"The Rothschilds have an 'image' that is very special and very personal," Guy de Rothschild writes. "They have become the proverbial symbol of wealth, a wealth that is evidenced, with no pretense of guilt, in their style of living." This certainly is true, but it is equally true that inside this seemingly monolithic family there is considerable human variety. One need only examine the memoirs of Guy and his cousin Philippe to see vivid evidence that you can't put a Rothschild in a pigeonhole.
Both men are sons of the century's first decade -- Philippe was born in 1902, Guy in 1909 -- and both, being Rothschilds, have had the wherewithal to enjoy luxuries that the rest of us have considerable difficulty imagining; both served de Gaulle's Free French during World War II, and both have been married twice, in each case far more happily the second time. Beyond that, though, and a mutual liking for fast automobiles, the two seem to have precious little in common. Philippe is a lusty, self-confident adventurer who boasts, more or less winningly, of his philandering and has devoted most of his working hours, to the extent he has worked at all, to the management of the family's famous vineyards at Mouton; Guy, by contrast, is a reserved fellow who says he has lost "a lot of precious time . . . in hesitation and experimentation" and has spent his career in the more predictable Rothschild realm of high finance.
This being the case, it will come as no great surprise that Philippe has written the far more interesting book -- though actually he hasn't written it at all, since his "autobiography" is "by" the British writer Joan Littlewood. Be that as it may, "Baron Philippe" is an amusing bit of fluff from a person who says, "I'm a peasant myself, a peasant in a silk nightshirt if you like. . . . I like the smell of fresh woman, horseflesh and garlic, and my dogs sleep on my bed."
What with the dogs and the women and Philippe himself, that bed must get pretty crowded at times. He is, by his own immodest account, a womanizer whose conquests are too numerous to list and who operates by only two rules: "I never deflower and I do not persist if the lady doesn't want me -- there are plenty more fish." Truth to tell, though, his amorous adventures are less interesting than his enological ones. When Philippe took over the management of Mouton in the 1920s, it was run-down and neglected; under his direction it became one of the world's great wineries, producer of the celebrated Cha teau Mouton Rothschild and Mouton Cadet. It was Philippe, in fact, who invented the system of cha teau-bottling and thus helped Bordeaux acquire its particular cachet.
Cousin Guy has nothing quite so glamorous to his credit, and unfortunately his book reflects this. It was his management of Rothschild Fre res that permitted that notable French establishment to survive the war and then, in the late 1960s, enter the entirely new field of commercial banking as the Banque Rothschild; for this no doubt he will occupy a larger and more honored place in the family history than Philippe, but banking is, alas, a less interesting subject than wine or sex, not to mention the combination of the two, and this is a liability from which "The Whims of Fortune" never quite recovers.
The book's most interesting sections have to do with Guy's childhood, which was privileged but not entirely sunny, and his activities during the war; the former provides an appealing picture of life in the great cha teaus and town houses of France, while the latter leaves little doubt of Guy's courage and resourcefulness in extremely trying circumstances. He seems to have spent his entire life attempting to live up to the Rothschild tradition, which he describes with obvious pride:
"It isn't merely the fact that they knew how to create and conserve a fortune. It's having dared to undertake the most difficult enterprises, remaining true to themselves through changing times and fashions. They have never dreamed of being ashamed of their wealth nor of disguising their way of life, no more than they have ever failed to assume their roles and responsibilities as Jews."
This is what both Guy and Philippe have done, though each very much in his own way. Perhaps it is revealing that Guy receives only one perfunctory mention in Philippe's book, and Philippe only one perfunctory mention in Guy's. They may be Rothschilds to the core, but neither seems to have much time for the other -- which raises the felicitous suggestion that, when you get right down to it, the Rothschilds are just like every other family.