Nick Foulkes: Can a big inheritance make children happy? Look at the Tetra Pak heirs

To some, the idea of great wealth being passed down to its creator's offspring offers a certain louche glamour. But there is nothing like money for distorting what really matters
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The Independent Online

It reads like something cooked up by Hunter S Thompson and Evelyn Waugh over a few lines of cocaine: food packaging heir, on bail with his wife for a drugs offence, allegedly leaps from a bedroom window in Chelsea moments before police batter down the locked door.

Lawyers acting for said food packaging heir deny that he jumped out the window. Who knows? Perhaps he lowered himself down gently on knotted sheets. Apparently voices were heard behind the door, but when it was flattened, only his wife was there.

The pebble that caused this ripple in the normally placid waters of London's super-rich? A car crash in Chiswick, from which an Audi was seen driving erratically... leading police to the bedroom door.

Were it not for the money, it would have been just another little brush with the law. But Hans Kristian Rausing is the heir to a reported £5.4bn fortune, and earlier this year he and his wife were bailed after wraps of heroin and crack were allegedly found by security staff when she visited the US embassy. More drugs were apparently found at the couple's house.

There was a time when I might have thought this sort of alleged behaviour rather dangerously cool: the idea of a potent mixture of narcotics and an inherited fortune would have excited me. But that was a long, long time ago, when I was in my teens, and even to admit it now I feel my toes curling in involuntary embarrassment. The truth is that now in my forties and middle-aged with children – just like the Rausings, pictured right – I find that for some unaccountable reason my admiration for crack-head fugitives from justice, however rich, has waned.

I used to think that, along with intelligence, charm and good looks, an inherited fortune was one of life's great blessings. It has taken me until this week to realise what a fallacy this is. I used to laugh when people said that being born with money was a curse (the Daily Mirror did indeed run a story valiantly headlined "The curse of the Tetra Pak dynasty"). My rationale was the cynical one that if you are going to be unhappy you might as well be unhappy in a villa in Barbados, a country house in 3,000 acres of the sort owned by Rausing or, indeed, in the Chelsea bedroom from which his lawyers say he did not jump.

What I have only just figured out is that if Rausing had actually needed to work for a living and support his family he might not have found himself in his current predicament. It appears that the Rausings are not bad people; there is a strong philanthropic tradition in the family and ironically, given the alleged events at the US embassy, Eva Rausing is involved in charity work around addiction.

I am not espousing the shrill, condemning morality of Middle England that is as much to do with enjoying a sense of Schadenfreude as it is about expressing disapproval.

I used to be a heavy drinker and it was certainly affecting my health and my family life. But it was only when I was told that my problem was such that it was going to impair my ability to earn a living that I took notice. However, when you stand to inherit billions – just how bad can things get? How much easier it must be to let life continue much as it did as a teenager with servants and employees to do all the mundane stuff.

And I suppose that this is what makes the image of affluent dissolution so perpetually beguiling: there is a furtive admiration for those who view themselves as above all that and live life on an extravagant and exotic scale.

The problem is that the tedious moments of life are those which make us adults: paying bills, waiting in queues to perform mundane bureaucratic tasks, stopping at the scenes of traffic accidents and so on.

The risk is that when large amounts of money cascade down the generations, reality takes on a different meaning. When the immediate wants of food and shelter are met, other issues crowd in, creating what can look like insanity: Marie Antoinette did not do the divine right of kings much good when she suggested that her starving subjects eat cake; the last of the ruling Romanovs were not exactly too much in touch with their subjects when they put their hope in the hirsute charlatan Rasputin.

The scapegrace heir to an old fortune is a familiar figure. The seventh Marquess of Bristol was one of the more colourful such characters. One anecdote recalls how cocaine and a cocktail shaker were part of his in-flight equipment when at the controls of his helicopter. Another tells how he once opened his fridge by blasting it with a shotgun. I never met him, but I think it safe to assume that the late Marquess was not someone who would have ever had much patience with the idea of queuing for half an hour in a Post Office to renew a tax disc or a TV licence.

Even a moderate amount of inherited money can prove lethal. The best man at my wedding, a good-looking man of great charm and kindness, enjoyed enough inherited money to enable him to give up working for a management consultancy firm when it became rather dull – something with which many can sympathise. After a few years he was found dead following a heroin overdose. The excitement of youth looks rather different when viewed from the pews in the chapel of a suburban cemetery.

While all this might seem romantic in a Byronic/rockstar mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know/Hope-I-die-before-I-get-old sort of way to a teenager, it would seem rather pathetic in a middle-aged couple with children. The Rausings are not some juvenile gilded version of Bonnie and Clyde; nor do they even have the fig leaf of youth or the artistic temperament of, say, the talented Amy Winehouse. They are middle-aged parents for whom inherited wealth seems to have proved a barrier to growing up and becoming responsible adults.

"What can I do? I'm just a father. What can I do?" is what the Daily Mirror reported Eva Rausing's father saying when the news broke of his daughter's investigation for drug offences. As a parent myself it is hard not to feel sympathy for his helplessness in the face of his child's predicament.

And it is a problem that more, rather than fewer, parents are likely to face. Despite the credit crunch, there is still an immense amount of money floating about. I heard recently of an apartment in Knightsbridge selling for nearly £40m. The other day a friend went to a Chelsea lunch and came away feeling slightly inferior, saying that she had been the only guest to have driven herself – and somehow I don't think the others had arrived by bus.

Not since the late 19th century in America has the world seen such colossal fortunes being made so quickly. And while the people who generate this affluence are largely safe to remain in charge of it – the founder of the Tetra Pak dynasty was probably more focused on perfecting his packaging than on getting wasted – their heirs may not be equipped for the responsibility of such huge amounts of money. Sometimes the twin devils of indolence and guilt make emotional cripples of those who, through no fault of their own, are not equipped to deal with unimaginable and unearned riches. Unlike cigarettes, huge fortunes do not come with health warnings.

The rhetorical question – what can I do? I'm just a father – has been answered by some billionaire parents in a most surprising way. More than 10 years ago, Forbes magazine reported Bill Gates saying: "One thing is for sure. I won't leave a lot of money to my heirs, because I don't think it would be good for them." Warren Buffett has expressed a similar disinclination to leave his children with too much money. The so-called Sage of Omaha has said: "The idea that you get a lifetime of privately funded food stamps based on coming out of the right womb strikes at my idea of fairness."

In certain cases something far more precious than mere social equality is at stake: namely the health and, if it is not too dramatic to say so, the lives of one's children.

Perhaps Hans Rausing Senior is pondering what his son might be doing now if he had taken the same decision as Gates and Buffett. My children will be relieved to learn that when they embark on adult life, they will do so unencumbered by Croesus-like riches.

Nick Foulkes is the author of 'The Carlyle', a history of the New York Hotel, published by Assouline