The First Lady of Fleet Street

By Susan Hertog
Monday, April 23, 2012

"The Lady stomped every precept of authority, only to be trampled by the juggernaut of misogyny and madness."

Her story is as old as Eve—lust for knowledge and power, disillusion, tragedy and rebirth—and as new as the modern world's technologically based global empires.  It begins in the ghettos of Frankfurt and the cities of ancient Babylonia and ends, thousands of miles and cultural eons away, in the mansions of Mayfair and country estates of England.  But what exactly drove Rachel Beer—maverick career woman, mental patient, Jewish convert to Christianity?  Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren's scholarly new biography of the British newspaper owner and editor labors under the weight of its facts but reveals an extraordinary, exemplary woman. 

Rachel's grandfather David Sassoon, born in Iraq, was a shrewd entrepreneur dubbed the "Rothschild of the East."  He made his fortune through a global mercantile empire that traded cotton and silk throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas—and illicitly exported Indian opium to China.  He educated his sons in sacred Jewish law and ritual and the not-so-sacred customs of commerce.  S.D. Sassoon, the third of David's sons, settled in London in 1858 to represent the family's business interests there.  Suddenly transported to a new world of opulence and shifting social standards, S.D. tenaciously clung to his old-world piety—and added the profits of his sometimes-murky commercial transactions to the family coffers.  He and his wife Flora acquired a lavish mansion and a manicured estate.  They sent their three sons to Oxford.

S.D. and Flora hadn't counted on a daughter like Rachel, who refused to play by their rules. Though she was a piano prodigy with a fertile, inquiring mind, she was expected to languish at home, a casualty of 19th-century medical theories that deemed the education of women injurious to their reproductive organs and sanity. But with shrewdness worthy of her grandfather, Rachel circumvented her constraints, using the family's political and social connections to learn nursing and establish herself as an impresario of music and the visual arts.  

Rachel paid a price.  Nearing thirty, with her father dead, she found herself autonomous and unleashed but decidedly past her prime.  Then, in London in the 1880s, at the high noon of imperial Britain, she met Frederick Beer, the sole inheritor of a fortune made by his German forebears. 

The Beer family had earned its wealth through investments in transportation and communications, building railway lines throughout Europe, the Americas, and the Far East and revolutionizing the world by wrapping it in telegraph lines.  Frederick, intellectual and scholarly, set aside the family's commercial interests to assume the reins of his father's newspaper, the Observer, a Sunday weekly dedicated to the social and political concerns of the rising middle class.  Rachel and Frederick, kindred spirits with a passion for one another and the visual and performing arts, as well as a penchant for social justice, joined their ambitions and fortunes in an Anglican church in August, 1887—one day after Rachel, uncoerced by spouse, custom, or law, converted to the Church of England, alienating her family forever.  

But, with her marriage, Rachel found her journalistic calling.  First, she became a reporter and editorialist for the Observer. When she sought more editorial control, she offended the paper's male staff; so, Frederick bought his wife a newspaper of her own, the Sunday Times, of which she became editor-in-chief.  At a time when women weren't allowed to vote and few women made it onto the social pages, let alone the masthead, Rachel acquired rare power.  Knowledgeable, articulate, and determined to expose social injustice, effect political reform, and bring foreign news into the living rooms of her cossetted countrymen, she and her stringers followed the news where it took them.

In 1894 Rachel, alone among British editors, recognized the "volcanic forces" of subterranean French anti-Semitism and began a three-year crusade to overturn the treason conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the French General Staff.  Accused of transferring military documents to German officials and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, Dreyfus, standing in a public square in Paris, was stripped of his rank and uniform while 20,000 Parisians shouted "Death to the Jews!"  Rachel, though thwarted at every turn because of her gender, wealth, and Jewish heritage, succeeded in following the threads of corruption until the true culprit, a desperate, money-hungry French major, signed a letter of confession, a key document in Dreyfus's subsequent exoneration.

When Frederick fell ill, however, Rachel was forced to assume not just his care but the editorship of both newspapers.  For four years, she struggled to sustain their professional, social, and philanthropic commitments.  When Frederick finally died in 1900, Rachel was the sole heir to the Beer family's fabulous wealth.  She was also exhausted, malnourished, and depressed.

As if on cue, the Sassoon family pounced.  Fearing that they would be written out of Rachel's will and unhinged by greed and vengefulness, the once-pious Jews conspired to consume the fragile carcass of their wayward daughter.  Employing three misogynist physicians as "experts," they brought her case to a court-appointed "Master in Lunacy" who, in keeping with the prevailing climate of anti-feminism and legal bias, declared Rachel to be of unsound mind.  Too weak to object and believing that her word alone could never suffice, Rachel pitiably accepted the decree.  Felled by a brutal act of greed of the kind she had spent her adult life exposing, Rachel was stripped of her autonomy and possessions and doomed to spend the rest of her life on her own Devil's Island in Tunbridge Wells, 35 miles from Mayfair and Fleet Street.

Rachel was not fully defeated: In time she rallied, devoting the remainder of her life to the welfare of hospitals, musicians, and disadvantaged women.  She was buried by the town preacher in unhallowed ground, her tombstone aptly reading, "Daughter of the Late David Sassoon."  But in print as in life, Rachel emerges undaunted, a model to the generations of women who have sought an influential voice in the vital issues of their times.

Susan Hertog is the author of two biographies: Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life and Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson: New Women in Search of Love and Power.


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