Discretion? How bourgeois: A society scandal with a 21st-century twist

The acrimonious public split between Kate Rothschild and Ben Goldsmith is a traditional society scandal with a plutocratic 21st-century twist

Whenever Nigel Dempster, the late gossip columnist, heard of a marriage breaking up, he said there was "a holiday in his heart". Had he been alive last weekend, his ticker would by now be on a three-week break in Sandy Lane. For on Sunday, news broke that one of the richest and most glamorous young couples in society were splitting up. Ben Goldsmith, youngest son of the late billionaire Sir James Goldsmith, had separated from Kate Rothschild, a 29-year-old member of the banking dynasty, whose mother is a Guinness. For consumers of high-end gossip, the story had everything: money, sex, good looks and three of society's most familiar surnames.

So far, so titillating. Society marriages – and their not infrequent collapses – have provided fodder for mid-market newspapers since long before Evelyn Waugh satirised the murky co-dependency of toffs and newspaper tycoons in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies. For followers of gossip, the end of a Goldsmith marriage came as no great surprise, even if one of the alleged causes was her affair with a rapper, Jay Electronica. Only three years ago, Ben's elder brother Zac, the Tory MP for Richmond, broke up from his wife Sheherezade, after getting too close to Alice Rothschild, younger sister of Kate, over late-night poker sessions. In 2004, their eldest sister, Jemima, got divorced from her husband, the Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan. Their mother, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, was still married to her first husband, Mark Birley, when she gave birth to Jemima by her second husband, Sir James Goldsmith; and he was famous for having once said: "Once you marry your mistress, you create a vacancy" (though the saying was actually coined by the French actor Sacha Guitry).

So last Sunday's story was simply following an established pattern. What was new was that, having set up rival camps, the protagonists spent the week tossing grenades at each other via the very public forum of Twitter. On Monday, Mr Goldsmith directed his 6,000 followers to an article about his wife's alleged infidelity, before later removing it. He then ridiculed her for having hired a PR firm to handle her image, saying: "A bit late surely? How about focusing on her devastated children?" The next day, he wrote a message describing her decision to report him to the police the Wednesday before as "appalling". Police had visited their west London home, after he allegedly slapped her and kicked a child's toy, having confronted her over text messages on her phone relating to the affair.

Kate Rothschild retaliated on Friday, posting a string of messages in which she defended her record as a wife and mother, and intimated that she was not the only one who had been unfaithful. "Our marriage went bad a few years ago and none of you has any idea what I went through along with my husband," she wrote. Yesterday, the couple released a joint statement pledging to put an end to their Twitter spat.

But in the history of society scandals, the use of Twitter to settle scores was an entirely new departure. From the Inns of Court came the sound of chops smacking, as divorce lawyers hailed the arrival of Britain's first multimillion-pound "Twitter divorce". One commentator lamented that two "gilded youths" with such "illustrious" backgrounds could end up "bickering in public like a pair of Prosecco-fuelled soap stars".

Time was when couples strove to keep their private lives just that, all the more so in the elevated circles of the Rothschilds and Goldsmiths. If a family scandal did erupt, it would be quietly tackled behind closed doors, and pas devant les enfants, let alone the staff and the wider world. So what's going on? Is this how the new generation rolls?

"I think, to some extent, it is," says the social commentator Lady Celestria Noel. "People are used to living their lives via social media." Mary Killen, etiquette columnist for The Spectator, and author of How to Live with Your Husband, agrees, saying people of all classes have become addicted to Twitter. But as with any story relating to Britain's complex class structure, there are nuances here that only the trained eye can see.

"I think it's also to do with the fact that there's a stratum of society, of which the Goldsmiths form a part, who don't really care what people think or say," says Noel.

"Within the upper class, there are the old-fashioned county families, who think you should only be in the papers for births, marriages and deaths. But there's also a more aristocratic and plutocratic stratum of society, and perhaps they have a more arrogant attitude towards public opinion. They would possibly think discretion is even a bit, well, bourgeois."

