1. Little Orphan Mayer
almost impossible to meet a present-day Rothschild without first meeting his forefathers. The hall of his house and the anteroom of his office invariably teem with paintings, busts, reliefs, sometimes even small monuments, of ancestors. All these Valhallas are curiously incomplete:
of the dynasty's founder no likeness is known, although Mayer Rothschild could have afforded, toward the end of his life, the finest brush strokes money can buy.
Still, the very absence of a solemn portrait fleshes out the impression contemporaries have handed down. It is a picture quite different from those of the squat, relentless, monstrously practical geniuses he fathered. The patriarch was a tall, gentle person with a scholar's hunch to his narrow shoulders. In his smile there hovered a not very businesslike twinkle.
A strange dream must have stirred inside the man; something prompted him to consistently peculiar choices. The most peculiar of all resulted, one spring day of 1764, in his return to his native Frankfurt on the Main.
Mayer's ancestors had long been
small merchants in the town ghetto. But his best prospects lay elsewhere. As the
brightest in a brood of children, he had been sent to a Yeshiva near Nurnberg to
become the family pride---a rabbi. He studied well, but briefly. Both his
parents died, and with them the source of tuition. Luckily some relatives
secured for young Mayer an apprenticeship in the Jewish banking house of
Oppenheimer at Hannover.
Another lad in his position would have clung to just that city. Germany was still a patchwork of principalities, each with laws unto itself. In contrast to Frankfurt, Hannover tolerated Jews---tolerably. Mayer did well. His path was clear: to stay at Oppenheimer's; to advance; to become chief clerk; and, with God's help, possibly even to die a partner. Instead, Mayer went home. He did the wrong thing and became immortal.
Yet when he re-entered Frankfurt that spring day, not a shred of grandeur greeted him, only petty humiliation. Crossing the river Main, he had to pay Jew toll. From afar he could see, and smell, the quarter where he had been born twenty years earlier. The ghetto brimmed along a single dark alley, just twelve feet broad. It stretched, as Goethe later said, "between the city wall and a trench."
On his way Mayer could not escape the street urchins whose favorite amusement was to shout, "Jew, do your duty!"---whereupon the Jew had to step aside, take off his hat, and bow. Having thus entertained the local children, Mayer reached the heavy chains with which soldiers manacled the Judengasse (Jew Street) every night.
Inside, the ghetto was not very encouraging either. Shops spilled heaps of secondhand clothes and soiled household goods into the alley; this welter reflected an ordinance that barred Frankfurt Jews from farming, from handicrafts, even from dealing in nobler goods such as weapons, silk or fresh fruit.
And the young Jewish girls Mayer
encountered---they, too, were subject to the stern hand of the gentile. Another
city edict limited the Jews to five hundred families and to no more than twelve
marriages a year.
Even when Mayer reached his own block and an old friend hailed him with "Heh, Rothschild!" that very word could only be a reminder that he really had no family name at all. It was a privilege his race did not possess. To invent some sort of identification, Jews often used the house signs which predated numbered addresses. Mayer's ancestors had once lived in a house with a red shield (Rothschild) at the more prosperous end of Jew Street. The name still stuck, though the family had declined to a danker, humbler place behind the Sign of the Saucepan.
It was at the Saucepan that Mayer finally turned in. He walked through a gloomy and littered court to the back-yard quarters where his brothers Moses and Kalmann ran a secondhand shop. It was here that he reached the end of his journey and the beginning of an epic.
2. A Dreamer in the Ghetto
In the damp quarters of the Saucepan, Mayer Amschel proceeded to toil patiently for years. And at this point we must ask: Did he really foresee the advantage of sacrificing a bright and orderly progress in a Hannover counting house for the sake of a dark hole in Frankfurt's Jew Street? Had he understood the opportunity sleeping in his native city? Did he know that the local lord, young Prince William of Hesse-Hanau, was a plutocrat among princes; that at William's court a financial empire was being built which would need financial viceroys?
Did the dream really descend
through the narrow roof and touch Mayer's thought at night?
But in daylight---what a distance between Mayer and a prince! In the daylight he was one of three brothers in caftans, rooting about among old chests, hip-deep in high-grade junk and low-grade antiques. He couldn't have afforded one horse of the many splashing mud against ghetto walls as they sped to William's castle at Hanau.
