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A square peg

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

15 March 2003

12:00 AM

ELUSIVE ROTHSCHILD Kenneth Rose

Weidenfeld, pp.338, 20

In life, it helps to be called Rothschild. Victor Rothschild discovered this well before he became associated in the public mind with think tanks and spycatchers. Visiting the United States as a 29-year-old Cambridge academic in 1939, he was received by President Roosevelt, as well as by the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary and the Director of the FBI. Although an MI5 officer of only middling rank, he entertained the prime minister to dinner in wartime in a private room at the Savoy Hotel. At a humbler level than this, he made it his business to know an astonishing range of civil servants and politicians, artists and writers, journalists, lawyers and academics.

It was another world, in which men were appointed to public positions because people knew them, and knew them to be able. Of course, such a system is unfair to applicants, not all of whom will be known to the right people. But it has existed overtly or covertly in most advanced political societies. In England it has produced both the best and the worst public servants in our history. It is an interesting question whether we were, on balance, better served by it than by the more transparent processes that have replaced it. Not every one wants to know the answer to that question. But for those who do Victor Rothschild is an ideal test case. He was the great master of the establishment network. He used the wealth and reputation of his family to cultivate men of influence. He charmed them. He earned their respect. He put them in his debt. He was a man whom people knew.

His biographer Kenneth Rose writes of him with an affection which was obviously widely shared. Yet it would be difficult to say, on the strength of this book, that Victor Rothschild was a happy man. He comes over as a brooding obsessive, full of introspective rumination. He carried the resentments of an unsuccessful first marriage about with him like uncollected lost property for nearly half a century after it ended in divorce. His relations with his children were a disaster. He collected rare and beautiful books, but had no interest in literature ‘unless in manuscript or printed on uncut pages between original boards’. He was generous to a degree, but often resented the recipients of his largesse. He owned paintings but seemed largely indifferent to them. He enjoyed the pleasures of wealth, punctuating his life with good meals and bottles of Ch


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