cover image Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time

Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time

Amos Elon. Viking Books, $24.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-86857-5

""Well, nobody gets anything for nothing,"" Mayer Amschel Rothschild wrote from Frankfurt to his 19-year-old son Jacob (soon to be James) in Paris. Learning his lessons well, the brilliant, energetic Jacob would outwit Napoleon's fiscal watchdogs, bankroll his nemesis, Wellington, to the immense profit of the Rothschilds and assist in the undoing of Bonapartist France. The elder Rothschild, born in Frankfurt's crowded, rank Judengasse ghetto in which he lived all his life, would leave his five indefatigable sons his vast fortune and his even vaster pride. Much of his correspondence and papers have disappeared; in 1938, the Nazis even attempted to destroy his tombstone, and the crescent of tenements in which he lived and worked with his shrewd, sturdy wife, Guttle, burned in several conflagrations. No portrait of him exists. Yet out of what survives in documentation and in the memories of contemporaries, Jerusalem-based journalist Elon (Herzl: A Biography) has reconstructed the remarkable life of the creator of a banking empire that flourished despite a pervasive anti-Semitism that denied Frankfurt Jews even the right to leave their walled-in dwellings at night. Born in 1744, Rothschild began as a teenage dealer in foreign coins and later branched into every aspect of money exchange, financing sovereigns, merchants and armies. Posting his sons to other financial centers, he had established, by his death in 1812, a European banking empire. Filling in documentary gaps with 57 evocative illustrations, many of them contemporary, Elon has fashioned a brief but memorable first biography of a near-mythical founding father. (Nov.)