GROWING UP, Hannah Rothschild DREAMED OF ESCAPING THE FAMILY NAME SHE HAD INHERITED. BUT A SHOCKING REVELATION ON A TRIP TO NEW YORK MADE HER REALISE IT WAS TIME TO EMBRACE HER ANCESTRY
With a powerful name comes great responsibility: Hannah Rothschild details what it’s like to live with a surname that everyone knows
Ibet you wish you were a real one,’ the shopkeeper said, his eyes flicking from me to the surname on my bank card. And then, just like that, he broke into song: ‘If I were a rich man,’ he trilled. ‘All day long I’d biddy-biddy-bum, biddy-bum…’ Nearly two centuries after escaping from a ghetto in Frankfurt, where 13 siblings lived in a house measuring 3.6m wide, the Rothschilds have become synonymous with great wealth, the name carrying as much weight and history as that of Rockefeller or Getty. They worked their way, largely through banking, into the warp and weft of society and business. Over time, they moved beyond finance into science and academia – and excelled in those areas, too. When I looked at these illustrious achievements, I felt lacking. I knew how fortunate it is to be born into wealth, to have extraordinary opportunities, connections, health and education – but I had no idea how to make the most of it. With little to compare it to, I thought my childhood was like everyone else’s. We had a weekend house and I spent every spare minute horseriding. I didn’t see a lot of my father who, at that time, ran the family banking business NM Rothschild & Sons. He left early for work and often came back after we were asleep. For special treats, we were taken to the ballet at the Royal Opera House, sitting in a private box and visiting his friends, the dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Lynn Seymour, in their dressing rooms after the performance. There was an endless parade of guests visiting our home – an eclectic mix of politicians, ballet dancers, painters, philosophers, businessmen, fashion designers and society figures. It was not unusual for us to have figures such as Isaiah Berlin, Oscar de la Renta or Margaret Thatcher sitting around our dining room table. Back then, I assumed this was normal. But then, I thought having a seven-generation family tree, a grandfather who had played cricket for Northamptonshire and kept an owl in his study, and a great uncle who rode a giant tortoise and whose carriage was pulled by a team of zebras was all normal, too. It was only at secondary school, through the taunts of my
peers and from reading history books, that I eventually realised my surname meant something. The irony was, I had the label but not the contents. My parents encouraged us to make our own way but, like other Rothschild women, I was barred from working for the family business. The founding father NM Rothschild had decreed that girls could be wives, mothers, bookkeepers or archivists, but they should not be employed at his bank. This ‘rule’ had stuck. I did however have extraordinary female role models: my great aunt Miriam educated herself and became a world-renowned entomologist. Her sister, Nica, fled to New York to devote her life to the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. My cousin Dollie, meanwhile, helped build the Knesset and Supreme Court in Israel and national institutions such as The Open University. At school, I was a middle-grade student with no particular interests or talents. I was lucky to scrape into the University of Oxford to study modern history. My grandfather called to ask which scholarship I’d won and, hearing it was just a place with no honours, shouted, ‘You are a disgrace to the family.’ He hung up and didn’t speak to me for four years. But at Oxford, few cared where you came from. Posh names counted for little. My peers included Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Hugh Grant, newspaper editor Geordie Greig, novelists Will Self and Jeanette Winterson, and entrepreneur Johnnie Boden. No one wanted to be linked to the past: they all wanted to change the future.
After university, I was desperate to work at the BBC – largely because the institution had nothing to do with my family. For months, all I got were rejection letters, enough to wallpaper a room. My father gave me a deadline: get a job by Christmas or he’d find me one. In December 1985 I landed a one-day contract, which turned into two months and then two years, at the BBC’s music and arts department. The BBC nurtured eccentric types and I felt entirely comfortable in that milieu. Starting as a researcher, I worked my way through the ranks to become a director and producer, working on provocative documentary feature films. As I progressed, I realised that I wasn’t hanging on to the coat-tails of my forebears; I was a successful filmmaker who just happened to come from a well-known family. An incident around that time served as a stark reminder that there was no escaping my background. During a filming trip in New York, I found that I had a ‘doppelgänger’ – a woman was pretending to be me to get invitations to social events and job interviews with financial institutions. For the first time, I realised that my name and identity weren’t something to deny; they were mine, my heritage, my future – and that was worth fighting for. I made changes, both mentally and physically. While I didn’t dress up to my name, I no longer felt the need to hide behind scruffiness. Achievements at work gave me newfound confidence. Interestingly, my family’s attitude towards me changed as I took ownership of our name. The elder statesmen began to include me at gatherings – which is not a given when girls are erased from the family tree. There was still no opening at the bank (not that I was interested) but I saw an opportunity in another of our family’s activities: philanthropy. I focused on public museums and arts organisations – including The National Gallery, where I became the first female chair of the trustees. On behalf of these institutions, I finally put my name to work using social and business events as a hunting ground to raise money. An unexpected consequence of this was the exposure to many different situations, issues and people. These encounters fed into my work as a writer. I’ve always kept a shoebox full of scraps, snatches of conversation, newspaper cuttings, postcards and ideas for stories. Approaching my 5Oth birthday, worried that I would never achieve my dream of writing a book, I took the box and laid out the contents on the floor. Rearranging the disparate pieces, I saw two narratives. One was my family story, the other was the germ of a novel. I started with a biography of my jazz-loving great aunt, which was published in 2O12. Understanding her complicated relationship with our family name was another way of navigating my present. In an attempt to break away from her background, Nica adopted her husband’s name and moved to the other side of the world. She didn’t succeed: the emotional and cultural ties were too strong. There are still challenges. I was trolled so mercilessly on Twitter by antisemites and conspiracy theorists that I deleted my account. Right now, there are several people impersonating me. But I have learned that I can’t control other people’s perceptions. I will never be able to persuade some people that gold doesn’t flow out of my bathroom taps and that my family isn’t trying to take over the world. Nevertheless, I am relieved that my daughters have chosen to use their father’s surname. I have spent so long negotiating the rapids of my name’s connotations, I am happy they will avoid these choppy waters. Recently I spotted a very famous film star sitting alone in a cafe, dressed in an old tracksuit and baseball cap. When he got up, he was much smaller and less handsome than I had imagined. He didn’t look at all like ‘the real one’; he was, I realised, just another person navigating the day. House Of Trelawney by Hannah Rothschild is out now
”AT UNI , POSH NAMES COUNTED FOR LITTLE. NO ONE WANTED TO BE LINKED TO THE PAST; THEY WANTED TO CHANGE THE FUTURE”