As time went on, it appeared that Mayer would not even be able to afford a saddle. He had begun to develop, with more enthusiasm than profit, a new department in the secondhand store: he traded in old coins. The years in the Yeshiva still lived in him. He was a rabbi manque and carried on his bent back old racial longings for poetry and lore. The dinars and thalers he now bought up; the obscure mintages from Russia, from the Palatine and from Bavaria; these he could analyze, annotate, interpret, explain, de scribe, relate---but not sell.
Or so it seemed at first. In Jew Street there was too great a need for current money to bother with the retired kind. Nor were Christian burghers more receptive to such trinkets. It was necessary to go farther, into the manors and castles around Frankfurt. Mayer ventured forth. After all, he had the shadow of a connection; back in Hannover he had run errands for a General von Estorff, now attached to the court of Prince William at Hanau.
And the General deigned to remember. Mayer found that the General's courtier friends showed a nice interest in his quaint coins and heirlooms. They listened to his surprisingly learned numismatic chatter. They were amused by the ghetto music with which he celebrated his wares.
They fingered the catalogue
written with such loving flourishes. And then they bought!
They bought again from time to time. Mayer, emboldened, sent his curlicue-embellished catalogues to princes and princelings all around. One day he was ushered into the presence of William himself. His Highness, legend claims, had just won at chess and therefore regarded the world kindly. Mayer sold him a handful of his rarest medals and coins. It was the first transaction of a Rothschild with a chief of state.
He returned to Jew Street, triumphant but not rich. He had thoughts of marriage, but the upkeep of his family could not depend on random euphoria in high places. So Mayer instituted in the House at the Saucepan a Wechselstube---that is, a rudimentary bank where the multifarious currency of the Germanies could be exchanged. The fairs held in Frankfurt brought all sorts of ducats, florins, carolins and what-nots into town. From this diversity Mayer now steadily profited.
He became good son-in-law material. One began to see him quite often over at the home of Gutele Schnapper, a small but energetic seventeen-year old, whose father kept shop at the good end of Jew Street. The dowry here promised to be fair. Gutele was sweet, her beef stew excellent. Could a nice young Jew ask more?
Mayer did. Those old coins and the high gentlemen who bought them. . . . Again the dream stirred sotto voce and further bent his shoulders. Again he rejected the sound bourgeois way to merely sound success. He did not use the exchange profits to enlarge the Wechselstube, his primary source of income. The money was invested in the numismatic trade.
Mayer bought out some needy coin collectors. With his newly bolstered line he attracted the Duke Karl August
(Goethe's patron at Weimar) and
other spectacular customers paying drab prices. He sold consistently, if
sparsely, to his lord, William. And he enjoyed himself.
His brothers---who pursued the solid, stodgy used-goods department of their common business---could never quite fathom that persistent smile in Mayer's beard. They watched him, puzzled. How he hovered over his catalogues! How carefully he had them printed now, in complicated Gothic letters! How he kept revising their elaborate title pages, how he worked on their phrasing which, even for those days, seemed a bit odd and archaic. He was, the brothers thought, like a Talmudist writing a book.
And indeed, Mayer really began to write. They were letters of practical import, petitions to various local princes. Yet their convoluted charm and their painstaking love of formalities, sometimes lapsing into ghetto idiom---all that seemed typical Mayer.
"It has been my particular high and good fortune," he would begin, 'to serve your lofty princely Serenity at various times and to your most gracious satisfaction. I stand ready to exert all my energies and my entire fortune to serve your lofty princely Serenity whenever in future it shall please you to command me. An especially powerful incentive to this end would be given me if your lofty princely Serenity were to distinguish me with an appointment as one of your Highness' Court Factors. I am making bold to beg for this with the more confidence in the assurance that by so doing I am not giving any trouble; while for my part such a distinction would lift up my commercial standing and be of help to me in so many other ways that I feel certain thereby to make my way and fortune here in the city of Frankfurt."
And sure enough, one day, on September 21, 1769, passers-by in the poor end of Jew Street had something new to look at. A stooped young man with a black beard was nailing a sign onto the Saucepan house.
It bore the arms of Hesse-Hanau, and underneath proclaimed in gilt characters: M. A. ROTHSCHILD, BY APPOINTMENT COURT FACTOR TO HIS SERENE HIGHNESS, PRINCE WILLIAM OF HANAU.
Now, a factorship was a
commonplace honor. The appointment only confirmed publicly that the appointee
had done business with the court. It carried no obligations on the part of the
prince, gave no magic fillip to Mayer's career.
Yet it created a certain excitement in the neighborhood. The Saucepan landlord was impressed and agreed to sell a quarter-share of the house to the three brothers-something Mayer had long wanted. Gutele's father, hitherto reluctant, let her become the new dignitary's wife. The title also exempted its owner from a few of the disadvantages from which Jews suffered; a kind of passport, it made traveling a little easier.
