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Thinking the Unthinkable: A profile of Niall Ferguson

The New Yorker, April 12, 1999

Niall Ferguson portrait

In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the “war to end all wars” came to an end. Every November since 1919, the people of Great Britain have observed two minutes of silence to mark the moment when the guns on the Western Front fell quiet. For the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice, last year, the Royal Family, political leaders, and the Bishop of London gathered on Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in Whitehall to honor the British soldiers who perished in the conflict.

Some of Britain’s most distinguished historians and elder statesmen assembled at the Royal Geographic Society, in London, to hear a lecture by the young historian Niall Ferguson, whose book about the conflict, “The Pity of War,” had just been published to considerable attention Ferguson, in an impeccably tailored suit, looked more like a rising young banker in the City than like an Oxford don who had established his academic credentials, a few years earlier, with a densely analytical study of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. Speaking in the clipped cadences and rolling “r”s of his native Glasgow, he began by describing the suffering that British soldiers endured in the battles of Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Somme, in which twenty thousand men died in a single day. In commemoration of a conflict that inspired a great body of eloquent antiwar literature, he read a poem written in 1916 by a Scottish platoon commander to a dead soldier’s family. “So you were David’s father,/ And he was your only son,/ And the new-cut peats are rotting/ And the work is left undone.”

Then Ferguson abruptly changed course. The war, he said, was more than a tragedy; it was “the greatest error of modern history”-an error for which Britain was heavily to blame. Rather than joining the Allied war effort, he said, Britain should have maintained its neutrality and allowed the Germans to win a limited Continental war against the French and the Russians. In that event, he postulated, Germany, whose war aims in 1914 were relatively modest, would have respected the territorial

integrity of Belgium, France, and Holland and settled for a Geman-led European federation. Had Britain “stood aside,” he continued, it is likely that the century would have been spared the Bolshevik Revolution, the Second World War, and perhaps even the Holocaust. He concluded, “With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter, and Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, for ever waiting for capitalism to collapse.”

The import of the speech was stunning. The Ferguson was assigning Britain the role of villain in a story in which it had always viewed itself as the savior of Europe was heretical. That Britain was somehow accountable for the century’s subsequent catastrophes was unthinkable.

“The pity of war,” published in the United States last month, couldn’t be more timely in a world that is witnessing the birth of a German-dominated European Union and, simultaneously, a massive military attempt by great powers to keep hostilities in the Balkans from spreading beyond local boundaries. Ferguson, in more than five hundred pages, offers a prodigiously researched argument that subverts the conventional wisdom about the origins of the First World War According to standard accounts, the conflict became inevitable when nationalist rivalries in Europe were exacerbated by Germany’s reckless militarism. Britain entered the war for the noble purpose of protecting Belgian neutrality. And the war ended, after four years of horrific battles waged by honorable but reluctant soldiers, only after the intervention of American forces in l918.

Ferguson turns this story on its head. He argues that Britain’s ambiguous and vacillating policy towards Europe had encouraged German aggression, and that it was Britain’s decision to intervene that transformed the war into a worldwide conflict. In other words, the war was not inevitable. While Britain floundered, trying to present a unified front, the Germans seized the advantage, because, Ferguson declares, they “did not care about losing ‘face’; they cared about losing the arms race.” When Britain finally intervened, after Germany invaded neutral Belgium, it was motivated, Ferguson says, more by domestic considerations, by the need to maintain a fragile government coalition, than by high-minded principles. Germany ultimately lost the war, Ferguson writes, not because of the Allies’ military superiority—On the contrary, he says, Germany had a far more efficient army-but because of a “crisis in German morale,” brought on, perhaps, by the soldiers’ knowledge that the German High Command was exploring the possibility of armistice. “The key to the allies’ victory was not an improvement in their ability to kill the enemy,” Ferguson argues, “but rather a sudden increase in the willingness of German soldiers to surrender.”

“The Pity of War” is an attempt to demystify the war by examining it in purely rational terms. Eschewing the dramatic narrative form, Ferguson presents a series of crisply written analytical essays that address key questions. Why did Germany’s leaders decide to gamble on war in the first place? If the goal of war is to kill, then how effectively was it done? If soldiers were miserable, why did so few surrender or desert? If British intervention was inevitable, why did the Cabinet of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith nearly opt for neutrality? And who won the peace, or, in Ferguson’s economically driven terms, who “ended up paying for the war?” His answer to this last question is that, contrary to the popular belief; promulgated by Keynes, the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty were not that severe for the Germans, particularly since they managed to avoid paying all but a fraction of the war reparations.

