When Walter Rothschild sold one of his most precious zoological collections to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1931, it spoke of unmistakable financial desperation. Coupled with the fact he offered 280,000 of his precious birds for a measly $225,000, it underscored cracks in the veneer of the hyper-wealthy Rothschild family. Although Walter proved fortunate beyond measure, born into one of London’s wealthiest families, a 40-year-old secret depleted his funds, often leaving him with little more than pocket change.
In 1983, his biographer and niece, Miriam Rothschild, published Dear Lord Rothschild, finally bringing her uncle’s hidden passions, demons, and blackmailers (mostly) to light. Here’s what you need to know about the events that made him part ways with one of his most precious collections.
Growing Up in a Menagerie
Life in Victorian England varied depending on your socioeconomic background and parental status. Orphans and impoverished children worked as bootblacks and chimney sweeps while the offspring of the middle and upper classes enjoyed idyllic upbringings, shielded from the world’s ugliness. Those in the highest wealth bracket often devoted themselves to one of the Victorian world’s bizarre hobbies, like creating seaweed scrapbooks or collecting anthropomorphic taxidermy.
But for a boy with parents of almost infinite means, none of these leisure pursuits would do. So, when Mr. and Mrs. Rothschild observed their son’s fascination with the natural world as he stomped through the family garden watching insects for hours, they decided to take his pursuits next level by collecting a veritable zoo of exotic species. Soon, the family menagerie at Tring Park in Hertfordshire included cranes, storks, kangaroos, wild horses, zebras, a spiny anteater, emus, and a pangolin.
The Obsession With Animals Persisted
Instead of outgrowing his childhood interests, Walter clung firmly to his fascination with the wild kingdom. Although he spent a miserable 15 years dutiful working at New Court, the global headquarters of the Rothschild investment bank, his heart remained with his animals. After early retirement, he devoted himself to assembling one of the finest privately owned museums, complete with live and dead specimens, in the United Kingdom.
During his lifetime, he employed approximately 400 collectors and acquired specimens from 48 different nations around the globe. As the reputation of his collections grew, individuals from various parts of the world sent him unique items, further bolstering his expansive lists of specimens. Among his most famous collections was an assortment of 144 live giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador and Aldabra Island in the Indian Ocean.
Not only did Walter wish to increase his collection, but he wanted to preserve these incredible animals for future generations by protecting them from hunting and the likelihood of extinction in their native habitats. At one point, he even leased the island of Aldabra for a decade to prohibit hunting and the decline of local giant tortoise populations.
A Collector Extraordinaire
Walter collected an impressive 2,000 mounted animals and 2,000 mounted birds during his lifetime. He also boasted a collection of butterflies and moths in the millions and had 300,000 bird skins to boot. Furthermore, he amassed 200,000 birds’ eggs and 30,000 books on natural history topics.
As for his live specimens, we’ve already talked about his 144 giant tortoises, but the collections didn’t end there. He also domesticated and trained four zebras to pull a horse-drawn carriage and was even invited to bring it to the steps of Buckingham Palace. Additionally, he kept 64 live cassowaries, a giant flightless bird found in New Guinea and Australia.
Each cassowary had its portrait done in watercolor by artist Frederick William Frohawk, and after their deaths, they were carefully stuffed and preserved. Interestingly, he refused to part ways with his beloved cassowaries in the bargain basement sale of his ornithological collection to the American Museum of Natural History.
Dark Secrets Conspired
But despite the animal fun, Walter had skeletons lurking in his closet. And they refused to keep quiet or stay silent without money — lots of it. Over 40 years, Walter was blackmailed out of vast sums of cash and a significant part of his life’s work. Who did the blackmailing? Two brilliant, beautiful, and audacious women who became his mistresses: Lizzie Ritchie and aspiring actress Marie Fredensen. He met both women at the same party hosted by King Edward VII, and they would cause him decades of trouble and worry.
A reputation for shyness didn’t stop Walter from carrying on with both women simultaneously, setting each one up in a separate apartment and doing his darnedest to keep them from ever finding out about each other. Of course, secrets have a way of getting found out, and once Lizzie discovered Marie, all hell broke loose. Lizzie attempted to contact Walter’s mother and put so much pressure on him that his younger brother Charles had to intervene.
Charles negotiated terms with each woman, buying them off with cash and land bribes. But the blackmail didn’t end there. As it turns out, a third lover and her husband had been blackmailing Walter for four decades, and they’re the ones which ultimately forced him to sell his bird collection.
Miriam Rothschild describes these events with aplomb in her biography, but she never gives away the name of the third mistress. However, she does note the woman as being “charming, witty, aristocratic and ruthless.” Unfortunately for Walter, he never figured out that when it came to money-grubbing mistresses, birds of a feather flock together.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com
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