Baron Rothschild

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

After the vintage jeans gave way to vintage junk, the Central West End cleaned up and the junk turned into antiques. Rothschild had an eye for wit and tarnished elegance. He could set aside the schlock in seconds and, from the grubbiest of environs, pluck an object with enough style to tell its story.

Wood, scion of a real-estate family, left the antique store in 1974 to concentrate on bricks and mortar, but Rothschild stayed put. By then he'd married and divorced his first wife, the wild-spirited daughter of a family that could belong to any country club it chose. Single again, he moved easily in the emerging café society of the Central West End, bringing his old hippie friends along with him. No more joyrides with Buzz Wall to the lesbian bar on the East Side where waitresses lip-synched polkas. Instead, he taught Wall to drink Champagne and slurp oysters at the Chase.

The Rothschilds, at home
Jennifer Silverberg
The Rothschilds, at home

Rothschild had bought his first building four years earlier -- a two-family on McPherson for $5,000, $4,500 of it financed. He'd thrown a keg party to knock out the kitchen's plaster walls and found out the next morning that rehab was hard work. Still, the plaster dust had gotten under his skin. He made ridiculous mistakes but kept going, earning what he figured was a street-level equivalent to a doctorate in real estate, financed by the Central West End's appreciating property values. He saw how city blocks changed when the worst house got fixed up. Saw what a difference a few nips and tucks could make to the façade of an old mansion. Saw possibilities everywhere, felt the rush of the deal.

In 1977, he married again, this time to Joyce, a gorgeous blond phys-ed teacher. She came from a nice middle-class family in Affton, she was five years his senior and she was recently divorced, with a baby girl. They moved into Hortense Place, and Joyce raced to catch up with Pete's social whirl. Soon the two were vying with each other even at the tennis net. The marriage ended in 1983 in a battle as ugly as anything on TV.

The bright spot for Pete: He won custody of their son, David, beginning what would prove "the most fun and the best and deepest relationship" of his life. He sent David to private schools to help him overcome dyslexia, took vacations with him every spring break. David grew up steady, methodical, mellow as the Grateful Dead. As he came into his own adulthood, he insisted on closeness and taught his father to open up.

Then, when Joyce learned she had terminal cancer, a decade of parental acrimony dissolved. Rothschild became his ex-wife's good friend, gave her an apartment a few doors from her daughter. He grieved most for his son's sake, because in their relationship he'd found the joy and connection he'd never quite managed with his own father.

Pete Rothschild's real name is Milton David Rothschild II. But despite his affinity for wine, antiques, property and exchanges of gold, Rothschild blood does not run in his veins. His biological father was a Polish Jew, a concert pianist on tour. His mother was Scots-Irish, and he jokes that she must have been the source of the fiery temper that baffled his adoptive parents. That's all he knows, and he says it's all he wants to know. His parents are Milton and Marian Rothschild, and loyalty binds him.

Milton and Marian married late, but they made up for it. They worked together every day at their jewelry store in Clayton, called each other "Mr. R." and "Mrs. R.," told each other everything. Milton was short, brusque, as reliable as the gold clock faces he sold. Marian worried about everybody's feelings but her own. When Milton was 47, they adopted Pete and then a little girl, and forged a home life so stable and predictable it nearly drove Pete crazy: the same meals at the same time with the same small talk; the same expectations, held up daily and never fulfilled. By his teens he towered over his father, tormented his sister, fit nowhere.

He didn't want a carefully planned life, the sort that fit neatly within the four walls of a jewelry store. He did want success, but he wanted it his way. He wouldn't start with pearls and diamonds; he'd cast about, find sows' ears and make them silk purses. Sell his own taste. Sell himself.

A Monday evening in the early '80s at Joe Edwards' place in University City. Cards slide in quick fans across the table. Five cards into the game, Bob Wood folds. "If I don't have it, I don't want to go looking for it," he mutters to Canepa, who tends to fish.

Edwards takes his time with his cards; he likes high stakes, but he always wants a plan.

Rothschild, Edwards' friend since seventh grade at John Burroughs School, plays hunches like quicksilver and hopes the next card will change everything. When it doesn't, he bluffs.

The poker players all wound up betting on real estate, with varying degrees of bravado. Edwards stuck to the U. City Loop. Canepa saw himself as a landlord type and called the real dealmakers, Wood and Rothschild, "maniacal."

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