By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Mitch Ryals
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Anne Valente
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.
"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 the schmattes (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.
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.
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."
Rothschild began with flats in the Central West End, bohemian student housing that didn't need much TLC, the occasional warehouse or hotel. Then he started buying bars and never stopped. Bars meant fun, and they had a practical appeal, too -- with gay bars, he could venture into areas still too rough for other clientele -- and all his tenants wanted to own Cheers, so they poured their own dreams and liquid assets into the properties.
With a changing cast of partners, Rothschild opened a succession of companies, among them Saloon Keepers for the bars; Bacchus Investments; Money Tree Investments; Land Shark Investments, a Belushi rip-off; and Rainbow's End. He had separate partnerships for each big project or section of town, and three serious anchors: Rothschild Development, Rothschild Management Group and Rothschild Realty.
He had a knack for buying cheap in areas about to take off, for stripping the cool stuff from historic buildings and getting the assessments lowered. In 1986, when federal tax breaks dried up, huge development projects had run aground; the city turned to Rothschild to salvage the wrecks. He bought up blocks of residential property that had been abandoned by developers and described himself as "lucky enough not to have ever been smart enough to figure out how to lose money for a living."
In the Central West End, he continued to buy any good deal, high end or low. Beloved restaurateur Herbie Balaban, 20 years his senior, was his model: Both men loved the quaint mysteries of old brick; both loved urbanity, conversation, good food and wine, fine fabrics and antiques. They teamed up to persuade neighboring businesses to ante up for community projects and safety measures, and, as one business owner recalls, "They were quite a road show."
But Rothschild didn't stay in the Central West End. He developed in Soulard, bought condos in Normandy and commercial buildings in Midtown, fanned out into the inner-ring suburbs, bought a few mansions in Ladue and a share in the Seven Gables Hotel in downtown Clayton. Amassed rental and rehab buildings all over the metropolitan area. Overextended himself. "We grew pretty fast," he says, "so we made mistakes." He runs his fingers through hair that's short now but still flows in thick, rebellious waves. "I'd see an opportunity to buy something, and they'd say, 'If you want this, you have to close next Thursday.' When you don't have enough staff and you've taken on another 200 units to manage -- we were scrambling for a while."
Rothschild Management Group now employs 16 people to lease, manage and maintain about 1,000 rental units -- roughly triple the staff it had just two years ago. Rothschild Development's rehabs keep seven full-time contracting crews busy. The shape-shifting of a few hundred properties occupies four bookkeepers. Rothschild is finishing up a spate of condo conversions, costing out a possible townhome complex in Soulard, planning a complex of staggered residential towers with rooftop penthouses overlooking the Cardinals' proposed Ballpark Village downtown. He's also juggling plans for the Z Club, the Smile Building in Soulard, a theater in the old firehouse in Grand Center and the LaSalle Building, next to Metropolitan Square.
In the Central West End, Rothschild plays landlord to Duff's, Kopperman's, Llewelyn's, the Coffee Cartel, the Wildflower, Chez Leon, the Vintage Room, and the Euclid building that once held the Sunshine Inn. For two decades, he bought steadily throughout the neighborhood -- but what he wanted most was to own all four corners of his signature intersection, Euclid and McPherson. He started with the Rothschild's Antiques building, then added two more corners (Left Bank Books and Zoë's Pan-Asian). All that was missing was the northwest corner, the Balaban's building. Then, last year, it went up for auction, but Rothschild was outbid by $150,000 by Keith Barket and his partner, who offered $950,000. "We were on it," says Barket. "The seller kept shopping us. We had it under contract. But then Herb passed away, which delayed the closing. And then they came back to us and raised the price."
Last July, for a cool million, Rothschild got his fourth corner, buying it from the estate of his role model.
Acapulco, late '80s. Beach sand caught in their sandals, Pete and his future wife walk hand in hand through the marketplace. A Mexican silver charm gleams in the hot sun, catching Donna's eye. She's not used to pesos yet, can't figure out how much the guy's asking. Pete steps forward and begins bartering.
Fifteen intense, haranguing, flattering minutes later, the deal draws to a close. Both men smile, and the coins and charm pass each other in midair. "How much money did you save?" whispers Donna as they step away. Pete does a quick mental calculation: "I think about 3 cents."
