Books: A Power unto Themselves

The legendary Rothschilds established a great fortune. A great biography tells how they did it

What was the Rothschilds' secret? Commercial genius and intermarriage. Rothschilds married Rothschilds; first cousins wed first cousins; and in one case an uncle took his niece as his bride. The 19th century was ignorant of the genetic risks--and in that respect, as in others, the Rothschilds were lucky. Close breeding kept the fortune cohesive. It ensured a unity of decision making and cooperation among the family's five great banking houses--the world's first multinational, with offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna and Naples.

The family's story is handsomely told in The House of Rothschild: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848 (Viking; 648 pages; $34.95), the...

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