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Poor little rich boys

Give them a fortune, and they'll use it to mess up their lives. What's a parent to do, leave it to charity? Annoyingly enough, the casualties of wealth prove it's the only decent thing to do.

Anita Chaudhuri
Wednesday 02 June 1999 23:02 BST

The atmosphere at the memorial service for the millionairess Hilda Robinson was reportedly brimming with fond remembrance. Everyone was singing her praises, especially her five children, with whom she'd enjoyed such a close relationship.

Events took a grim turn though, with the reading of a note which accompanied her will. Mrs Robinson, who helped establish the TV rental firm Rediffusion with her husband Joseph, left an estate of nearly pounds 1.4m. Her family was surprised to learn that she had decided to do them all a favour by disinheriting them. "I love all my family very deeply but, noticing the great unhappiness that inherited wealth has brought to my family, I do not wish to leave any money directly to my children as they have all received reasonable provision and first-class education in my lifetime."

Robinson left a mere pounds 5,000 to each of her 32 grandchildren and great- grandchildren, hardly enough to transform them into a tribe of Little Lord or Lady Fauntleroys. The remaining pounds 1.2m has been donated to orphans and church charities.

One of her daughters, Elaine Macaulay, is a retired teacher who lives in a two-bedroomed semi in Somerset. "She was simply expressing what she felt - that money would not bring happiness to people's lives. You can understand that as her daughter, I find this distressing because no money was left to me."

Was Mrs Robinson, described by one of her grandchildren as "an astute and ruthless Margaret Thatcher-style businesswoman", protecting her children from the curse that fortune can bestow on a family? A glance at the recent history of Britain's wealthiest aristocratic families reveals a recurring tale of young heirs who grow up to be more interested in the kind of line you sniff up your nose than one you can trace in Burke's Peerage.

It must be tough being the heir to a family fortune: centuries of prestige and responsibility weighing on their heads. And all that worry, like where to park your Lear Jet, how to find a drug dealer who will operate beyond the perimeter of a housing estate in Kilburn, or how to find a girlfriend who is posh but doesn't have a column in a Sunday newspaper.

But after a number of upper-class casualties, monied families are becoming more clued up about the perils of fortune. Earlier this year, the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland went to court to block the inheritance of their 14-year-old son, Earl Percy, claiming that he could fall prey to kidnappers and spongers if he received so much money at a young age.

They succeeded in deferring payment of pounds 1m and a pounds 250,000-a-year income from a family trust so that he wouldn't receive a great slab of money at the tender age of 18. "He needs protection from all the risks, vices, pitfalls and dangers which afflict young men in these circumstances," said the Duchess. The hearing made reference to John Jermyn, the Marquess of Bristol, who inherited a large sum on his 21st birthday and plunged into a career of addiction which ended in his death aged 44 in January this year.

After the death of the sixth Marquess, Jermyn took over the family estate. He was handsome and charming and knew how to party. In 10 years, he squandered pounds 7m on drugs and, as his spending spiralled out of control, he was forced to hand over the family pile to the National Trust. In 1993 he spent 10 months in jail for possession of heroin and cocaine. "He was the most debauched person I ever met," commented a friend after his death.

He had a habit of crashing cars and, when he lost his licence, rather than resort to public transport he simply flew his helicopter. One friend remembers flying with him on a cocktail of vodka, heroin and methadone.

Jamie Blandford, who also experienced a downwardly mobile beginning, applauded the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland's decision. "Parliament dictates that we become men at 18 and inheritance was consequently adjusted. But how can a law decide at what precise age one becomes strong and wise enough to cope with a fortune?" His hedonistic lifestyle earned him headlines of the "disgraced junkie peer" variety and he went to prison for stealing drugs and forging prescriptions. The trustees of his estate then intervened and he lost the right to inherit Blenheim Palace in 1984.

Benjamin de Rothschild, only son of the late Edmond de Rothschild, was a classic case of great expectations gone astray. Despite being groomed for greatness from a young age, as a teenager he skipped university and instead headed for Los Angeles with dreams of being a film producer. In LA he started taking drugs, and ended up on heroin. Meanwhile, he failed to make it into Hollywood's charmed circle and bombed as a film-maker.

"Being a Rothschild isn't enough. You have to prove yourself. The dynastic pressures are virtually inescapable," commented a friend at the time. However, when his father died, leaving him heir to a fortune of pounds 1.5bn, he was forced to clean up his act. "He is a Rothschild, he either had to win or walk away," said the friend.

In some cases, the pressures of inheritance give way to creative expression. Dan Macmillan, heir to the Macmillan publishing fortune and great grandson of Harold, is a case in point. "When I left school it was expected that I would go to university. And yes, there was an undercurrent of pressure that eventually I would join the family business. But at school I was always the one hiding from rugger practice. I was the wimpy one."

Macmillan rebelled and went to art school, moved to New York and eventually put his aristocratic looks to good use, modelling sexy trousers for Alexander McQueen's catwalk shows. He now earns his living as an artist, exploring the links between painting and pornography, and as a designer of his own macVillan clothing label.

"The best thing about what I do now is earning my own income. People think that just because your family has money, you can do what you like. But you can't. I'm glad that I can support myself and follow my own projects without being accountable to anyone else."

Hugo Vickers, biographer of the Guinness family, has his own theories about how fortune destroys even the strongest dynasties. "Like many upper- class families who have inherited a lot of money and no responsibilities, the Guinnesses never had to work. Everything they wanted, they could have, easily. And for them, this has been a terrible thing. The money has led them into areas where things go wrong, such as alcoholism."

Certainly, the Guinness family has been riven by addiction and strife. One of the more colourful members of the clan, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a much-married alcoholic, initiated a lawsuit against her own mother over the family inheritance.

If Hilda Robinson's family feel like suing, they might reap some comfort from these sad tales of overindulged, rich youth. Ghastly though it is to admit, perhaps their late mother's puritanical gesture was the right one.

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