In what is perhaps the book’s most disturbing chapter, Ferguson asserts that the soldiers on both sides continued to fight for as long as they did because many of them actually enjoyed killing-whether for reasons of revenge or of sheer sport. He contends that the true tragedy of the war was its transformation of initially decent soldiers into morally hollow, indiscriminate killers. Julian Grenfell, the “archetypal upper-class cavalry chap” and a poet, wrote in his war diary how “exciting” it was when, one day, he crept into no man’s land and caught an incautious German soldier “laughing and talking” He went on, “I saw his teeth glisten against my foresight, and I pulled the trigger very steady He just gave a grunt and crumpled up.”

Probably no war, before or since, has inspired such an enormous literary response, from the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon and the novels of Ford Madox Ford, Hemingway, Remarque, and Faulkner to popular historical accounts by everyone from Churchill and Lloyd George to Barbara Tuchman and A.J.P. Taylor.

The war’s commentators have viewed it as a watershed that brought the nineteenth century to a close and gave birth to the technologically sophisticated barbarism of the modern era. Among Ferguson’s targets is the sentiment, expressed by many of these authors, that the conflict was akin to a “natural catastrophe,” an event that was beyond anyone’s control. This view, he charges, only echoes the irresponsible position taken by Grey’s Cabinet, which held that the war was “the result of such vast historical forces that no human agency could have prevented it.”

An economic historian by training, Ferguson buttresses his arguments with statistical charts that compare such data as the combatants’ war expenditures, rates of recruitment, inflation rates, and national debts. Many of his findings lend chilling precision to Bertrand Russell’s definition of war as “maximum slaughter at minimum expense.” For example, according to Ferguson’s calculations, the Germans were the more efficient killers. He writes, “Whereas it cost the Entente Powers $36,485.48 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Central Powers, it cost the Central Powers just $11,344.77 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Entente.”

Even more than his quantitative methods, Ferguson’s philosophical approach to the practice of history has created controversy. For him, writing history is not merely a way to recover the past but an invitation to speculate about what might-or should-have happened but didn’t. In 1997, he edited a collection of essays entitled “Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals,” in which various historians pondered what today’s world might look like if events had taken a different turn at crucial historical moments. (“What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?” “What if there had been no American Revolution?”) With “The Pity of War” Ferguson confirms his place as the dean of Britain’s “What if?” historians.

Ferguson justifies this approach as a “necessary antidote” to the covert determinism he finds in the works of most other historians. To him, the worst of these culprits are the Marxists, who in his view treat history as the story of preordained “winners” and “losers.” (In turn, E. H. Carr, the Marxist scholar and the author of “What Is History?,” dismisses Ferguson’s brand of history as a “parlor game.”) Ferguson’s wrath is not limited to Marxists; it extends to any method that approaches history as a “story” with a beginning, a middle, and an end—a fixed narrative that relegates contingency and alternative outcomes to the realm of science fiction and fantasy. In “Virtual History,” Ferguson explains that by examining the options

that were available at critical junctures the historian is able to “recapture the uncertainty of decision-makers in the past, to whom the future was merely a set of possibilities.” By weighing alternative outcomes, the historian can gain a deeper understanding of why events turned out the way they did. “To understand how it actually was,” Ferguson writes, “we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t-but how, to contemporaries, it might have been.”

Such a cerebral, anti-narrative approach might be expected to distance the reader from the grim human realities of the conflict, but “The Pity of War” had the opposite effect on me. While following the twists and turns of Ferguson’s richly detailed, relentlessly contrarian arguments-and there are literally hundreds of them in the text-I found myself caught up in the suspense of the war, at times even wondering how it would end. As Ferguson led me down the myriad roads not taken, I was “virtually” transformed into a decision-maker in those years—so much so that the question “What if?” became more compelling than “What happened?”

