Baron Rothschild

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

When she reaches Rothschild's, he's behind the counter, grinning. He asks her out. She turns him down; he's married. He says the marriage is ending, asks again. Courts her like a medieval knight.

Rothschild dates Emmenegger for years. Four times they make public announcement of impending nuptials, then cancel. Finally, in 1996, they marry. She's well aware of the stories that swarm around his name; of the way all the nice stuff he does never seems to stick. She also knows he's a study in contradictions, tough as old meat when he wants to be, a marshmallow with anyone who needs him. The days of tavern fistfights are long over, and though he's still demanding and easily irritated, his legendary temper has slowed. He cares deeply, she insists, about the city of St. Louis. And in private life, he's grown gentler -- not quite the Abominable putting the star on top of the Christmas tree, perhaps, but more tender.

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.

As a result, they're finally decorating their home, a big, unassuming white frame house set back from Old Warson Road, after a spell so rough she wasn't sure she'd stay. "I've compared life with Pete to riding on the Screaming Eagle," she says wryly. "There's always something he's trying to catch up with and live up to."

Donna admits she spoils him: She brings his dinner on a tray in front of the TV, and she'll fix a gourmet meal all over again if he's really hungry. "Pete eats," she says, reaching under the belly of their aged pug, Lucy, to splay her legs and ease a muscle spasm. "Before we go out to dinner with somebody he doesn't know well, he'll eat at home so he doesn't embarrass himself."

It's no wonder he has a soft spot for Lucy, whom Donna first saw sitting in the middle of a food trough barking to keep all the other pups away. Thin and delicate, Donna surrounds herself with voracious appetites. "If Pete goes to Sam's with me, he wants to buy all these things we don't need," she laughs. "If you send him to the grocery store for grapes, you get 10 pounds of grapes."

It's a trait that leads either to magnanimity or to avarice. Artist Bill Christman, one of Rothschild's oldest friends, keeps hoping magnanimity will prevail. He envisions all that energy, channeled into altruism.

"The current Pete seems to care a lot more about how he is perceived," another friend says hopefully. "He takes pains to be who he thinks he ought to be." He talks with indignation about Maryland Plaza's griffin streetlights, burned out for days, and how those developers "got a 25-year tax abatement to develop all these buildings and they've developed virtually none of them. Twenty-five years of unrealized promise." He calls Chase Park Plaza developer Bil l Stallings "an insufferable little whatever," saying he "walked into the room 45 minutes late for our 50-minute meeting and quickly pronounced that he would pay me nowhere near whatever I was asking, he'd have the Argyle condemned instead." These are exaggerations of the same criticisms levied at Rothschild -- lags in developing his properties, bastardly negotiations. He admits the reputation but makes light of it, acts bemused by the fact that people think he's powerful, saddened that anyone would distrust him.

In private, his wife and son say, he broods about it.

Maybe he should have moved someplace freewheeling and colorful and hot with deals, like his beloved New Orleans? "I love St. Louis; there couldn't be any place better to live," he protests. "I love the mystery of old buildings, and their austerity. I love the way the seasons change, the weather changes."

St. Louisans, however, don't change. They like stability and predictability, the bêtes noires of Rothschild's childhood. "It's easy to figure out what's going to be happening here in the next 10 years," he admits, "and, in a way, I make my living off that. In San Francisco, there would be 1,000 people competing for one of these projects. In St. Louis, there are three."

And he's always one of them.

"Sometimes he jumps without thinking," remarks David Rothschild, now a senior at the University of Arizona. "He's always wanting to expand, and sometimes he spreads himself too thin, has so much going on he can't be aware of it all, and then people hide things from him, and that drives him crazy.

"More than anything in the world, I want him to have that success that he is always looking for," finishes David. "But I don't think he'll ever feel like it's enough."

Friday morning, Nov. 2. Rothschild walks toward Kaldi's Coffee House, stopping three times to greet people he knows. A car cruises by and its driver honks. He points, calls a teasing rejoinder, yells that they should have dinner soon.

Inside, he orders the first of many hits of espresso, then reaches into elegantly faded jeans and pulls out his wallet. The cotton lining comes out with it, and he pokes his finger through a loose seam. "Hole in my pocket," he grins. "The story of my life."

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