FOUNDER by Amos Elon


A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Time
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 During this time of bloated biographies, here is a refreshingly brief portrait of one of the most important figures of 19th-century European economic and modern Jewish history: Meyer Amschel Rothschild (17441812). Elon, the veteran Israeli journalist (Jerusalem: City of Mirrors, 1989; Herzl: A Biography, 1975; etc.) presents a man who spent almost his entire life in the crowded, sunless Judengasse, the ``Jew street,'' that comprised almost all of the Frankfurt ghetto. By skillfully cultivating the nobility and political elite of the surrounding state of Hesse, by demonstrating a single-minded devotion to business, innovative banking, and other mercantile practices, by embracing ``internationalization,'' sending two of his five sons to England and France (the others ultimately settled in Austria and Italy), and perhaps above all, by being fortunate enough to be active in a turbulent time (the Napoleonic wars) that opened up new possibilities, Rothschild gradually developed the powerhouse banking concern. During the decade from 1797 to 1807 alone, his assets quadrupled. However, the achievements of his five sons, led by Nathan in London, were even more impressive; their capital grew 40-fold between 1815 and 1828. By 1850, the ``House of Rothschild'' already had achieved mythical status for everyone from anti-Semitic political leaders to Jewish satirists. While periodically overwhelming the reader with technical details of high finance, Elon skillfully evokes the man (and his devoted, hyper- frugal wife, Guttle) and his expansive, if highly anti-Semitic, era. (In Frankfurt, Jews were not allowed out of the ghetto at night, and on Sundays they were not permitted to leave until church services ended; Christians addressed them with the same familiarity they used for servants.) While many books have dealt with the Rothschilds, Elon's focus on the family's founding patriarch yields a thoroughly researched, fascinating, and altogether exemplary biography. (illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-670-86857-4
Page count: 201pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1996


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