Ferguson’s methods have their flaws. He is so interested in spinning clever scenarios about how events should have gone that when it comes to the more mundane business of explaining how, for example, the Allies eventually managed to win he falls short. And his ultimate virtual scenario-that we’d all be better off if Germany had won a limited war-seems, at best, far-fetched. As of the book’s fiercest critics, Lord Noel Annan, succinctly put it to me, “If we had stood aside, the result would have been a Europe dominated by German militarism, not by some nice democratic power.” It is unsurprising that Ferguson has been accused of being pro-German, but he would argue that his position is merely more objective than traditional accounts. In the book, he concedes that an American diplomat who observed during the war that “the Germans want somebody to rob—to pay their great military bills” was probably right. Still, he believes that, as he said to me, “a unified

Germany would have been much less prone to Nazi ideology, because Wilhelmine Germany was one of the most philo- semitic states in the world.” Lurking between the lines of “The Pity of War” is a grand counterfactual vision that smacks of nostalgia for a lost Britain. Although Ferguson never says so explicitly, his book can be read as the dream of a young conservative who wants to put Britain back in the center of a world in which its empire still exists and its friendly, pre-1914 relationship with Germany endures.

If Niall Ferguson were a wild-eyed radical, his argument would sting less, but “The Pity of War” is a critique from the heart of the British intellectual establishment. Although Ferguson is just thirty-four years old, he has been a don-first at Cambridge and now at Oxford-for a decade, and he has already written more books and papers than many in his field have in a lifetime.

Since 1995, when Cambridge University Press releascd “Paper and Iron,” a well-regarded study of German hyperinflation during the nineteen-twenties, Ferguson has published, in addition to “The Pity of War,” a widely praised thirteen-hundred-page biography of the Rothschild family, “The World’s Banker.” Writing in The New Republic, the historian Fritz Stern said that the book reaffirms ones faith in the possibility of great historical writing.” (In the United States, the biography is being published in two parts, the second of which will appear in November.) Ferguson belongs to a small contingent of opinioneering British intellectuals known in the press as Dial-a-Dons, and over the past few years he has turned out hundreds of reviews and commentaries for newspapers and journals. Lately, Ferguson has become a forceful critic of New Labour. He is especially harsh on Tony Blair’s proposal for Scottish autonomy within a rebranded “cool Britannia”; in his view, “Scotland has benefited hugely from the union, almost more than England has.”

Last fall, Ferguson made a publishing deal, with Penguin, that is unprecedented for a historian. The terms call for him to receive an advance of six hundred thousand pounds (or nearly a million dollars) for three books. “The Pity of War,” a history of the decline of European monarchy, and a study of the role of sexuality in ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Ferguson made the deal himself; after firing his (second) literary agent, and Penguin seems thrilled with the coup. “Niall’s wish to become quite famous is a fantastic boon to his publisher,” Simon Winder, the firm’s editorial director, remarked to me. Ferguson describes his windfall in broader terms. “It’s good news that history is box office,” he told the Guardian.

But in a country that maintains more than sixty thousand memorials to the First World War;there are more than twenty-two hundred in London alone-“The Pity of War” was received, in many quarters, as blasphemy. Veterans’ groups have denied that soldiers killed their prisoners-yet another of the book’s controversial arguments—or enjoyed killing, and have questioned Ferguson’s sources and his motives.

Many of the negative reviews have focused on Ferguson’s desire to attack every accepted interpretation of the war. “There is something of the clever-silly about his over-determined contrarianism,” the political historian R.W. Johnson wrote in The London Review of Books. In The Times Literary Supplement, Sir Michael Howard denounced Ferguson for overstepping his bounds. “Historians are judges, not advocates or juries,” Howard wrote. “Our function can only be to discover what happened and try to explain why.”

In general, however, “The Pity of War” has been well received. The British political journal Prospect recently called Ferguson the brightest of the generation of young, post-Cold War British “pop” historians-Orlando Figes and Mark Mazower are two others-who have “embarked on an intrepid endeavor: to fire the historical imagination of their contemporaries-both in Britain and abroad-to seize the Zeit by its Geist.” And, in an unsigned piece, a reviewer for The Economist wrote, “At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed this dismal intellectual landscape, a kind of Flanders of the mind, [by bringing] the carnage of 1914-1918 into sharp, unmystified focus.”

