Obituaries: Amschel Rothschild

When a Smith or a Jones dies, hardly a media bee stirs. When it's a Rothschild, the whole hive starts buzzing. The day after Amschel Rothschild's mother's funeral, five weeks ago, the Daily Mail ran a photograph of her on its front page flagged "REVEALED: The Rothschild who bedded a gay traitor". Was that tasteful?

The Rothschild name sells newspapers. The Rothschilds are the nearest thing to a Jewish royal family in exile. Their influence transcends national boundaries; they were the original global financiers. Their historical glamour combines with a tradition of secretiveness and privacy dashed with flamboyance that appears irresistible to the gossip journalist.

Since Mayer Amschel Rothschild charged his five sons at the beginning of last century to found finance houses in Frankfurt, London, Naples, Paris and Vienna, the family has been established in a unique position in the European markets. His London emissary, Nathan Meyer Rothschild, established the City bank that still bears his name in 1804. N.M.'s descendants maintained an intimate relationship with successive governments, and advanced the cause of the Jew in British society by becoming the first of their faith to sit in the House of Commons and the first in the House of Lords. They made and spent prodigious fortunes. Jacob Rothschild, the present Lord Rothschild, Amschel's half-brother and the heir of their cousin Dorothy de Rothschild, is in the direct tradition of those 19th-century spending grandees.

Amschel Mayor James Rothschild (the Mayor, being his mother's maiden name, was a nice joke) was the great-great-great-grandson of N.M. Rothschild, and a man as secretive and flamboyant as any of his ancestors. He combined a playboy interest in racing classic cars with a serious dedication to his role in the family bank.

That he joined Rothschild's late, in 1987, aged 32, after devoting his twenties to the family farm in Suffolk, only seemed to make him more determined in his application. After serving his apprenticeship in Rothschild Asset Management and Rothschild's bullion department, he worked for six months in 1989-90 in the office of the chairman, his cousin Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, before being appointed first chief executive and then, from 1993, executive chairman of Rothschild Asset Management, a not always happy job.

Among ancillary duties, he undertook a non-executive directorship of the Sun Alliance Group in 1995, thus maintaining its unbroken relationship with the Rothschild family since 1824, when the Alliance Assurance Company was co-founded by N.M. Rothschild. Sir Christopher Benson, Sun Alliance's chairman, records Amschel Rothschild's "old-world charm and courtesy". "His gentle manner," he says, "concealed an ability to get to the heart of the matter."

Amschel was regularly billed as the heir presumptive to Sir Evelyn de Rothschild for the chairmanship (Sir Evelyn's children being still too young to be candidates), though newspaper reports would be sniffy about his prospects; they implied his profile was too low, that with his gentle manner he was too "nice", that he lacked the killer instinct. I wonder if they were right.

Amschel was the only son of the second family of Victor, third Baron Rothschild, the scientist and head of Sir Edward Heath's Think Tank, by Tess, nee Mayor, one of a distinguished Cambridge academic family, renowned in her day as an amateur actress. His parents met in military intelligence during the Second World War. Amschel was born in 1955, educated at King's College Choir School and at the Leys School in Cambridge, and then at City University in London, where he read Economics, History and Archaeology. Archaeology remained a passion and he was particularly pleased to be appointed to the British Museum Development Trust Council when it was founded in 1994. Sir Claus Moser describes him as "from the very beginning one of [the council's] most enthusiastic and helpful members".

Amschel Rothschild's first job was not in finance or archaeology (though he once had ambitions to found a magazine on archaeology) but on the New Review, as circulation manager. This extraordinary magazine, lush in format, austere in design, and introducing the best work, creative and critical, by the new generation, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian Mc- Ewan and others, as well as full texts by such older hands as Harold Pinter and Simon Gray, was one of the best small magazines since the war. It was edited by Ian Hamilton and generously supported by the Arts Council. Rothschild enjoyed the wonderful chaos of its Soho offices and stayed with it until it closed in 1978.

The centre of his activities then moved from London, where he had shared a flat in Notting Hill with John Brown, later publisher of Viz, and was then the landlord in Little Venice at once of Martin Amis's fiancee, the artist Angela Gorgas, and the future novelist Candia McWilliam, to Suffolk, where in the Thirties his father had bought an estate featuring one of the finest Tudor mansions in England. After long lying empty, this house was demolished in the 1950s and the Rothschilds made a comfortable home in a greatly enlarged cottage in the corner of the handsome old walled garden. From here Amschel farmed a rolling spread outside Bury St Edmunds, largely arable, and at first including a fair acreage of fruit-trees from which he marketed his own apple-juice to such exotic London establishments as the then fashionable club Zanzibar, where his future wife Anita Guinness, daughter of the banker James Guinness, worked preparing salads with Alastair Little.

Anita and Amschel Rothschild made a good match. She, outgoing, forceful, direct, cured him of many of his reticences. The son of a formidably demanding father, he had tended in youth to run when he couldn't hide, but she gave him - in their houses in Suffolk, in London, and, characteristically of him, in the woody depths of New Hampshire; and in their three acute and interesting children - a security that he had perhaps never before enjoyed. They were the most generous hosts, both in England and abroad, and he was a loyal friend who attracted loyalty. From Bury St Edmunds Amschel organised with military precision a series of twice-yearly cricket matches, now in their 15th year. His keenness for the game and the quality of his white flannels made up for his freely admitted deficiencies in strict technique.

From his teens, when he and his motorbike won the national schoolboy scramble championships, he had been an enthusiast for motor-racing. Later, in his biplane, a pre-war Stampe, he became an enthusiast for aerial acrobatics. He started racing classic cars in 1974, owning successively a Lotus 10, an AC Cobra, a famous 1954 250F Maserati, a 1964 Willment Daytona Coupe in which he won two Historic Sports Car Championships, and a 1957 BRM P25, the only original left in existence, which he raced from 1982. He was a "consistent fast driver" in the words of his schoolfriend and long- term mechanic Spencer Longland. Last year he won the Vintage Sports Car Club Phipps Trophy and the Hawthorn Trophy. This year, in April, he won the Peter Collins Race at Silverstone and was leading again in the Phipps Trophy at the time of his death.

Where his father was of large and pugnacious build, Amschel Rothschild was tall, thin and strikingly graceful. His bushy head of hair gave way in his thirties to a pronounced widow's peak that only emphasised large, sad brown eyes. He was precise, almost obsessively tidy, enjoyed making difficult cocktails and revisiting old jokes. He loved his farm, his children, restoring old outhouses, extending his lawns, going to bed early. At 41, he has now gone to bed much too early for some.

Amschel Mayor James Rothschild, banker: born London 18 April 1955; director, Rothschild Asset Management 1990-96, chief executive 1990-93, executive chairman 1993-96; director, N.M. Rothschild & Sons 1993-96; married 1981 Anita Guinness (one son, two daughters); died Paris 8 July 1996.

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