John Rothchild, 74, dies; Wrote about personal finance with wit

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John Rothchild, 74, dies; Wrote about personal finance with wit
Rothchild began his journalism career in the 1970s as a political editor at Washington Monthly before becoming a freelance writer for outlets like Time, GQ and Outside.

by Brian X. Chen

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- John Rothchild, a prolific journalist who used humor to turn books about personal finance into engaging reads, including several in collaboration with successful investor Peter Lynch and one titled “A Fool and His Money,” died on Dec. 27 at a care facility in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was 74.

His daughter Sascha Rothchild said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

Rothchild began his journalism career in the 1970s as a political editor at Washington Monthly before becoming a freelance writer for outlets like Time, GQ and Outside. He wrote about Florida, where he was raised, as well as mountain climbing and cycling, hobbies he adopted later in life, and personal finance.

He picked up the personal finance bug in the 1980s. One of his best-known books, “A Fool and His Money” (1988), subtitled “The Odyssey of an Average Investor,” was recognized for its comically absurd guarantee: Readers would not earn a penny from the information it contained.

“No work on the subject of personal finance has even tried to make this claim before,” satirist P.J. O’Rourke wrote in a foreword to the book. “That is because works on the subject of personal finance are all lying.”

Critics appreciated the novelty of Rothchild’s approach.

“We are accustomed to the investment advice book in which the author tries to prove himself more expert than his audience,” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in a review in The New York Times. “Not so common is the investment advice book in which the author tries to prove himself dumber than the rest of us.”

“As such,” he added, “it is highly amusing and also strangely informative.”

The book sold well, and according to Rothchild’s daughter it caught the eye of Peter Lynch, the former manager of the Magellan Fund at Fidelity Investments. Rothchild and Lynch collaborated on several popular books on stock trading. Their “One Up on Wall Street” (1989) “Beating the Street” (1993) and “Learn to Earn” (1995) were all Times bestsellers.

In “One Up on Wall Street,” the authors emphasized the importance of doing real-world research when choosing companies to invest in.

One case study involved the Hanes clothing brand. In the early 1970s, Hanes sold pantyhose called L’eggs, packaged in colorful plastic eggs, for a low price in grocery outlets and drugstores, where people shop weekly. In contrast, competitors focused on selling more expensive pantyhose at department stores.

Hanes went on to become one of the biggest stocks of the decade, thanks in part to the success of L’eggs. The lesson? Lynch had heard about L’eggs not from a stockbroker but from his wife, and later did the research on the company’s balance sheet.

Rothchild’s clever prose made the books accessible to average people, Lynch said in an interview.

“I was the fire hose throwing stuff at John all the time and he’d compress it,” he said. “I couldn’t have imagined if I’d spent years interviewing a thousand people I’d get anyone as talented as John.”

Friends and family members described Rothchild as intensely focused. For some time he was obsessed with the card game duplicate bridge, until he dropped it in favor of bicycling and mountain climbing.

“He would find something, not let it go, and then at some point he’d say, ‘I’ve done enough of that,’” said writer Daniel Okrent, a close friend.

John Harmon Rothchild was born on May 13, 1945, in Norfolk, Virginia, to Tom and Barbara (Calloway) Rothchild. He grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, where his father was a high school principal and his mother ran a dress shop.

After graduating from high school in 1963 he studied Latin American affairs at Yale, where he was the managing editor of The Yale Daily News and became a Fulbright scholar. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1967. He then joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Ecuador before he started working for Washington Monthly.

Rothchild met his future wife, Susan Berns, while covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami. His daughter said that he met Berns, a Manhattan socialite-turned-bohemian and daughter of the owner of the “21” Club, at a Miami mansion. She invited him to accompany her to the Bahamas, and they collaborated on “Children of the Counterculture” (1976), a book about children raised on communes, before they married on New Year’s Eve in 1976.

In addition to his daughter Sascha and his wife, with whom he lived in Miami Beach and Edenton, North Carolina, Rothchild is survived by another daughter, Berns Rothchild; a son, Chauncey; a sister, Melanie Rothchild; and a grandson.

In addition to writing about finance, Rothchild wrote about Florida. Most notably, he co-wrote the autobiography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a conservationist known for her defense of the Florida Everglades.

Sascha Rothchild, a writer, recalled that in high school, her class was assigned an article that Rothchild had written about Douglas. The students’ homework was to take a quiz on the reading material. One question asked what the author’s intent was in repeating a word in a sentence.

“My father said: ‘That was bad writing. Someone didn’t edit that, and that was lazy writing,’” she said. “That was such a great moment.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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