In “What Is History?” E. H. Carr offers this advice. “Before you study the history, study the historian.” Recently, I took the Underground into London’s financial district and walked over to the Bank of England, on Threadneedle Street, where Ferguson has a fellowship to study the history of British bond rates. After being checked in by a pair of guards wearing top hats and tails, I was met by a slender young man in a stylish green corduroy suit and a starched pink shirt, whose boyish good looks the British press has likened to Tom Cruise’s.

“Welcome to the building from which Britain once ran the world,” Ferguson said, greeting me with a broad smile and a bone-crunching handshake. He led me on a tour through the long marble halls and elegant courtyards of Sir John Soane’s Neoclassical masterpiece, pointing out the bank’s small war memorial on one side of the lobby. Confident and warm in manner, he seemed at once eager to demonstrate a degree of Scottish reserve and to subvert it with joking, offhand remarks.

When we arrived at Ferguson’s office, he directed me to a chair beneath a blackboard that was covered with incomprehensible mathematical hieroglyphics. He handed me an article he had written entitled “Political Economy of the International Bond Market from the Age of Reason to the Present with Special Reference to the Period from 1850 to 1914.” With a grin, he explained, “This is me wearing my academic hat. Look at these graphs, and you’ll see that I’m really nothing but a train-spotter at heart.”

In fact, government bonds hold the key to Ferguson’s view of history. As he wrote in his Rothschild biography, they are the crucial historical indices, the “daily opinion poll of confidence in a given regime.” Bond rates offer the historian clues to how people have actually experienced their times. “What historians need to realize,” Ferguson told me, “is that the thing people are really interested in is the short-term, day-to-day changes in politics and the economy. Even in the nineteenth Century, people were only dimly aware that there was this big industrialization going on around them. What they really cared about was right in front of them. ‘What will the price of French bonds be tomorrow? Should I buy or sell? Will the government survive this vote or will it fail?'”

When I asked Ferguson why he wrote “The Pity of War,” he told me about his grandfather. In 1914, at the age of sixteen, John Gilmour Ferguson tried to join the Army, only to be dragged home by his mother. The day he turned seventeen, he signed up with the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders. The Germans called the Highland troops, who were used as advance shock troops, devils in skirts; the Scots’ high mortality rate-twenty-six per cent as opposed to eleven per cent for other British soldiers-indicates that the nickname was well earned. Young John Ferguson survived with only a gunshot wound to one shoulder, but his lungs were permanently scarred by mustard gas. Niall Ferguson remembers that, as a child, he would sit on his grandfather’s knee while the old man huffed and wheezed.

Ferguson grew up in a family with a strong scientific bent: his father is a doctor, his mother a physicist, and his sister a biologist. He attended the Glasgow Academy, a no-nonsense grammar school, where the city’s middle-class sons prepared for careers in law or medicine. The school was also a war memorial: each morning the students passed by a granite slab inscribed with the names of the three hundred and twenty-seven alumni who had died in the First World War Inside, a memorial honor roll bore the words “Say not that the brave die.” Ferguson remembers being upset by the phrase. “I’d pass by this shrine every day and wonder what it meant,” he told me. “Was the war a foolish disaster or a noble achievement? In the morning, we’d read Wilfred Owen’s poetry about the tragedy of war, and in the afternoon we’d go to the playground to march around in uniform, drilled by Army regulars. I thought this was absurd.” He chose to write his first school paper, at the age of twelve, on “trench warfare.” As a teenager, he became transfixed by A.J.P. Taylor’s televised lectures on European history. Taylor’s study of the First World War was the first adult history book he read.

Ferguson won a scholarship to study history at Magdalen College, Oxford. “He was very much a Scot on the make,” his penguin editor, Simon Winder, recalls. “Niall was a witty, belligerent bloke who seemed to have come from an entirely different planet.” At Magdalen, Ferguson became acutely aware of class hypocrisies. “I was surrounded by insufferable Etonians with fake Cockney accents who imagined themselves to be working-class heroes in solidarity with the striking miners,” he told me. “It wasn’t long before it became clear that the really funny and interesting people on campus were Thatcherites.” He joined the Oxford Union, where William Hague (now the Conservative Party leader) had presided, and where Andrew Sullivan was now in charge. Ferguson and Sullivan, who went on to be the editor of The New Republic, became best friends. “Niall and I were Thatcherites when it was distinctly unfashionable,” Sullivan recalls. “We loved her iconoclasm and the passionate attachment to institutions which she combined with a deep desire to rattle them.”

