The name “Rothschild” conjures up for me images of unimaginable wealth. Aristocratic families are a big interest of mine, so when I saw this on NetGalley I requested it and somehow got both a print and an audio copy. I listened to the audio.
Starting in the 18th century in “Jewish ghetto” and ending in the late 1990s, this biography purports to tell the real story of the women behind the Rothschild men. We are promised that the women were more than mere wives and mothers. What did these women do as the wives and daughters of one of the world’s best known Jewish families? That is what the biography sets out to tell us. The family is compared to a royal family because they all hate each other but close ranks and form a united front in public–I loved that, even if I couldn’t stop and write out the exact quote. (NetGalley’s reading app doesn’t have any features and I forgot and downloaded to it and not Kindle, so it wasn’t easy to find it).
In the early years the women were more involved with the family business, but as time went on they fell into the normal society lady type charitable works. There is nothing unusual about a great “lady” helping with encouragement and money to improve the education of poor children, nor is there really anything unusual about them working to improve health conditions. It was unusual for anyone to take up the cause of Jewish “women of the night,” but as others were doing it for non-Jewish women of that profession I don’t really see it as that unique.
Fast-forward to the 20th Century. While various men of the family involved themselves in the late 19th Century with the Prince of Wales “Marlborough House” set, there was little remarkable about that, either. They had pots and pots of money. The Prince often needed it. Sir Ernest Cassel (Grandfather of Edwina Mountbatten) was another Jewish financier in the Marlborough House set.
Finally, somewhere around World War II or just after we get to some slightly more interesting activities. A Rothchild woman contributed to a report hoping to de-criminalize h o _ – se-u _; ! ty. Good thing, since at least one of the men had such proclivities. Miriam became an expert on fleas and other parasites. She was finally even welcomed by “professionals” for her extensive knowledge. Veronica, aka “Nica’ gets the lion’s share of the coverage–or rather her famous male associates to. Thelonious Monk and Charlie “Bird” Parker. The hose she built for jazz sessions was called “The Cat House.” And, she observed first hand a Jim Crow-era beating in New Castle, Delaware (a Civil War border state) that Monk endured.
Finally, another end-of-the-book Rothschild, discovers that motherhood isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Being rich and having discovered this, she got to write about it. Wow. I think Betty Friedan beat you to it, Sweetie, but …. Goodness knows it must be way harder to be a Mom with a ton of money in the 1990’s than in the stifling suburbia and low pay of the early 1950s!
Miriam, of flea fame, also did contribute in a very humanitarian way to the founding of Israel and the Zionist movement as led by the nation’s first President, Chaim Weizmann. That was very commendable and I would like to have heard more about that.
I’m being a bit snarky for a reason. There is so much MORE material in here (as there often is in such biographies of pre-21th Century women) about the men. And the man with the most coverage wasn’t even a Rothschild! He was Theolnious Monk, a great jazz musician. I love his music, his talent, but I came to read about how different the Rothschild women were. Instead I found out they did exactly the same sort of charity work as most other titled ladies of the era until about the time of World War II. Helping decriminalize you-know-what is very noteworthy. Also, Miriam certainly deserves praise for sticking to her studies and taking her naturalist studies to the professional level. (I loved that she included her son in her research)/
This is not a bad biography. I learned a lot. The prose is well written. It just didn’t profile enough about the women that was “exceptional.” I also found it very weird that they married cousins and it was even possible for an uncle to marry a niece–though not the very bold uncle whose announcement of such a marriage was one of the stories in the book. Too weird for words. Liberty Rothschild, the hidden “Rosemary Kennedy” of the family, deserved more attention, but alas, the records about her treatment were mostly burnt. I also like the appearance at the very, very end of Lady Bird Johnson and her “beautification” schemes with wildflowers. That was wonderful. She gave the world a gift–nice to see someone outside America, and with influence, admiring her work.
The Women of Rothschild by Natalie Livingstone