Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
"Georges Philippe" - Baron Philippe Rothschild
BY JOE SAWARD
For one short season he drove Bugatti Grand Prix cars with some notable successes. On one occasion he even drove briefly for the crack Bugatti factory team. And then he disappeared from racing. Who was he and what happened to him? Joe Saward investigates.
The story of "Georges Philippe" begins in the late 1700s in Frankfurt, Germany when Meyer Amschel Rothschild established a moneylending business. That business was continued by his five sons and by the early 1800s the family merchant bank was established in Frankfurt, Vienna, Naples, Paris and London.
It lent money to the crowned heads of Europe and to governments. Rothschild money helped the British to fund the Suez Canal and paid for the Napoleonic wars. The Rothschilds rapidly became one of the richest - and most famous - families in Europe. That wealth and power resulted in social progress and the later Rothschild generations were born into the aristocracy and benefited from huge wealth and good educations. The family produced a variety of scholars and philanthropists. And more than a few eccentrics.
One of these was Baron Henri de Rothschild - a member of the English branch of the family, which had settled in France. Baron Henri was a doctor and a celebrated patron of medicine. Rothschild money financed the research of the Curies and Baron Henri founded two hospitals in France.
Baron Henri was a man who was willing to try out new ideas and among his many projects were a cannery for pheasants and partridges, a soap factory and the Unic car company, which ultimately became part of the Renault empire.
His other great love was the theatre. He built the famous Pigalle Theatre in Paris and later he made a name for himself as a playwright, under the pseudonym of Andre Pascal.
The Baron lived in the fashionable Faubourg St Honore in Paris and had a country house in Rambouillet Forest to the south-west of the city - the Abbaye les Vaux de Cernay - a 12th century Cistercian abbey which has today been transformed into a top-class 55-room hotel.
The Baron had two sons (James and Philippe) and a daughter (Nadine). Philippe and was born in the house on the Rue St Honore on April 13, 1902.
"We had very decent neighbours," Phlippe wrote years later. "The British Embassy on one side and the Elysee Palace - official residence of the French President - on the other.
"The street door was big enough to admit four giraffes - walking abreast."
With such an eccentric father, Philippe's young life was filled with unusual happenings - not least when the Rothschild's troupe of monkeys escaped and the Elysee Palace telephoned to say that the animals were disturbing an important cabinet meeting.
"They liked the chandeliers best," Philippe recalled.
Philippe was 12 when the First World War broke out and, with Paris under threat from the invading Germans, Philippe was sent to stay with his grandmother Therese at the family vineyard near the village of Pauillac in the Medoc.
Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was already famous for its remarkable red wines but had been in the Rothschild family since 1853. It was in competition with the nearby Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, owned by a branch of the French Rothschilds.
Philippe spent the war among the vineyards. He was too young to join up, but his elder brother James became a military aviator. He was idolised by the young Philippe who, after the war, found himself a new member of his brother's social set.
This included a number of ex-pilots, devil-may-care adventurers including Robert Benoist - who was a Rambouillet neighbour and childhood friend, his father having been the Rothschild's gamekeeper, and Andre Dubonnet.
The immediate post-war years were a fine time to be a young, rich and good-looking. Thousands of Frenchmen had died in the war and there were not enough men to go around. Philippe rejoiced in his life as a playboy in Paris in the Roaring Twenties.
At weekends he raced yachts in the summer and bobsleighs in the winter and, like his father, developed a love of the theatre - and actresses. He had the worst reputation in Paris - and was proud of it.
At the age of 21 - no doubt under pressure from his family to do something useful with his life - Philippe moved from Paris and took over the running of the rundown Mouton Rothschild vineyard.
He quickly established himself as the bright young man of wine-making, pioneering such novelties as chateau-bottling to help to control the quality of his wines.
Throughout the Twenties Philippe continued to enjoy the Paris social scene and wine-making. He had plenty of girlfriends and loved fast cars. He was forever buying the latest 'hot' sportscar.
"I'm a great driver," he wrote later, "a born driver. My buttocks were designed to fit in a driving seat."
Perhaps it was inevitable that he should end up in racing. There were signs as early as 1927 - the year his pal Benoist dominated the European racing scene - that he wanted to race. He entered a Bugatti in a race at Montlhery but did not turn up.
His competition career began finally in the Paris-Nice race of 1928, which he completed in a Hispano-Suiza. In June that year he bought himself a Bugatti 37 and - adopting the name "Georges Philippe" - entered the Bugatti Grand Prix at Le Mans. This was a race designed purely for wealthy Bugatti owners - with no works entries. It was held over 165 miles around the Le Mans circuit and 29 cars took part.
It was won by Dubonnet in a Type 37, followed home by the mysterious "Georges Philippe".
This success made up Rothschild's mind. He would go racing in 1929. He got hold of a Bugatti Type 35C and entered it for the Grand Prix d'Antibes on April 1. The race was the start of a speed fortnight and consisted of 75 laps of a two and a half mile circuit around the La Garoupe peninsular and the picturesque ports of Antibes and Juan-les-Pins. Despite a strong field, including Rene Dreyfus and Philippe Etancelin, "Georges Philippe" led the race. After 36 laps he crashed badly.