Ferguson calls this his “punk Tory” period, a phase when he and Sullivan listened to the Sex Pistols and vied to see who could most effectively rankle the left-liberal majority. He treasures an invitation he received from friends at Balliol in the early eighties, to a cocktail party to celebrate the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. The invitations were illustrated with champagne bottles emitting mushroom clouds. The conservative Cambridge historian John Adamson remembers dining with Ferguson the night Thatcher resigned. “We both sensed it was the end of an era,” Adamson said.

“After dinner, we consumed a monumental amount of whiskey in his rooms while blasting the last scene of Gotterdammerung,’ where Brunnhilde throws herself on the funeral pyre and the whole world comes to an end.”

After taking a First in history, Ferguson was accepted into the postgraduate program. He chose as his mentor the historian Norman Stone, who was a fellow-Scot, a Glasgow Academy alumnus, a much reviled Thatcherite, and-like one of Stone’s heroes, A.J.P. Taylor—a media don. “Old A.J.P. was the grandfather of us all,” Stone told me. “When academic history was getting more elitist and narrow, he popularized it in a way no one else could.” Indeed, in the long line of British historians, it is Taylor, with his iconoclastic sensibility, fondness for the spotlight, and journalistic facility, whom Ferguson most resembles.

Ferguson improved his German by meeting with Stone at an Oxford pub at eleven in the morning to read Nietzsche over pints of Guinness. He wanted to write his thesis on the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, but Stone urged him to choose a more quantitative, analytical topic. As an undergraduate, Ferguson had studied medieval financial history with the eminent economist Gerald Harris; while his peers were reading Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, Ferguson was poring over Marx, Keynes, and Adam Smith. “Harris made me realize that understanding finance and tax systems really mattered for a historian,” Ferguson said. “He taught me that history had to be difficult to be good.”

After Oxford, Ferguson spent a year and a half in Hamburg, in the Warburg archives, studying the hyperinflation that crippled Germany in the early nineteen-twenties. The book that emerged from his dissertation, “Paper and Iron,” was his first foray into counterfactual thinking. In it, he postulated what Weimar Germany would have looked like if it had been run according to Thatcherite economics. He argued that the hyperinflation that destroyed Weimar’s rich bourgeois culture could have been avoided by a combination of deflationary economic policies and authoritarian political measures.

Along with a small German fellow-ship, Ferguson supported his Hamburg research by writing for London’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. One afternoon, the Telegraph’s foreign editor informed him that its Bonn office had closed and that Ferguson was now the paper’s sole German correspondent. “Every day,” he says, “I’d run out of the archive at four-thirty, when it closed, and make frantic phone calls to find out what had happened. And then I’d write it up while I was standing in the phone booth and call it in.”

Ferguson says that it was his experience as a journalist that taught him to write quickly and concisely, and he prides himself on his ability to write on any subject. He’s as comfortable with issuing polemics against the European monetary union as he is with dashing off life-style columns on Internet fatigue or on his children’s favorite toys. Journalism also provides him with the opportunity to remind the British establishment that, while he is solidly in it, he will never be entirely of it. Readers who learned of the birth of his first child in his column in the conservative Telegraph were no doubt surprised when he announced, several months later, his marriage to the child’s mother. In the years before he had tenure, Ferguson juggled several pseudonyms to protect his academic reputation. When one Daily Mail editor insisted that an author’s photograph be run alongside Ferguson’s column, he put on a pair of thick glasses to disguise himself.

“The English are absolutely dazzled by productivity, particularly at Oxbridge, where there is almost a perverse esteem for those who eschew the vulgarity of print,” John Adamson told me. The fact that Ferguson wrote “The Pity of War” in just five months and completed the massive Rothschild biography in five years-while maintaining a full teaching load-has caused a good deal of consternation among even his most prolific peers. A number of dons I talked to dismissed his weighty tomes as “coffee-table books” or “mere journalism.” But much of the enmity is directed at Ferguson’s habit of employing well-paid research assistants—a practice that is commonplace among American professors but still relatively rare among their British counterparts.

