Baron Rothschild

He can turn bricks into gold, junk into antiques, disasters into opportunities. But Pete Rothschild just can't transform his reputation.

Fifteen years ago, late December. Balaban's backroom, where St. Louis' hottest young dealmakers exult over the stock market, sneak soft drifts of cocaine into the sugar bowls, eat entrées they once couldn't pronounce. Tonight, 30 of the most successful converge for their annual self-declared "board of directors" dinner. Afterward, they swirl cognac, waiting for this year's Christmas present to unwrap herself.

A stranger -- male, clothed, wearing cowboy boots -- strides into the room and heads for a man as tall as he is: "Pete Rothschild?"

Hazel eyes, startled dark. Charm rushing like blood to the surface. Hand extended in automatic greeting.

Jennifer Silverberg
Pete Rothschild at the Smile Building in Soulard. He waited years to redevelop it, infuriating the neighbors.
Jennifer Silverberg
Pete Rothschild at the Smile Building in Soulard. He waited years to redevelop it, infuriating the neighbors.

Handcuffs.

"Sir, you're under arrest for fencing stolen property."

Stunned into uncharacteristic silence, Rothschild spurns the cuffs and walks out, staring straight ahead as he passes, one by one, the men he most wanted to impress.


"He was white as a ghost," recalls Chris Canepa, who planned the joke. "Pete hated me for so long." Canepa hadn't expected the set-up to sting so; everybody knew Pete wound up selling hot stuff from time to time. For years, the city had been bulldozing its fine old brick houses, and entrepreneurial thieves had been stripping abandoned ones. Trucks of salvaged gargoyles and stained-glass windows lined up outside Rothschild's Antiques, blocking the intersection of Euclid and McPherson avenues in the Central West End. Most of the stuff he bought was legit, but periodically a customer walked in and saw her grandmother's jewelry or a minister found the windows somebody had pried out of his church. If your property was stolen, you checked at Rothschild's first. And if you found it, he cheerfully gave it back.

Besides, the gag was payback. That fall, Canepa had gone into Rothschild's and asked what to buy a mutual friend for her birthday. "Got just the thing," said Pete. "She's been eyeing it for weeks; it's kind of pricey, but...." He wrapped up a hideous English footwarmer the woman had given him outright, begging him to take it off her hands.

Pete also set up his friend Buzz Wall, asking him to deliver a box of diamonds to Pete's dad, then staging the box's theft. Pete played jokes on his sister, on business partners, on people he'd just met. He'd tease a perfect stranger, then look into his eyes and laugh, holding his gaze until he laughed along with him.

He reveled in his reputation, had ever since his parents shipped him down to Devereaux Academy, a boarding school in Texas that served as a repository for "wild kids from all over the world." Pete and a new ally stole a truckload of watermelons, sold them in Victoria, drove to Austin and sold the school truck for $50. Along the way, they met up with Ken Kesey, soon to be famous for a psychedelic bus of even merrier pranksters.

After graduation, young Rothschild sampled three colleges and spat them out. Mowed lawns, became a Fuller Brush man, read Faulkner and Hemingway for fun. Got hired as a department-store Santa, got fired for making out with Santa's helper. Moved to Gaslight Square and started an underground newspaper called Xanadu, brazening interviews with Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. "Jimi had this prissy little Brit manager in pink suede boots who kept stomping his foot," recalls Rothschild. "We waited around all night; my music editor, Marvin Homan, was drunk on his ass. Finally we got near the Holy Grail -- we could see Jimi in the next room -- and I'll be damned if Marvin didn't throw up all over that manager's pink suede boots."

He grins, still relishing the moment. Xanadu read more like Berkeley than St. Louis, and Rothschild's Antiques operated more like New Orleans.

St. Louis remembers outrageousness.

But St. Louis doesn't relish it.


Wellston, 1970. "I'll give you 4 cents a pound," says Rothschild, flipping long black hair over his shoulder and pulling a wad of $20 bills from his bib overalls.

"Seven cents," insists Sam Polsky, glaring at the 22-year-old from beneath the homburg he wears constantly, even inside his own store. The two go toe to toe, call each other names, dicker about theschmattes (Yiddish for "rags"). When Polsky sticks at 6 cents, Rothschild shoves the bills back in his pocket and turns to leave.

"Wait a minute," calls the old man, irritated and impressed.

Rothschild and his new friend Bob Wood toss the 50-gallon drums of old blue jeans -- 5 cents a pound -- into Wood's pickup and drive back to their store, Ultimate Alternate Clothiers (in the basement of what is now Rothschild's Antiques). Euclid is dotted with bus stops and big trash cans; there's a hoosier bar, a head shop, a witchcraft shop complete with a pentagram on the floor. In the evenings, after closing, Rothschild cranks the music and people dance on the sidewalk. Every morning, hung over or not, he and Wood open for business.

Off hours, they comb the city in Wood's pickup, bargain for fixtures at old North Side confectioneries, talk their way into warehouse basements. At St. Louis Shade & Hardware they find cases of Howdy Doody shoe polish, Depression glass still in the boxes. Every day's a treasure hunt.

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