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Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild (nee van Zuylen de Nyvelt) (1927-1996)

Marie-Hélène Naila Stephanie Josina de Rothschild (1927-1996) was a French socialite who became a doyenne of Parisian high-society. Born in New York, she was the eldest of the three children of Marguerite Marie Namétalla (1901–1970) and Baron Egmont Van Zuylen van Nyevelt (1890–1960). Her mother was born in Egypt of Syrian-immigrant parents, and her father was a diplomat and businessman of Jewish and Dutch descent. Marie-Hélène's paternal grandmother was Hélène, Baroness Etienne van Zuylen de Nyevelt, (née de Rothschild) (1863–1947), the daughter of Salomon James de Rothschild (1835-1864), and the first woman to take part in an international motor race. She was educated at Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York and after finishing school she went to Paris.

Marie-Hélène was married twice; in 1950 to the French Count François de Nicolay (1919–1963) a horsebreeder whom she had met in Paris after school. They had one son, Philippe de Nicolay (b. 1955). They divorced in 1956. In 1957, she married her third cousin once-removed Baron Guy de Rothschild, (1909–2007) head of M M de Rothschild Frères. They married in New York and the marriage was notable for being the first time a head of one of the Rothschild families had married a non-Jewish spouse; as a result of marrying a Roman Catholic Guy felt compelled to resign the Presidency of the Jewish Consistory, the organisation created in 1905 to represent French Jewry. Marie-Hélène and Guy had one son, Edouard Etienne Alphonse, born in 1957, who was raised in the Jewish faith.

Marie-Hélène and the Château de Ferrières and the Hôtel Lambert

Guy de Rothschild and his sisters, Jacqueline, Mrs Gregor Piatigorsky (1911-2013) and Bethsabée (1914-1999), had been raised at the Château de Ferrières outside Paris. Seized by the Germans during the occupation of France in the Second World War, the château remained empty until 1959 when the newlywed Rothschilds decided to reopen it. Marie-Hélène took charge of refurbishing the huge château, making it a place where European nobility mixed with musicians, artists, fashion designers and Hollywood movie stars at grand soirées. She hosted regular parties at Ferrières, mainly inviting aristocracy, but also her friends from the arts, such as Salvador Dali, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn (with whom she was a close friend). The lavish and creative themed balls and charity fundraisers she organised both in Paris and New York gained much publicity, most notably the famous ‘Diner de Têtes Surrealiste’ (The Surrealist Ball), held at Ferrières in December 1972. In 1975, Château de Ferrières was gifted to the chancellery of the universities of Paris by Guy and Marie-Hélène but they retained the home they had built in the woods surrounding the château.

In 1975, the Rothschilds purchased Hôtel Lambert on the Île Saint-Louis, one of the most luxurious mansions in Paris, where they took up residence in the top floors, Marie-Hélène again overseeing restoration. She became friends with the socialite Baron Alexis de Redé who was a tenant on the first floor in Hôtel Lambert and who would later become a fixture at her gatherings. In recognition of her importance in promoting French culture and fashion on an international level, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild was awarded the Légion d'honneur.

After battling cancer and crippling rheumatoid arthritis for more than ten years, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild died in 1996 at her Ferrières country home, aged 68. A Catholic funeral mass was held at the Saint-Louis-en-l'Île church in Paris. Funeral guests were Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Claude Pompidou, Bernadette Chirac, Gianni Agnelli, Alain Delon and Yves Saint Laurent. She was buried in Touques, Calvados where for more than a century her husband's branch of the French Rothschild family has owned the stable, Haras de Meautry.

The Archive does not hold any private papers of Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild.

Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild: 'Diner de Têtes Surrealiste' (The Surrealist Ball): photographs, 1972

000/2698, 25 digital images

Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild: Diner de Têtes Surrealiste (The Surrealist Ball): photographs. A collection of 25 striking images from lavish Diner de Têtes Surrealistes held at Chateau de Ferrières, Paris on the night of 12 December 1972, by Baroness Marie-Hélène and Baron Guy de Rothschild. Following extensive renovation at the hand of the Baroness, the château had become the focus for entertaining film stars, fashion designers, socialites and French aristocracy. The invitation to the Surreralist Ball, inspired by René Magritte, instructed guests to wear black tie and long gowns, the only other directive was to arrive wearing "Surrealist heads.” Adding to the peculiarity, the invitation was printed in reverse, so that a mirror was required to decipher it.

On the evening, the Château de Ferrières was bathed in orange by moving floodlights, the intended impression being that the palace was on fire. Upon entering, guests encountered on the main staircase a series of footmen dressed as cats who had 'fallen asleep' in a variety of staged poses. As described in the New York Times, Marie Hélène was dressed as “a stag at the kill, with a mask of towering antlers and pear-shaped diamond ‘tears’ on her face.” Salvador Dalí himself was there, as well as Brigitte Bardot, Audrey Hepburn, and Marisa Berenson. Baron Alexis de Redé wore a complex hat with multiple faces designed by Dalí. The event received much publicity at the time and has been much written about since. 

Note: The original source of these photographs is not known, although they have been much reproduced. The Archive is unable to grant copyright for reproduction of these, or any other images of the event. The Archive does not hold any original images nor does it hold any other archive material relating to the event. 

Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild, sale catalogue of jewellery collections, 2020

000/2725, 1 volume

Marie-Hélène, Baroness Guy de Rothschild (nee van Zuylen de Nyevelt) (1927-1996): sale catalogue of jewellery collections: Sale Catalogue Bijoux de Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Pierre Bergé & Associés, Paris, Tuesday 15 December 2020.