In 1990, Ferguson’s research skills were tested when he was asked by the publisher George Weidenfeld to write the authorized biography of the Rothschild family. Although he was the first scholar to be given unrestricted access to the personal and professional records of Europe’s most powerful banking dynasty, there was a catch much of the material was in Judendeutsch, an archaic form of German written in Hebrew script, which the Rothschilds used to encode their missives. Instead of adding years to the project by deciphering the Hebrew lettering, Ferguson enlisted a Rothschild employee to read the documents into a tape recorder. He then listened to the tapes, so that he could swiftly identify exactly which sections he needed for his book.
When Ferguson returned from Germany, in 1989, to teach at Cambridge, he was the object of undergraduate fascination. His frequent absences from campus and his stylish wardrobe led to a rumor that he was an agent with M15. “Niall kept the different parts of his life separated as carefully as Maoist terrorists guard their cells,” one former colleague says. Ferguson was a charismatic teacher. One student recalls seeing a cadre of women and gay men swoon in the first few rows of a lecture hall as Ferguson launched a course on Weimar Germany with a multimedia assortment of Kurt Weill songs and Georg Grosz paintings.

Ferguson elected to teach at the famously reactionary college of Peterhouse, where he was taken up by the arch-conservative historian Maurice Cowling. “The whole of my life has been dedicated to sneering at liberal high-mindedness, and Niall has none of it,” Cowling told me. “He is a demotic conservative who takes the world as he finds it. He hasn’t got a burning desire to make the world better than it is, nor-unlike Marxist historians-does he condemn it.”

Ferguson returned to Oxford in 1992 and took up a lectureship at Jesus College. On a cold, foggy morning, I took a train from Paddington Station to Oxford. A cabdriver dropped me at the college, where, on the third floor of an Elizabethan building, Ferguson has a spacious suite. A faded Oriental rug covers floorboards worn down by four centuries of pacing dons. Ferguson is currently on a year’s sabbatical, and he divides his days between Oxford, the Bank of England, and Windsor Castle, where he is doing research for his book about the European monarchy, entitled “Twilight of the Crowns.” When he’s working in London, he sleeps in a flat he has in Soho; when he’s working in Oxford, he heads home to a seventeenth-century farmhouse, ten miles out of town, which he shares with his wife, the journalist Susan Douglas, and their two children. After lunch at a French bistro, we climbed into Ferguson’s rattling Land Rover, drove into the countryside, and, finally, turned onto a muddy road leading to the farmhouse, a large stone building that appeared so ancient it might have grown out of the verdant earth surrounding it.

In the company of two black Labrador retrievers, two cats, a flock of ducks, and stables full of horses, I felt as though I’d been whisked into a James Herriot novel. After stoking the fire in the dining room, Ferguson introduced me to his wife, who was seven months pregnant; in a black cocktail dress, black stockings, and black suede pumps, she looked dressed for an evening in a Soho club. Douglas, who was once described by the Telegraph as “the living embodiment of Eighties Executive Media Woman,” is clearly a formidable asset to Ferguson’s donnish ambitions.

Ferguson and Douglas met in 1987, when she was his editor at the Daily Mail; he spent the next five years working up the courage to ask her for a date. Douglas has held top editorial positions at the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express, and currently works as a consultant; until several months ago, she was flying to New York once a week to help Bob Guccione, Jr., launch his new magazine, Gear. There has been gossip that the extraordinary attention paid to “The Pity of War” was due to her media connections, although Ferguson has had nearly as much journalistic experience as she has. “You mean Dr. and Mrs. Glamour?” one Fleet Street veteran said when I mentioned the couple.

Over dinner, I asked Douglas and Ferguson how they were able to get so much twentieth-century work done in their seventeenth-century setting. After outlining complex arrangements with nannies, caretakers, and research assistants, Ferguson told me how his research on the Rothschilds had influenced his vision of the intellectual’s vocation. “I was extremely impressed by their single-minded work ethic,” he said, lifting his wineglass for emphasis “Nathan Rothschild has this wonderful line: ‘I don’t play cards, I don’t go to the theatre: all I do is business.’ Studying the Rothschilds made me realize, Why be a passive, unworldly academic author who expects to be able to sit all day in an ivory tower writing great works that no one will read? After all, history is a business, too.”