Whenever Mayer passed the front of the Saucepan, he lingered for a moment and played his odd smile over the plaque. Gutele began to bear him children, and he even held his babies up to the sign, explaining the escutcheon and the lettering. His brothers smirked. His wife was busy cooking and washing. But the tots in his arms stared at the plaque with serious eyes. They seemed to recognize it as the first fragment of an enormous fulfillment.
3. Mayer's Serenity
The young prince who conferred the
distinction --- a supporting player in the Rothschild drama---was an interesting
man. Despite the relatively small size of his domain, William had blood as blue
as any monarch in Europe. A grand-son of George II of England, a cousin of
George III, he was also a nephew of the King of Denmark and brother-in-law of
the King of Sweden. Obviously his relatives were doing well. What made them even
more important to William---and what gave him a signal part in Mayer
Rothschild's story---was the fact that just about the entire collection of
majesties owed money to little Hanau.
When it came to money, this nabob, whose crest had been famous in Germany since the Middle Ages, was sharper than next year's parvenu. He was the first great royal burgher. Like his father, Landgrave Frederick of Hesse-Cassel, William trafficked in valor. But the son squeezed out of this commodity a good deal more than had papa. William conscripted his male subjects and processed them for the auction block. He refined and perfected his troops; he shined and sharpened them on the parade grounds; he made sure of the officers' pigtails and the enlisted men's muskets. And when a batch was ripe and enticingly packaged, he sold the lot to England, which used "the Hessians" to keep peace in the Colonies.
William's merchandising of the peacekeepers brought him enormous wealth. Every time a Hessian was killed, the prince received extra compensation to soothe him for the victim's trouble. The casualties mounted, and therefore his cash. This he loaned out, with shrewd lack of prejudice, to just the right people---candlestick makers with impeccable credit ratings or kings who paid interest in the form of favors. Between the influx of royal dispensations and bourgeois thalers, he became the richest ruler in Europe. Quite probably he amassed the greatest personal fortune between the Fuggers and---the Rothschilds.
In a life so austerely filled with
business, William knew only one avocation: adultery. Even to that enterprise he
applied himself with, one might say, touching conscientiousness. In addition to
the three children by his official wife, the Princess Royal of Denmark, he sired
at least twenty-three illegitimate offspring by other consorts. They were all
very soigne bastards, with patents of nobility purchased by William from his
august debtor, Emperor Francis of Austria.
An indirect consequence of one of Serenity's liaisons helped strengthen the so-far tenuous bond between him and Mayer Rothschild. The eight children of Frau von Ritter-Lindental, one of his fertile mistresses, had a tutor named Buderus; and Buderus' son Carl attached himself to the court as a treasury official. Young Carl, whom we will encounter again, soon endeared himself to the prince's thriftiness. According to a chronicler, he conceived a plan "for increasing the milk profits from one of the prince's dairies by the simple expedient of forbidding the practice . . . of omitting fractions of a heller [penny] in the accounts. Young Buderus showed that this would increase the revenue by 120 thalers. This discovery appealed so strongly to the prince . . . that he entrusted Buderus with the accounts of his private purse in addition to his normal duties."
It was Buderus who helped invent the Hanau salt tax, out of which Serenity's multitudinous progeny was supported. And it was Buderus who began to be quite interested in Mayer Amschel, appearing at Hanau every so often with quaint wares. Buderus liked the Jew. He liked, as well, the rare coins he got as holiday presents. There were many holidays in the year. Through Buderus, Mayer's Wechselstube was given a few of Serenity's London drafts for discount---that is, for cashing. Rothschild had at last broken into state banking.
But in a tiny and insignificant way. Prince William was not at all aware of Jew Mayer.
He just liked to scatter his
foreign bills of exchange among as many discounters as possible; a concentrated
dumping might depress the exchange rate. Buderus could help Mayer to a few
further footling transactions; then the flow seemed to stop altogether. An event
occurred which made even greater the gulf between low little Mayer and the high
William's father died. In 1785 his Serenity succeeded to the immense possessions, to the palace, and to the title of Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. William's retinue---complete with wife, mistress, scions, bastards, courtiers, and all---left Hanau and thus the vicinity of Frankfurt. The whole splendid court settled into the great palace of Wilhelmshohe at Cassel.
