Baron Guy de Rothschild was the patriarch of the French branch of the famed Rothschild banking family and the founder of the United Jewish Fund, which he presided over for over three decades. It was under his leadership that the Rothschild’s Paris bank was rebuilt after it had been seized during World War II and again after a government takeover in the 1980s.
Baron Guy de Rothschild was born in Paris in 1909, the son of Baron Édouard de Rothschild (1868–1949), the head of the bank before Baron Guy, and the great-grandson of James, who founded the French branch of the Rothschild dynasty in 1812.
Rothschild was educated at the Lycée Condorcet and Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and by private tutors. He undertook military service with the cavalry at Saumur, and played golf for France. He won the Grand Prix de Sud-Ouest in 1948.
After attending law school, Baron Guy began working at the bank in 1931, at the beginning of a decade that would be politically tumultuous for the French Rothschild’s. Considered to be one of the Two Hundred Families who were said to control France, the family was subjected to many anti-Semitic attacks throughout the 1930s. The Popular Front government also nationalized the Rothschild’s railway investments during this time period.
Rothschild joined the executive board of the family's Compagnie des chemins de fer du Nord in 1933. In 1937, Guy de Rothschild married Alix Schey de Koromla, a member of an old Jewish-Hungarian family and his third cousin once removed. Two years later, with the outbreak of World War II, he was called up to serve as a young cavalry officer. Rothschild fought well in the first days of the war, winning a Croix de Guerre in northern France before he joined the British retreat from Dunkirk. After being evacuated to England, Rothschild returned immediately to France and was demobilized following the French defeat. He then took charge of the family’s office at La Bourbale, near Clermont-Ferrand.
Under the Fascist Vichy government, Rothschild’s father and uncles were stripped of their French nationality, removed from the register of the Légion d'honneur, and the family was forced to sell its possessions. Rothschild managed to persuade the buyers to grant options under which he would later be able to buy the family's interests back. Rothschild and his wife left France in 1941 for New York, where Rothschild’s parents had already relocated, and Baron Guy joined General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces. A year later, the couple’s first son, David, was born.
As part of the Free French Forces, Rothschild boarded the cargo ship, Pacific Grove, to travel back to Europe. His ship was torpedoed and sunk in March 1943, and he was rescued after spending 12 hours in the Atlantic. In England, he joined the staff of General Koenig at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force near Portsmouth.
Rothschild returned to the bank's offices at rue Laffitte in Paris in 1944 and reconstructed the family’s Banking and Business Empire. George Pompidou, who would later become President and Prime Minister of France, was recruited by Rothschild from a job as a teacher, and worked for him from 1953 to 1962, during which time he became the general manager of the Rothschild bank. The bank diversified, from investment management under De Rothschild Frères to the deposit-taking Banque de Rothschild, with branches throughout France. Rothschild was its president from 1968 to 1978. He retired as chairman of the bank in 1979.
When the bank was nationalized in 1981 by the socialist government of François Mitterrand, Rothschild left France in anger and moved temporarily to New York. There he helped run a small Rothschild family business. Rothschild was so disgusted about what France had once again done to his family, that before he left the country, he published a famous front-page article in Le Monde accusing the Socialist government of indulging French anti-Semites. Rothschild concluded the article, “A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterand – for me it’s enough.” Not only had the State seized control of the bank, but after merging the family’s holding company, Compagnie du Nord, with the bank in 1978, the State also gained the family’s stake in many of the mining and industrial interests that Rothschild had built.
In 1984, Rothschild’s son David and his cousin, Eric de Rothschild, received permission from the Socialist government to found a new bank. Banned from using the family name, the bank was named Paris Orléans Banque. With the election of Gaullist Jacques Chirac as French Prime Minister in 1986, the restrictions on the bank name were lifted. The bank was renamed Rothschild et Associes Banque and later Rothschild & Cie Banque.
In addition to his banking and business interests, Guy de Rothschild is also celebrated around the world for the family wine, Château Lafite Rothschild, as well as for his thoroughbred racehorses. He built up his father’s horse breeding and racing interests, winning the French Derby once, as well as many other major European derbies. Rothschild even served as the president of the French Union of Pureblood Horsebreeders for seven years.
Rothschild was also a well-known and respected Jewish philanthropist. In 1950, he founded the United Jewish Fund (UJF), a federation of about 200 Jewish social, educational, and cultural associations. He headed the UJF until 1982 at which time his son, David, assumed its leadership. David led the UJF until 2006 when he handed over the leadership to Pierre Besnainou, who is also the head of the European Jewish Congress. The UJF played a large part in restructuring the French Jewish community following World War II, when the collaborationist French government deported 75,000 French Jews. The fund also took on a major role in integrating Sephardic Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian Jews who immigrated to France in the 1950s and 1960s. This population now makes up seventy percent of the roughly 700,000 Jews in France.
After divorcing his first wife, Rothschild married Marie-Hélène van Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar in 1957. Similar to Rothschild’s first wife, Marie-Hélène was a distant cousin, but unlike his first wife, she was a Roman Catholic American-educated Dutch noblewoman. Because of his wife’s religion, Rothschild felt compelled to resign the presidency of the Jewish Consistory, the organization created in 1905 to represent French Jewry. The couple’s first son, Édouard, was born a year later.
Under Marie-Hélène’s influence, Rothschild restored the Château de Ferrières, the country home where he had been raised and gained new prominence in the Paris social scene. Extravagant costume balls and dinners that set new standards for the Parisian high life were often held at the Château de Ferrières. Salvador Dali himself attended the Surrealist Ball at the couple’s country home. In 1975, Rothschild donated the Château de Ferrières to the University of Paris and bought the Hôtel Lambert at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis.
Baron Guy de Rothschild died on June 14, 2007 in Paris at the age of 98.