French banking executive Guy de Rothschild dies

Guy de Rothschild, 98, the dynamic patriarch of one of the world's dominant banking families and whose business savvy helped revive and expand the multibillion-dollar enterprise after World War II, died June 12 in Paris. No cause of death was disclosed.

For generations, the Rothschilds had been economic advisers to European royalty, heads of state and even popes. Guy de Rothschild's ancestors settled in Paris and started a French banking branch in 1817 that financed wars and railroads as well as occasional explorations in mining and archeology.

They became one of the richest and most powerful families in the world. Yet for all their wealth, they largely operated away from public scrutiny. This changed with Baron Guy de Rothschild, whose title had been passed down since the emperor of Austria recognized the contributions of a Rothschild ancestor during the Napoleonic wars.

He took control of the family's Paris branch &

which along with its London office was one of its most powerful offices &

and set about modernizing operations after their near ruin during the Nazi occupation of France.

Besides holding the presidency of de Rothschild Freres bank &

which became Banque Rothschild after a major reorganization in the late 1960s &

he also assumed the presidency of Compagnie du Nord, the family's investment and holding company that had assets in the metal, mining and chemical industries.

With two younger cousins, he played a vital part in implementing the latest data-processing and management-control techniques. A sleek new headquarters building was erected in Paris as well.

Although he guided investments into blue-chip firms, including Michelin, De Beers and IBM, it was said that Guy de Rothschild's greatest role was overseeing an aggressive expansion of investments overseas, including oil digs in the Sahara and iron mining in Mauritania. He also financed lead mines in Peru and ski resorts in the Swiss Alps.

Several of the mining operations failed miserably, but the bank's continued diversification &

notably into the U.S. steelmaker Copperweld Corp. &

helped it survive.

In 1967, he told Time magazine that he wanted to underscore a "policy of opening up, democratization and de-mythification," and this resulted in a major restructuring of the business as a commercial enterprise.

Meanwhile, he solidified the family's political connections. He advised French President Charles de Gaulle, whom he had known since World War II, and also formed a close relationship with Georges Pompidou, whom Baron de Rothschild had helped promote to an important managerial position in the banking empire. Pompidou became de Gaulle's prime minister before serving as French president.

Yet in the early 1980s, under the new socialist government of Francois Mitterrand, the family suffered a massive reversal of fortune with the nationalization of the country's banks.

Baron de Rothschild, leader of the French Jewish community, wrote a scathing letter to the newspaper Le Monde &

printed on its front page &

declaring that France had now twice tried to vanquish his family.

"A Jew under Petain, a pariah under Mitterrand &

for me it's enough," he wrote. Marshal Philippe Petain was the leader of the collaborationist French Vichy government during World War II.

Having prepared to leave for the United States anyway, he settled in New York in the hope of again regaining control over the banking business. The family regained control of the bank in 1987 through the efforts of a son, David, who had taken over.

Guy Edouard Alphonse Paul de Rothschild was born in Paris on May 21, 1909, and was raised at the family castle at Ferrieres, just east of Paris.

In addition to hundreds of servants, the chateau also had a system of miniature railroad trains that delivered food from underground kitchens. Yet there were mixed signals. He said his mother once lectured him, "Don't flaunt your wealth."

With the start of World War II in September 1939, he joined a mechanized cavalry unit that was attacked fiercely by the Germans when they invaded France the next year. He was among three of 26 officers to survive the fighting, and he was soon ferried to England during the Dunkirk retreat.

While many members of his Jewish family went abroad to escape the Germans, he remained behind and saw the new regime confiscate the Rothschild estates and art collection. Baron de Rothschild, who had joined the family business after graduating from the University of Paris, played a major part in moving the firm to Vichy France in the south. Soon after, he was stripped of his French citizenship, embarked for the United States via Lisbon and spent two years trying to salvage the business.

In 1943, on a return voyage to the Continent, he was sailing on the cargo ship Pacific Grove when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. Rescued by a British warship after seven hours on a raft, he joined Gen. de Gaulle's Free French Army and became a close aide to the future French leader.

He fought in France after the Normandy invasion in June 1944 and eventually became adjutant to the military governor of Paris. His decorations included the prestigious Croix de Guerre.

While reconstructing the family business, Baron de Rothschild cultivated a reputation as a social titan. He gave elaborate parties at his family's refurbished Chateau de Ferrieres (which he donated to the University of Paris in 1975). He also formed relationships with power brokers in New York and London, who were charmed by his Anglophilic dress and manner.

He wrote a best-selling memoir, "Contre Bonne Fortune" ("Against Good Fortune"), reportedly a play on a popular French expression "against bad fortune, staunch heart."

His marriage to Alix de Koromla ended in divorce.

With his second marriage, to Marie-Helene van Zuylen, he was the first Rothschild to marry a Christian. A former countess, she died in 1996.

Besides David, a son from his first marriage, survivors include Edouard, a son from his second marriage.

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