For six-and-a-half years, Rothschild tried to buy the Smile Building at Ninth and Allen streets, an 1872 German Turnverein (meeting hall/gymnasium) converted to a soda factory. When the owner was asking half-a-million, Rothschild offered $200,000. No dice. The building sat empty, rotted, returned to the city like a dying animal to its lair. Mercantile Bank stepped ahead of Rothschild, but when they finally put it up for auction three years later, they got no bids. Rothschild finally got it -- now with a hole the size of a swimming pool in the ceiling -- for $1,500. Then he let it sit for six years, waiting for the right deal.
It's the tarps spread for years over that building, the debris flying off the roof, that make people call Rothschild a speculator, a breed he swears he loathes. He's been known to profit by flipping a property, but he's just as apt to lose money by holding it because he's in love with the possibilities. He took on the Westwood condo conversions in Clayton after Barket turned them down because the profit margin looked too slim.
Rothschild's not a true speculator; neither is he a true developer, building from scratch. He's a dealmaker, a stitcher of silk purses. He forms alliances, but he operates on his own, far outside the closed Clayton loop of big real-estate transactions. He doesn't make plans; he reacts to opportunities. And he's impossible to predict.
When he bought a loft building on Washington Avenue, he says, he talked to the Community Development Agency and, assured of their support, went away to put the project together. By the time he returned, CDA had a new director, Joan Kelly Horn, and she wasn't about to help. "We ended up selling and making half-a-million, but I didn't want half-a-million," he says, still frustrated. "I was excited about the project."
Enthusiasm works on him like a drug, and when decisions lose him money, he solves the losses by buying more. "I hear he's stretched out pretty good," murmurs Barket. Donna's sick of people thinking they're "rolling"; she says that for all his shrewd barter, Pete's just as likely to make a lousy business decision out of loyalty or impulse. "He always manages to land on his feet, but if we ever stop, it may catch up with us. It's that old lyric: 'The pleasure's not the taking, it's the loving of the game.'"
If the game brings profit, the more the better.
Meeting a young partner, Shawn Carroll, at one of the condos they're rehabbing, Rothschild goes to the threshold of the narrow bathroom and pretends he's falling in. Then he flips the Lucite towel ring up and down and pronounces it "cheesy." He knows when to splurge up front, adding the slate kitchen floor or marble Jacuzzi that will make the difference at closing. Buyers of his rehabs praise his exquisite taste, his boldness in chopping up an old house and making it new inside. They complain about pesky practical details -- the missing cold-air return, the garage door his crew never returned to fix.
Rothschild doesn't always respond to code requirements as quickly as the city would like. He does know the fastest ways around the rules, though, and through the corridors of power. He's influential with politicians, police officers, everybody he's ever done a favor for, everybody who hopes to make a deal with him someday. One of his real-estate partners is St. Louis excise commissioner Robert Kraiberg -- a convenient friendship, snaps one Soulard resident, for one of the city's largest bar landlords.
Soulard residents can be bitter about Rothschild. In the late '80s, after the federal tax credits dried up, several watched open-mouthed while Rothschild walked away with deal after deal on properties they'd have loved to see individually owned but were never given a chance to bid on. In 1994, Dave and Carolyn Frisch of Carbondale, Ill., did get to bid $11,000 at a delinquent-tax auction and happily turned over earnest money for "a really neat old building" in Soulard. Two days later, they were told the city had rejected their bid and signed a firm contract with Rothschild for $14,000.
He sold the building back to them for $15,000. He also sold back condos on West Pine Boulevard after infuriating their denizens by buying them dirt cheap at a tax sale because the owners had neglected to pay taxes on their parking lot. He says he wouldn't have sold if the judge hadn't required fair warning to the owners. He's regularly blamed for letting the fabulous old Argyle Apartments at Euclid Avenue and Lindell Boulevard disintegrate, then selling them off at a handsome profit so the city could replace them with a garage. But he says he bought into that deal only three years before the sale and that the apartments were already a shambles.
He seizes opportunity and pays for it afterward, losing the currency of public goodwill.
Mr. R., now 99, speaking by phone: "He was a regular boy; he did everything that the kids did. Sometimes we liked him, sometimes we didn't. But eventually he recognized his obligations and became a very, very thoughtful, fine son. And he was always industrious."
Mrs. R., 93: "Tell how when he was young, he cut grass."
Mr. R.: "Yes, and he had an ice-cream route. He's an excellent salesman. I told him early in life, the better things are all available, but there is a common denominator, and that is money."
Mr. R.: "What kind of boy was he? He wanted his way all the time; he fought for everything he wanted. You know, he's an adopted boy."
