of the family's asset management business, has been thrust into the glare of the publicity he so hated in life.

In a hopeless gesture, earlier this week, he apparently turned his back on life and his family, and joined the notorious roll call of the painfully rich unable to cope with an excess of riches.

He had perhaps found, like those before him, that money and privilege may be as poisonous to the "haves", as poverty is to the "have-nots".

As the Rothschilds began to grieve in the privacy of their mansions, it appeared that Amschel had fallen foul of a family curse. Like other powerful dynasties, where fortunes are made but souls are still broken, the younger generations live in the often overwhelming shadow of their ancestors.

Among the other privileged families where tragedy has struck are theAmerican Vanderbilts. Gloria's son, Carter Cooper, threw himself from their 14th floor apartment in 1988, swearing angrily at his mother just before he leapt.

It was an ominous display of William K Vanderbilt's own observation, years before, that: "Inherited wealth is a real handicap to happiness. It is as certain a death to ambition as cocaine is to morality."

The same shadow apparently loomed over the Getty family, which made a fortune in oil. John Paul Getty I became the richest man in the world, but his doomed son, George, died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol after failing to find a place for himself.

Another blighted dynasty is the Guinness family, which Amschel married into when Anita Guinness became his wife. Lady Henrietta Guinness took her own life 15 years ago, throwing herself from an ancient aqueduct. She had fled to Italy to marry an out-of-work waiter, claiming: "If I had been poor I would have been happy."

But their sense of hopelessness is part of a modern epidemic which strikes at all areas of society. Suicide has increased significantly in Europe, producing a death toll comparable with road accidents. Each year it claims 43,822 lives in the 12 EU member states, with the highest levels in Denmark and the lowest in Greece.

Britain has 12.4 male suicides and 4.5 female suicides per 100,000 of the population. The most dramatic rates are among young men, and the professional classes, where the highest risk groups are vets, dentists and farmers.

Easy access to a method of suicide may partly account for the figures. For vets, pharmacists and doctors, poisoning is the most common method, while for farmers it is firearms.

The psychologists and counsellors have struggled to explain why.

The obvious catalysts include financial problems, a lack of family support, loss of an emotional network, no religion to fall back on, the break-up of a marriage and - increasingly for men - bewilderment over their changing roles.

Perhaps no one will ever know what lay behind Amschel's plight. He appeared to have everything that would keep despair at bay; a strong, almost clannish family, albeit with feuds; a powerful religious identity as a member of Britain's leading Jewish family; and staggering wealth.

But according to those who worked with him, he was not a natural heir to the fierce world of business, and was well known to be dissatisfied with his position in life. One banker described him as "a very nice chap, but a bit nervous".

He preferred the worlds of farming and motor racing, and hated the scrutiny that he and his family were placed under by the media because of their wealth and position. His arm of the family business was also not making money, and a colleague said yesterday: "I don't think he would have gone into the City if he hadn't been a Rothschild."

The reluctant banker was part of a family that in its prime had been more powerful than monarchs, governments and the Church. But his despair at the end was no different to that which lies behind the suicides that go unreported every day among the less privileged and the destitute, and the result no more and no less tragic.

Dynasty that has become a shadow of its former self

Like all great dynasties it began modestly. Mayer Amschel, the founder of the House of Rothschild, rose from a Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt 250 years ago to head the most powerful banking family in Europe.

He had intended to become a rabbi, but his parents' early death forced him into an apprenticeship in a banking house, where he determined to do business with kings, and also to father as many sons as possible.

Mayer duly rose from a coin dealer to become court banker, and together with his five sons he built a fortune on the back of the French Revolution, lending money to warring princes and trading in goods.

His sons were sent to open branches of the bank in London, Paris, Vienna and Naples, and the banking group continued to expand throughout the Industrial Revolution.

At its height in the 19th century it was known as the "sixth power of Europe", which controlled the destinies of monarchs and governments. Byron wrote of their every loan, which "seats a nation" or "upsets a throne".

The Rothschilds even allowed Disraeli to become the principal stockholder in the Suez Canal by giving him pounds 4m at a few hours' notice. Subsequently a Rothschild became the first Jew to enter British Parliament, and another was the first to be made a peer.

But like other great dynasties, the Rothschilds failed to hold on to their unique position in the banking world. From the second half of the 19th century, competition eroded their power, although they remained one of the wealthiest families in Britain.

Later generations, which included spies, philanthropists and scientists, were divided in their interest in the family business. Sir Evelyn Rothschild, as head, is famous for his angry outbursts, and clashed with his cousin Lord (Jacob) Rothschild, prompting him to leave the family firm.

One banker recently compared the banking house as "a Rolls-Royce that has been running along like a mini", a shadow of its former self. But Sir Evelyn has a fortune of pounds 160m and the family continues to make money.

The next heir is tipped to be David de Rothschild, known for his charming and debonair style, who has revived the family's interests in France.