Obituary: Teresa, Lady Rothschild

Tess Rothschild was as much a Cambridge figure as her husband Victor, the scientist and head of Edward Heath's "Think Tank". She was born a Mayor. Three of her ancestors were Fellows of St John's and her father was a great-nephew of the philosopher John Grote. He was Senior Classic, a Fellow of King's and (like her husband, her brother and son- in-law) an Apostle. Her aunt Flora (F.M. Mayor) was a novelist, the author of The Rector's Daughter, while her mother, a playwright, was a Meinertzhagen, and Beatrice Webb was an aunt.

Brought up in progressive circles, she was sent to Bedales, where she became head girl (a distinction which delighted her devoted friend Arthur Marshall, the connoisseur of schoolgirl novels). At Newnham she was the most celebrated actress of her day at a time when women had just been invited to perform in the ADC and the Marlowe Society. Indeed she seemed scarcely ever to be off the boards even in the vacations. Nothing pleased her more in old age than to recount the triumphs and comicalities of these amateur productions.

Some of her left-wing friends considered her mastery of the dialectic to be inadequate: to her great relief she was not pressed to join the Communist Party. During the Second World War she worked for MI5 and became assistant to Victor Rothschild, in anti-sabotage operations. His first marriage had ended, and in 1946 they married.

For 15 years they lived at Merton Hall on the Backs and then, when St John's College bought the house, they were granted a lease to build a house on Herschel Road where their children grew up. The eldest, Emma, held academic posts at MIT and Paris before being elected a Fellow of King's; the second daughter, Victoria, became a lecturer at Queen Mary College, London; and her son, Amschel, entered N.M. Rothschild & Sons.

She was a beauty, appealing and serene - though beneath the surface she was always anxious. Anxious to please Victor and smooth his life. But if she was self-effacing she had a life of her own. She was a trustee of the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and before that a JP, Chairman of the Bench, lecturer at the Institute of Criminology and she sat on Home Office boards about penal reform. Victor was particularly proud when she was the first woman to read a lesson at the Christmas Eve carol service at King's.

The beau monde was not her world. Clothes, jewels, smart parties meant nothing to her, but at whatever cost to her nerves she was hostess to the great and the good, French cousins and Israeli politicians and scientists that Victor brought into her life. What was central to her was family and friends - she was particularly close to her brother Andreas. The most intimate friends were Dadie Rylands whom she cosseted in his nineties; the Nobel Prizeman and Master of Trinity, Alan Hodgkin, and his enchanting American wife; the Labour life peers Pat Llewelyn-Davies and Nora David; and at Oxford Aline Berlin and Stuart Hampshire, an old colleague from MI5 days. The beaming face of welcome as she greeted those dear to her has now vanished into the night.

Tess Rothschild was an early friend of the Independent, writes James Fergusson. She saw immediately the possibilities of the new newspaper, and was enthusiastic in her advice if, as always, tentative in its delivery. She wryly enjoyed playing the game of matching obituarist to subject, but was down-to-earth on questions such as where the television listings should be sited. Editors ignore these questions at their peril.

Tess lived so long in the shadow of the formidable Victor that her own peculiar virtues often went unrecognised. She was, those who knew said, as intelligent as he was, but she was diffident and submissive where he could be ferocious and assertive; and where he had a deliberate charm and the extraordinary confidence of his name and wealth she had a gentleness and an open curiosity which endeared her as a friend to many.

Her curiosity extended to her grandchildren, to whom she was devoted. She viewed them with amiable puzzlement, as though they were animals in the wild. She was not sure what they might do next, but she was keen to watch and see. The histrionic activities of the eldest of them, Kate, who would put on a play for her at the drop of a hat, she found particularly pleasing.

An 80th birthday for others might have been the occasion for a large party. Instead she spent hers last year quietly in Suffolk with two of her children and was horrified by having to blow out candles on a cake. She was teased then into some rare confessions of autobiography, about her childhood and Bedales, about the Bloomsberries of her youth and working for Jonathan Cape before the war; about entering Paris (as a member of the counter- intelligence group, she was one of the first women to do so) with the Allied forces after the liberation.

Victor Rothschild records in one of his books the step-by-step dismantling of a bomb masquerading as a crate of onions. Tess herself was appointed MBE for throwing a bomb off a bridge. But she didn't tell that story.

Teresa Georgina Mayor, wartime intelligence officer: born London 10 September 1915; married 1946 Victor, third Baron Rothschild (died 1990; one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 29 May 1996.

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