The word Liberty has many important, evocative connotations but, first and foremost, it reminds me of a female relation whose promising, privileged life was marred by mental illness and the botched attempts to cure her. My Great Aunt, Liberty Rothschild, was born in 1909 into a rarefied world of privilege and wealth. She lived with her two sisters, brother, parents and extended family in the Family compound at Tring in Hertfordshire. Her sister, Nica, who later became known as the “Jazz Baroness,” described their childhood wearily: “I was moved from one great country house to another in the germless community of reserved Pullman coaches, while being guarded day and night by a regiment of nurses, governesses, tutors, footmen, valets, chauffeurs and grooms.” The children’s lives were regimented to suit other people’s timetables. No expense was spared but neither was any allowance made for individual needs or personal idiosyncrasies. Another sister, Miriam, later known as the “Queen of the Fleas,” compared it to being trapped in a jewel-encrusted cage. “Freedom didn’t exist,” she said. For the Rothschild daughters, youth was simply a holding pattern for marriage and motherhood. Many married cousins had simply moved from one compound to another.
Of the four children, Liberty was the most artistically talented. A brilliant pianist, she was, aged twelve, offered a solo concert at Wigmore Hall. As a teenager, her painting won a gold medal at the Royal Academy Summer Show. Physically delicate, and so sensitive emotionally, the smallest event plunged Liberty into a morass of despair. The sight of a bird with a broken wing, a lame horse or change to routine affected her deeply. There was, however, no question of bending society’s rules or adapting the conventions of the time. Liberty was presented at court and, while other young debutantes danced, she sobbed alone in the corner. Then the young Jewess was sent on a grand tour with her younger sister and a governess to Germany in 1931, where they were met by a rising tide of anti-Semitism. On her return, Liberty was dispatched alone to New York to “stiffen up” and take painting classes. Her behaviour became increasingly erratic and unpredictable. Finally, in 1934, she was sent home after eating the floral display during a grand Park Avenue dinner.
From then on, Liberty was passed between different doctors, from psychiatric wards to nursing homes. The Family never disowned or abandoned her; they threw huge quantities of time and money at “the problem,” which was later identified as a form of schizophrenia. There are unsubstantiated rumours that in the 1950’s she was given the “latest” treatment, a lobotomy, as well as electric shock treatment and other experimental “cures.” As her medical records were burned on her death in 1986, I have never been able to prove or discount these theories. Her story haunts me: I often wonder if discoveries in science could have helped my great aunt. Had she been born a few decades later, then she might have had a shot at “normality.” As it was, she remained incapacitated by psychological fragility for her whole life. There was, however, a happy-ish ending. Miriam, who never stopped trying to find a cure for schizophrenia, brought Liberty to live with her at her house in Ashton. Liberty had a full-time carer but roamed freely. Sometimes she would appear during lunch and sit for a while or play the piano. At least towards the end of her life, Liberty was finally set free.
Hannah Rothschild is a writer, a filmmaker and a company director. She also serves on boards of various philanthropic trusts and museums.
Her biography, the 'The Baroness' was published by Virago in May 2012, in the USA by Knopf in 2013 and will be published in other territories in 2013/2014.
Her features and interviews appear in W, Vanity Fair, The Telegraph, The Times, The New York Times, The Spectator, British and American Vogue.
Her award winning documentaries have been shown on the BBC, HBO and at film festivals including Telluride, the London Film Festival and Sheffield. Working Title and Ridley Scott optioned her original screenplays.
A non-executive director of several companies, Hannah is the co-founder of the Artist on Film trust and a trustee of the National Gallery, the Tate and Waddesdon Manor.