"He was quite a good driver," said Dreyfus, "but either his distinguised family objected to his participation in motor sport or possibly he didn't wish them to know."
Two weeks later "Georges Philippe", Dreyfus and Etancelin were three of the 16 drivers to take part in the first Monaco Grand Prix.
The grid was drawn by lots and "Philippe" found himself on the second row of the 3x3 grid. The race was a big success with a great battle between "Williams" and Ruedi Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz SSK, which was most unsuited to Monaco's twisty track.
Three weeks later he went to Dijon and won the GP de Bourgogne. On that occasion Rothschild had entered two 35Cs - the second for Guy Bouriat.
The pair finished one-two. Bouriat, it is said, allowing his patron to win.
The Grand Prix de l'ACF was held that year Le Mans and "Georges Philippe" was there in a Bugatti 35C. But on this occasion he retired while running sixth. That was at the end of June 1929 and it was a month later before "Georges Philippe" reappeared, driving a factory-entered Bugatti 35C alongside Louis Chiron and Bouriat.
The weather was dreadful but "Georges Philippe" took the lead at the start. He lost it briefly to Juan Zanelli but was back ahead when Zanelli retired. He held the lead until the mid-race fuel stops. He handed the car over to Bouriat but Louis Chiron was able to get ahead. He stayed ahead for the rest of the six-hour race, "Georges Philippe" getting back in his car toward the end of the race to finish second.
Philippe also led the German GP that summer - on the daunting old Nurburgring - but after glancing a wall he had to slow down and was overtaken by Chiron.
During the summer "Georges Philippe" had become wellknown in France and his veil of anonymity began to slip.
And so "Georges Philippe" slipped quietly from Grand Prix racing. His only other major event being the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1930 in which he drove a Stutz.
Rothschild turned his mind to other things. In 1931 he travelled to the Far East to hunt tiger and in 1932 tried his hand at movie-making as producer of Lac aux Dames, the first French 'talkie' to gain international recognition.
In 1933 he expanded the Mouton-Rothschild estates by buying the neighbouring Chateau d'Armailhacq.
In the mid-1930s he married Lilli, the Comtesse de Chambure, but nonetheless continued his hectic social life in Paris.
The outbreak of the Second World War was to have serious consequences for the Rothschilds - the most famous Jewish family in Europe. Philippe was called up to serve in the French air force but the German invasion of France destroyed it and he escaped to North Africa. There he was arrested by the Vichy French and sent back to France, from where he was able to escape again. He finally found his way to England where he enlisted in General de Gaulle's Free French forces.
When he came home from the war - with a much-prized Croix de Guerre medal - he found his old life at Mouton had been destroyed. His French nationality had been revoked and his property confiscated. His wife had been deported and murdered in a concentration camp.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild had been caught in the crossfire of a battle between the resistance and the fleeing Germans and the vineyards were damaged and rundown.
His vignerons had, however, been able to save thousands of bottles of the best vintages by walling up sections of the Mouton chais.
Philippe did not even own Mouton - he would not inherit it until the death of his father in 1947 - but he turned all his attention to the vineyard. Money was short, but it was his ambition to make the best wines in the world. He wanted, above all else, for the French wine authorities to alter its classification of chateau, dating bck to 1855. The list had never been changed and Chateau Mouton Rothschild remained top of the list of "second growth" chateau but not one of the four exclusive Premiers Crus: Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut Brion.
In pursuit of this goal Philippe instituted a far-reaching programme not only to improve the quality of the wine but to make it stand out from the rest. He used new ideas both in wine-making and promotion.
In 1945 Philippe came up with idea of having famous artists design his labels. In the early years Frenchmen Jean Cocteau and Georges Braque were chosen but were followed by such great names as Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
In the late 1940s Mouton produced some of its best wine.
"There is not the slightest doubt that several of the best Bordeaux wines ever made come from Mouton," wrote wine expert Robert Parker. "The 1945, 1947 and 1949 vintages are the greatest examples of Mouton at its best."
As his fame spread so the Philippe found contentment in life. He became a Baron in the late 1950s after his brother's death and found a new wife American wife Pauline - for whom Chateau d'Armailhacq was renamed Chateau Baronne Philippe. In 1970 he added Chateau Clerc Milon to the Mouton estates but it was in 1973 that Rothschild's ambition was achieved. The 1855 classification was reassessed and Mouton Rothschild became the fifth Premier Cru chateau. It is the only change ever made to the 1855 classification.
In the years that followed this great triumph, the Baron expanded his empire, while in his spare time translating the works of Elizabethan poets Marlowe and Fry into French.
He introduced Mouton Cadet - Bordeaux's best-selling wine - a blend of wines which were not up to the standard for his three chateaux but produced a very reasonable red wine which could be sold cheaply in 120 countries.
In doing so, Baron Philippe played an important role in re-establishing wine as a drink for the common man.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild died in January 1988 but, until recently, his name could still be found in the Formula 1 paddock. At the Ligier motorhome they served only Mouton Cadet, having signed a supply deal with Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, the company established by the mysterious 1920 racer "Georges Philippe".