Siegfried Sassoon

Two Aunts

The book featured on this page is a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and the Salaman and Absal of Jami, published by Bernard Quaritch in 1879.

The book was given as a gift to Louise Sassoon from her sister Rachel in 1889 as shown in the inscription (below right). Louise Sassoon and Rachel [Beer] were both aunts of Siegfried Sassoon.

Louise Sassoon - The Gunzburg family was a distinguished Russian family of bankers and philanthropists. Baron Joseph Yozel Gunburg founded the Joseph Yevsel Guenzburg bank in St. Petersburg, which became one of the chief financial institutions of Russia. Baron Horace de Gunzburg, Joseph's son, was financial adviser to the archduke of Hesse Darmstadt and was appointed consul-general in Russia from 1868-1872. Baron Horace de Gunzburg's favourite daughter, Louise, married Joseph Sassoon, one of the brothers of Siegfried’s father, Alfred.

This marriage had been arranged by Joseph’s mother, Flora, and Joseph dutifully made his way to Russia to meet her. Young, rich, beautiful, and strictly Orthodox, she was the perfect partner. They were soon married and Louise was brought back to England where she took up residence at the family home, an Elizabethan mansion called Ashley Park, at Walton-on-Thames.

Rachel Beer (below) - (1858–1927) was editor of The Observer (1891–1904) and owner-editor of The Sunday Times (1893–1904). Rachel was born in Bombay to Sassoon David Sassoon, of the Iraqi Sassoon family, one of the wealthiest families of the 19th century.

Omar Khyyam
Omar Khyyam Inscription

As a young woman, Rachel volunteered as a nurse in a hospital before marrying the wealthy financier Frederick Arthur Beer in 1887. Before long Frederick began to show signs of a mysterious illness which was the cause of headaches, changes of mood and creeping paralysis. This was eventually diagnosed as  inherited syphilis which had either been passed on by his mother who had purportedly been an opera singer, but may have carried on a different profession, or from his father who had caught the disease from a previous mistress and who then passed it on to his wife and then to Frederick. Rachel converted to the Anglican religion when she married Frederick, who was also an Anglican as his Jewish family had also converted. The Beers had their roots as a banking family in the Frankfurt ghetto. In the UK they were financiers whose investments included ownership of newspapers. 

Rachel Beer

Soon after her marriage to Frederick, Rachel began contributing articles to The Observer, which the Beer family then owned. In 1891, she took over as editor, becoming the first female editor of a national newspaper in the process. Two years later, she purchased the Sunday Times and became the editor of that newspaper as well. Though "not . . . a brilliant editor", she was known for her "occasional flair and businesslike decisions". It was during her time as editor that The Observer achieved one of its greatest exclusives: the admission by Count Esterhazy that he had forged the letters that condemned innocent Jewish officer Captain Dreyfus to Devil’s Island. The story provoked an international outcry and led to the release and pardon of Dreyfus and court martial of Esterhazy.

Frederick's death in 1903 triggered a breakdown in Rachel. Her erratic behavior, culminating in a collapse, was proof that Frederick had passed the disease on to her. The following year she was committed and her trustees sold both newspapers. Although Rachel subsequently recovered, she required nursing care for the remainder of her life. Rachel spent her final years at Chancellor House in Tunbridge Wells, where she died in 1927.

Though Rachel's husband Frederick was buried in his father's enormous mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery in London, Rachel's family intervened to prevent her burial in that bastion of Anglican religion. Instead she was interred in the Sassoon family mausoleum in Brighton. Among her relatives was her nephew Siegfried Sassoon. Her brother Alfred, Siegfried’s father, had been cut off by his family for marrying outside the Jewish faith; though Rachel had also married a gentile, in her case the action was forgivable because of her sex (or maybe the wealth of her husband). In her will she left a generous legacy of 50,000 to Siegfried, enabling him to purchase Heytesbury House in Wiltshire, where he spent the rest of his life. In honour of her bequest, Siegfried hung an oil portrait of his aunt over the fireplace.

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