The Rothschilds: with Guy's Clan and Marie-helene's Elan, They Rule Tout Paris

Only Molière, if he were still around and making ends meet as scenarist of Bridget Loves Bernie, could have come up with that day at the races in 1956 when Baron Guy de Rothschild encountered Marie-Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt de Haar. Guy was reigning partner of the puissant de Rothschild Frères banking dynasty and leader of European Jewry. Marie-Hélène was a practicing Roman Catholic, 20 years younger, who intensely disliked the Rothschilds. (The feud dated back to her paternal grandmother, a Rothschild herself, who married outside the faith, to a Dutch Catholic.) Guy and Marie-Hélène, both married at the time, found themselves at a Gala des Jockeys at Deauville. “The first time I saw Guy he looked me up and down like I was a mare,” she snorts. “I was furious. I was insulted. I thought, that Rothschild, the nerve! But that night he asked me to dance with him. It was a coup de foudre [love at first sight]. We’ve been together ever since.”

Between them, they have emerged as the first family of Paris. Guy, 66, rules the Seine financially; Marie-Hélène, 46, is in command socially. “When we got married, Marie-Hélène said she had wed a short, fat man when she wanted a tall, thin one,” Guy explains. ” ‘Well, so stretch me out,’ I said. And she did.” Invitations to soirées at the most opulent of their four homes, the 40-bedroom Château de Ferrières on a 4,000-acre estate near Paris, became as prized as truffles. When England’s Queen Elizabeth recently visited the Elysée Palace, the only woman she asked to chat with was Marie-Hélène. (The subjects were horses and jewels, of which the Rothschilds have competitive collections.)

Marie-Hélène operates like a combination of Madame de Staël and Jackie O. Though often bedridden with an aristocratic form of arthritis of which she says, “there are only three cases in the United States and none in Europe,” Marie-Hélène still sets fashion with her public appearance. She made the miniskirt acceptable in France by wearing one to the track at Longchamp, and her displeasure can almost single-handedly turn a Dior or Courrèges collection into ruin (or at least a tax write-off). Her latest favourites-du-jour are Ungaro and Saint-Laurent.

She is a demonic fundraiser for causes like medical research or the restoration of Versailles. “I try to do what I can to help others,” she observes, “but I’m not going to sit around and have guilt because I can buy a fur coat.” Yet for all her continental cool, Marie-Hélène grew up about as Gallic as Coney Island French fries. The daughter of a Belgian diplomat and his Egyptian wife, she was born in New York, educated there at Marymount School and College and originally contemplated becoming a nun. But then she married Count François de Nicolay and went to France, where she bore his son, Philippe, now 19, and captivated Paris with her wild-eyed beauty and temperament flambé. Hairdresser Alexandre, who has also attended the Duchess of Windsor, Monaco’s Princess Grace and Liz Taylor, observed that “of all the heads that have rolled under my hands, she is my favorite—the most natural, spontaneous and alive person I have ever met.”

Guy found out just how spontaneous Marie-Hélène can be when she telephoned him recently at the office and demanded, “Do you feel young enough, energetic enough and enthusiastic enough to change the course of your life in an hour?” Her fancy: the historic, 17th century Hôtel Lambert, a four-story mansion on Paris’s Ile Saint-Louis where Voltaire once lived. But her whim was chère enough (a reputed $6 million) to give even a Rothschild pause. When he hesitated, Guy laments, “That wild wife of mine told me that I was a madman, that I had no imagination, that I understood nothing.” But they were down to their last 100 servants and had, in addition to their two Paris-area properties, homes to maintain in Normandy and Marbella, Spain. So Guy agreed to cede Ferrières to the government and will presumably sell off their present pied-à-terre in the 8th arrondissement and move into the Hotel Lambert by the end of this year.

Guy, of course, is no stranger to la grande vie. Five generations from the Frankfurt ghetto and raised in a mansion that was once Talleyrand’s, he was educated at the Sorbonne. During World War II he was one of three officers in his unit to survive at Dunkirk and later returned to the front lines to fight with the Free French. After the war Guy revitalized the shattered de Rothschild Frères and steered it into investments ranging from oil in the Sahara to the family’s grand cru-producing vineyard, Château Lafite-Rothschild. The Rothschilds still control one of the world’s great fortunes, though Guy insists that “we’re not a clan with a godfather” and argues that he has “a million times less than Rockefeller.”

Guy and Marie-Hélène seem to batten on their differences. “She is always on the phone and I loathe the phone,” says Guy. “He’s obsessive,” she says. “If the maid puts his trousers there, and he wants them here, it’s an affaire d’état.” Which is not to say that Mme. de Rothschild is a feminist. “If you give women men’s jobs,” she believes, “they become masculine. I don’t believe a real feminine woman can be truly happy if she dominates her man.” They have a son together, Edouard, 17, since Marie-Hélène coquettishly explains that “you need marriage for children. But for love it’s better not to be married.” As for Edouard, “I’ve raised him not to be a gosse de riche [spoiled brat],” she explains. “When I was a girl someone did everything for me and now I don’t know how to cook an egg.” Guy was just as firm with David, 32, his son from his first marriage. “I tried to knock out those particularly odious bugs that come with being a Rothschild and the horrible bumptiousness that can arise from that,” he says. Marie-Hélène sighs assent: “Being a Rothschild isn’t easy.”

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