According to Killen, whose latest book is called How the Queen Can Make You Happy, people with large circles of friends find the internet a useful tool for disseminating embarrassing or private information, as it saves them having to tell them themselves. "It has become widespread among cancer patients to write a blog about it," she says. "In this way, you can keep people updated on your progress without having to repeat the same awkward conversation a hundred times a day. In a way, Twitter might be an extension of that."

It's certainly true that last week's story was driven by both sides wanting to get certain bits of information into the public arena. Friends of Kate Rothschild believe Sunday's story of her infidelity was fed to a newspaper to distract from her husband's alleged assault involving the police. And feeding information to newspapers is, according to one journalist, entirely standard procedure during society break-ups.

Tim Willis, who wrote a biography of Nigel Dempster, says last week's use of Twitter should be seen as an extension of the age-old practice of aggrieved parties using gossip columnists to get their view across. "Everyone is into news management these days," he says. "While, previously, people would use a gossip column to get their side of the story across, now they can cut out the conduit and put it directly out there themselves."

When the marriage of Charles and Diana broke up, she was known to be on good terms with Richard Kay, the Daily Mail's well-respected gossip columnist, while Charles had allies on other papers. "Gossip columns can be a convenient service," says Willis. "People ruthlessly used to manipulate them. But now that gossip has a wider currency, and most newspapers now run on their front covers what would once have been limited to the gossip columns, it's harder to manipulate. With the rise of citizen journalism, people are now simply putting out the information themselves via Twitter. It's probably a bit cleverer to do it through a third party, and then deny all knowledge. That used to be the way to do it. I know one very social figure who is on the payroll of Associated Newspapers, and simply acts as a conduit between the papers and society. Engaging with the press tends to show a lack of dignity."

In the novels of Nancy Mitford, members of the upper classes accept infidelity as simply a part of life. And within the history of the Goldsmiths, it appears to be fairly routine: Lady Annabel Goldsmith, daughter of the Marquess of Londonderry, was married to the nightclub founder Mark Birley when she met Sir James Goldsmith and became his mistress for 10 years. Tina Brown claimed he also had a long-running affair with Frances Shand Kydd, mother of Princess Diana, during the years she was pregnant, prompting rumours he might have been Diana's father. But according to Noel, there's no evidence to suggest the upper classes are any more unfaithful than any other section of society. "I don't think you can make blanket assertions like that. In fact, if anything, traditionally the thing with a hereditary aristocracy was that it was very important that the wife was faithful, because your children had to be your heirs. But at the same time, in Edwardian house parties, while young unmarried women were out of bounds for obvious reasons, older married women who had already children were different. The other difference back then was that they didn't do divorce. It was undignified and massively expensive."

Dignity aside, no doubt the Goldsmith divorce will be expensive. Ben, 31, inherited £300m on his father's death in 1997, and his wife was left £18m when her father, Amschel Rothschild, half-brother of Jacob Rothschild, hanged himself in his room in the Bristol hotel in Paris in 1996. The couple began looking for a buyer for their London home in April, with an asking price of £20m. But what of their reputations in society? Have they been damaged by the spat?

"Inevitably, they make themselves less glamorous," says Killen. "We're interested in them because they are glamorous, but with this kind of behaviour, they rob themselves of their own mystique."

But Willis believes it won't have any lasting impact. "To me, it seems massively undignified. The funny thing is that... nobody seems to give a damn. Within a week, these will be yesterday's tweets, or whatever the digital equivalent is to tomorrow's chip paper." Yet their choice of Twitter to vent their anger indicates how society has changed. "I think – and this is true with trolling – that when it's in this intangible form, virtual form, people seem to lose any sense of proportion and really go over the top. It's a bit like when you're in a car. You become very aggressive because you feel protected by the car. They said what they said because they're not face to face with each other."

Their real mistake, says Killen, is that they rose to the bait at all. "As I say in my new book, the Queen never rises to the bait. She just waits until whatever it is has just all blown over." So perhaps the secret to dealing with a high-profile marriage break-up is to take a tip from Nigel Demspter's heart, and go on holiday. In fact, that's just what Ben Goldsmith did, by taking his three children to Italy with his mum. Trouble is, you can still tweet from the beach.

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