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Obituary: Baron Edmond de Rothschild

Edmond Adolphe Maurice Jules Jacques de Rothschild, banker: born 1926; married 1958 Veselinka Vladova Gueorguieva (marriage dissolved), 1963 Nadine Lhopitalier (one son); died Geneva 2 November 1997.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild was the richest and most successful of his family since the late 19th century.

His unique position was symbolised by his office on the sixth floor of a building housing his Compagnie Financiere on the Rue du Faubourg Saint- Honore in Paris with a vast picture window overlooking the Elysee Palace gardens. From there he oversaw a wide- ranging business empire, which included a Swiss bank, the Banque Privee and, until recently, a substantial stake in Club Mediterranee, a range of interests entirely in keeping with the most successful great-grandson of James, founder of the Paris branch of the clan. Although Edmond himself was very much a loner, his character and interests were very much in line with those of his father and grandfather.

Edmond was born in 1926, the only son of Maurice de Rothschild. His parents divorced when Edmond was still a baby - as a result he rarely saw his father. After a remarkable youthful career as a playboy, Maurice had quarrelled with the fellow members of the French branch of the family over an investment which they thought foolhardy but which turned out to be highly successful, as were later independent business ventures.

Maurice also went into politics, becoming one of the few senators to vote against giving Marechal Petain full powers in July 1940. Two long months earlier he had been instrumental in setting up the dinner at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at which Paul Reynaud, then the French Prime Minister, arranged with Anthony Eden that, if France were to fall, a Free French presence would be established in London under the young Charles de Gaulle, then a mere colonel. De Gaulle never forgave Maurice for an incident which conflicted with le Grand Charles' own account of his martyrdom and Maurice was virtually banished to the Bahamas.

In 1940 Edmond's mother escaped with her son to Switzerland.They found that her ex-husband's gigantic chateau at Pregny overlooking the lake of Geneva was shut, so they settled in a small house on the estate. The locals were so hostile to these Jewish refugees that Edmond could not go to the local school but attended an international school in Geneva.

His father returned to Pregny after the Second World War having inherited three separate fortunes from the heads of the Naples, Frankfurt and Paris branches of the family bank, a fortune he greatly increased before his death in 1957 as a result of successful speculation, not only in stocks and shares but also in works of art (Edmond himself continued to collect and gave much of his collection to the Louvre).

On his father's death the 31-year-old Edmond found himself relatively isolated, not only as a result of his father's rift with the rest of the family but also because he had been brought up away from them - although he did spend a year after the war at the family's subsidiary in New York. With a million dollars inherited from his grandfather he had begun to speculate as successfully as his father. As he later put it, his habit of investing in promising new activities (like Club Mediterranee) made him into something of an innovator - "I later discovered that this was called venture capital," he said.

By the time of his death his multifarious interests included his investment bank, the Compagnie Financiere, in Paris and a substantial bank, the Banque Privee, in Geneva. In 1976 he spent $22m buying a substantial stake in a major Californian bank, the Bank of California. With typical luck he was forced to sell out in 1984 just before the bank ran into difficulties.

His interests had turned increasingly to banking, with the Banque Privee opening a branch in London following Big Bang. With his investments in Geneva, Israel, London, the United States and Italy - where he had a major stake in the Banca Tiburtina - he came nearest of all his family to recreating the famous international set-up of the founders of the bank with their symbol of the five arrows.

Edmond's personal life was just as intriguing. In 1958 he had married a lady with the improbable name of Veslinka Vladova Gueorguilieva, but two years later he met and fell in love with Nadine Lhopitalier, a 28- year-old actress of working-class background who had taken great pains to educate herself. They lived together for three years while Edmond was going through his divorce and married shortly before the birth of their only son, Benjamin.

Nadine converted to Judaism and threw herself enthusiastically into her new role as a hostess, creating a highly sophisticated social life, which included amazing fetes at Pregny. She also wrote a best- selling book on being a perfect wife, a profoundly anti-feminist work which tacitly accepted that husbands were unfaithful and did not take too much account of their spouses' wishes.

Despite a handful of setbacks Edmond's business interests were far more successful than those of the main French branch of the family, which was rather lucky to be nationalised by the Mitterrand government in 1982 for a substantial figure. Later attempts to bring together the financial interests of the three branches of the family - the French, the London and the biggest, those belonging to Edmond himself - achieved only partial success, but Edmond did follow the family tradition in one respect, investment in wine, more precisely in the Medoc region north of Bordeaux, where he was already a major shareholder in Chateau Lafite.

In the early 1970s he bought a neglected estate, Chateau Clarke, for well above its market value (largely because his man of business was dying and wanted a percentage of the purchase price to help his widow). Despite very heavy investment in the vineyard and the cellars the wine has never been classed as outstanding, although, typically, Edmond made the best of it by producing a kosher wine which he sold at a considerable profit in New York - with Nadine acting as saleswoman amongst the Hasidic community in Brooklyn.

More profitable was his ownership of the Savour Club, which grew into France's biggest mail-order wine business - as well as the fees from the many vineyard transactions conducted through the Compagnie Privee.

But perhaps even more important in his life than business and marriage was Israel. In the 1880s his grandfather Edmond, James's son, had been responsible for financing and guiding the very first Jewish settlements in what was then Palestine and despite his refusal to back the pioneers of Zionism he was generally accepted as the father of Israel. Edmond himself had not been brought up in a religious environment, but he became an enthusiastic Zionist when young and had to be dissuaded from visiting Israel too often lest he stir up trouble with his youthful enthusiasm.

After the death of his uncle Jimmy in 1957 he was left as the only direct male descendant of the "father" of Israel and took his duties extremely seriously. Following the advice of Israel's first prime minister, David ben-Gurion, he concentrated on providing capital to create jobs in the infant state - a policy which brought him into conflict with Jimmy's widow, his aunt Dolly, who preferred philanthropy as a policy.

Although he did more than his share of helping Israel he became increasingly unhappy with its political policies in recent years, worrying about what he called its increasing "Levantisation", perhaps the only failure in a long and successful life.

- Nicholas Faith