Mrs. R.: "What do you want to say that for?" Her voice softens: "He wants to be recognized; that's been driving him."
"He'll give you the shirt off his back if you're his friend," attests one of them. "If not, he'll take the shirt off your back."
In meetings, Rothschild comes across as nonchalant, as laconic as Hawkeye Pierce, as magnetic as Johnny Depp. Then he pulls out the contract, customized to his advantage. And people feel betrayed.
"I think sometimes we confuse him being a good negotiator with getting screwed," remarks one commercial tenant.
"I really like the guy," says another, "but he's an incredible sonofabitch in business. The smallest deal, you'd think it was the World Trade Center. He has a need to win by making up rules only he understands."
Rothschild's old friend and partner Bob Wood has the same reputation of ruthlessness. "You almost have to maintain that," he insists, "because the field's so competitive. In this business, unless somebody loses, you don't win."
Yet even Wood is more easygoing, less driven by the minutiae of every deal. Rothschild is intense and personal about everything. Probe his business relationships and you'll find a tangle of loyalties, grudges, even a little selective naïveté. "With someone I like who needs something more than I do, I can be a pushover," he shrugs. "When I'm in a situation where toughness is called for -- I can be that person. But for the most part, I've found that negotiations are a lot easier when you realize that both sides have to come out feeling they have won."
Veterans of his deals say you're more likely to emerge bloodied and bowed. "You feel exasperated, worn down, bullied," says one. "But you're in this trap, because he's got all the good stuff."
Some say he's built an empire. Others say he's scattered and sloppy, can't keep proper watch over the buildings he can't help buying.
His most painful example: the "ancient beast of a boiler system" at the Golden Dynasty restaurant on Grand and Lindell. Intending to redevelop the building, Rothschild appeased the beast. But on an icy Monday in January 1999, it gave up the ghost -- just in time for Bill McClellan to arrive and write a column about the shivering, beleaguered Chinese immigrant family that ran the place. Rothschild was so crushed, he took McClellan out for a beer afterward and tried to explain. "When you invest a lot of yourself, you have a picture of the person you want to be," he says now, "and you try to live your life in hope of becoming that person. When a different picture of you comes to light in an unfair way, it hurts your feelings."
This is the paradox of Pete Rothschild: brash and vulnerable, calculating and impulsive, tough and contrite. "What I really want, what I crave, is making people happy," he blurts. "I make many decisions in life based on that. It's fine to be perceived as powerful, but I'd much rather have somebody like me." If he's crossed, his revenge is vicious, but his closest friends have stuck with him for decades, and even his harshest critics admit they can't help liking him. Enthusiastic as a 20-year-old, Rothschild refuses to gather the cloak of authority around himself. He expends vast amounts of energy to create intimacy and win approval.
Yet he's chosen "the most hated profession that anybody could have.
"Nobody likes their landlord," he says matter-of-factly. "Joe [Edwards] is my hero, because he figured out it's a lot easier to be loved selling someone a beer and hamburger than being a landlord. Every single day I sit there and think, 'Damn, I wish I had decided to sell a great burger or open up a great museum.' There's 25,000 things that can go wrong with an apartment or building, and somebody's always going to be unhappy."
He knows this. He knows what people want of him and what they end up thinking about him. But he can't resist the deals. He bought the Sunshine Inn building on Euclid in 1998 and immediately raised the beloved restaurant's rent impossibly high, forcing the end of 25 idealistic years and scattering dreams and granola in the street. Once again, he'd messed with the expectations: He'd come in like Herbie Balaban, the hope of the funky, liberal, communitarian Central West End, then dealt as coldly as a Clayton commercial developer.
Rothschild enters his McPherson office the back way, running up the outside wooden stairs. People look up as he walks in, checking his mood. He makes jokes, but they're abrupt ones. In his office, rolls of blueprints lean askew in the corner, rocked by a sea of granite samples. There's a stained-glass window, a Dionysian bronze, an oversize martini glass, an overflowing ceramic Champagne bottle, an oversize coffee mug that reads, "I'm not greedy but I like a lot."
Asked what sort of pleasures end up disappointing him, Rothschild looks baffled: "The hot-fudge sundae has never failed to taste good to me." Leigh Leonard, director of property management for the past two years, teases, "Pete loves everything in mass quantities: more people, more buildings, more food, more wine, more stuff. If we could just own everything, life would be much easier!"