That same year Mayer and his wife Gutele pushed their pots and barrels to a somewhat larger ghetto house, this one with a green shield: an obscure, cluttered, piddling migration within Jew Street, worlds below the princely progress from Hanau to Wilhelmshohe. Yet it was Mayer's, not William's, journey that ended in a landmark meaningful to our day.
4. A Dynasty Aborning
In his old age Mayer looked back
on his life and confessed that the 1780's were his favorite years. He was in his
own forties then, and the decade had a kind of homey, cheerful cast. On the one
hand, the fury which was to raise the Rothschilds to The Rothschilds still bided
its time. On the other hand, they had shaken off the ghetto's more soiled and
The ugly back yard at the Saucepan lay behind them.
The Green Shield was a much finer house. It fronted the street, rose three stories high and expressed Mayer's standing as an established merchant. True, here as everywhere in the ghetto space was scarce. The Green Shield, though tall, was narrow, its rooms small and dark. Two bedrooms must serve the parents and their constantly growing brood (twenty children were born, ten survived). Cupboards had to be wedged under the steep, creaking staircases, and a few were built into the wall.
It was not a quiet existence, either. Outside, Jew Street surged and screamed. Inside, staircases and flooring, both venerable, groaned. Every time the front door opened, an ancient bell clanged. It had, during its lifetime, warned not only of customers but also of pogroms and police.
The bell sent Mayer scuttling a hundred times a day. He was busier than ever. To maintain the house, to support the family, he had added a dry-goods counter to his regular business---the coins, the Wechselstube, and the secondhand trade. No one shared the burden, for brother Kalmann had died in 1782, while brother Moses had withdrawn. Mayer sweated through all these struggling departments and smiled his odd smile.
Indeed, he found increasing cause for contentment here. The store, with its more spacious quarters, invited more attractive customers. Schonche, the eldest child, who sat behind the cashier's desk, was given a new dress. Mayer soon rid his place of the disorder of the used-goods trade. Eventually he dealt not only in cotton but also in wine and tobacco, and the dignity as well as the aroma of these wares pervaded the whole building.
Also on the ground floor was the kitchen, a mere twelve by five feet large and with a hearth just big enough for a single pot. Next to it stood---extraordinary luxury!---a pump. The Rothschilds were among the blessed few in Jew Street who needn't leave their four walls to get drinking water.
The kitchen, of course,
constituted Gutele's province as mistress of the house. So did the carefully
kept living room upstairs. (Many years later it was to be called "The Green
Room" because of the color of its faded upholstery and because Gutele stubbornly
persisted in living and sitting in state there while her sons reigned over
Europe from their palaces.)
On Saturday evenings, when prayer was done at the synagogue, Mayer liked to inveigle the rabbi into his house. They would bend toward one another on the green upholstery, sipping slowly at a glass of wine, and argue about first and last things deep into the night. Even on work days, when Mayer had finished with his coins and cottons and drafts, he was apt to take down the big book of the Talmud and recite from it in happy Hebrew singsong while the entire family must sit stock-still and listen.
But Mayer was not just bookish. The Green Shield had a kind of terrace looking out on the back yard. Since Jews were not allowed to set foot in public gardens, this served as the family recreation ground. Here Mayer played with the children while Gutele, like the good Jewish wife she was, sat quietly in the background, knitting, sewing, crocheting, mending. On the terrace Mayer showed his daughters how to tend some grass and flowers and talked in fanciful tropes about the various plants---almost as though they were old coins. Here, too, he celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (which must not be held under a roof) beneath pine twigs through which the ghetto stars were shining.
The building had another feature to which he resorted just as often but much more circumspectly. On the other side of the small yard lay the counting house---the first, primitive Rothschild bank, covering all of nine square feet.
It contained a large iron chest
with a mechanism so contrived that it could not be opened on the side with the
pad-lock but only by lifting the lid from the back. Yet the chest served largely
as decoy. The walls were riddled with secret shelves, and a trap door led down
into a hidden cellar which was quite separate from the "official" house cellar.
Equally separate was the purpose of this second cavern. In it were stored
documents, contracts, deeds and, after a while, strange papers relating to his
Highness, Landgrave William of Hesse-Cassel---seemingly so distant.
Invisible bonds began to connect an underground hole behind the Green Shield with the great towers of Wilhelmshohe. Few knew of the tie while it was being forged. And no one suspected that the tycoon prince would be eclipsed by the ghetto peddler; or that the Jew Street family would, within Serenity's own lifetime, surpass by far his own fabulous wealth; would drown the fame of his ancient name with their own; would, in fact, reduce him to a thoroughbred steppingstone.
Next Five flying carpets