He works through lunch, but his assistant, Deborah Fenton, makes an almond-bark run. "We just go down to Bissinger's with a $5 bill and say, 'Pete needs chocolate,'" she shrugs, used to an office that's "like living in a sitcom" -- with all the characters larger than life.
"Nobody in town has as many partners as Pete," says Stephen Trampe, president of Owen Development. At last count, Rothschild had 26. He and Trampe originally planned to redevelop the Continental Building, on Olive Street near Grand Boulevard, together. Now Rothschild's out of it, for reasons neither will discuss. Asked whether he trusts Rothschild, Trampe stammers, "That's too simple -- the question is much more complex than that. I mean, I don't want -- I mean, he's a friend of mine, it's very -- it depends on your perspective, and what you are doing, and when, and how.
"People always want to tell you stories about Pete, and sometimes you don't even know what to say," he adds. "There aren't that many people in town who have two or three reputations."
Rothschild's steadiest partner is Larry Cherry: shorter, slower, fleshier, prone to summaries like "High finish. Pete likes high finish." He started in the women's-shoe business and switched to real estate; five years ago he "partnered up" with Rothschild to help with property management. "I kept getting calls from my connections," says Cherry, "so three years ago, Pete said, 'All right, let's put you out there on the street; let's make some serious money.'
"We could both pull the trigger on a $1 million building faster than deciding what we want for lunch," finishes Cherry. "But Pete's tough to keep up with. He plays Monopoly for real."
They're finishing up renovations on about 150 condo conversions in the central corridor, including 72 rundown apartments north of Olive that Rothschild had the wits to buy just before Washington University secured the Loop with a massive building acquisition around Delmar and Olive boulevards. He's now going upscale with the renovations, playing at the tide's edge.
He's also eager to be part of the Grand Center action, despite a few scotched deals and a recent $1 million lawsuit by St. Louis University. Filed last August, the suit accused Rothschild of defrauding the university by misrepresenting his property on the northeast corner of Grand and Lindell. The university signed a contract, believing that all leases would expire the next month when, in fact, Bullfeathers Pub had a long-term lease, was in breach of contract for failing to pay rent and had been cited for serving alcohol to minors.
Rothschild says Bullfeathers' status was never an issue in his mind because the redevelopment plan he worked out for SLU assumed that Bullfeathers would remain. "What I told them was that Vito's Pizza didn't have a lease," he explains, jaw clenched. "They mistook that and thought for some reason there were no commercial leases." University insiders can't decide whether to believe him; in any event, he settled the lawsuit to their satisfaction, selling Bullfeathers a building he owns in Dogtown.
His portfolio gets him out of scrapes -- but it also wins resentment. "It's easy to not like someone who's everywhere," remarks Karen Duffy of Duff's Restaurant, one of Rothschild's longest-leasing tenants. "It frightens people to have one person with that much power. It feels a little ... undemocratic. Herbie [Balaban] was the king of Euclid, and Pete's sort of come into that role."
Except that Herbie's reputation was golden, and it gleams with even greater luster since his death last year. Compared with him, and with Joe Edwards, Rothschild lacks a grand vision -- and the focus to see it through.
"Nobody has a reputation better than Joe Edwards'," remarks Trampe. "He will make personal sacrifices for the sake of the deal; it's never about money. Joe's always had a vision, not of what Joe wants to be but of what Joe wants the community to be."
Rothschild's drive spirals out from his own ego. Yet he has plenty of ideas about what the Central West End, Soulard, Grand Center and downtown St. Louis should be. He talks with passion about the need to end racism and improve schools; he sketches a retail-and-restaurant streetscape lively enough to lure St. Louis University students to Grand Center. He's on the boards of the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, the Central West End Association, the Ninth District Police Business Association and Northside Team Ministries. Last year he turned a gone-to-seed Lindell mansion into a Symphony Showplace fundraiser and developed the first environmentally conscious house built on spec in St. Louis. He's putting one of his employees through college. Compared with the average real-estate developer, he's Mother Teresa.
Except for that reputation.
Euclid Avenue, 1981. Donna Emmenegger, a skinny, pretty 22-year-old waitress, finishes her shift at the Flamingo Café and decides to walk down to Rothschild's Antiques. She remembers shopping there in high school, when the owner had hair down to the middle of his back and looked like Peter Max fused with Frank Zappa. A truck pulls up alongside her. "We're going that way," calls a guy in the passenger seat. "You want a lift?" She declines. The truck inches alongside, the guy still calling out compliments. Then it zooms ahead.
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.
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."