The banter across the tennis nets at the Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs was as warm as the February afternoon sunshine. This was a tournament, but a friendly one. The organizer, Jac Rothschild, personally had sent out the invitations to 30 buddies. With a twinkle in his eye, he referred to it as the "First Annual Rothschild Invitational."

After the matches, Rothschild, an 82-year-old retired brigadier general, changed from his tennis shorts into an open-necked shirt with an ascot, dress slacks and a classy navy blazer. He and his wife, Phyllis, 77, an avid art collector, treated everyone to a banquet of steaks and drinks.

The Rothschilds, known to their friends as a stately, dignified couple, were the stars of the party. Almost two years later, the memories of Phoenix's best-planned and most remarkable tennis tournament still are vivid.

One of the guests, Lisa Gervase-Briney, recalls that Phyllis Rothschild chatted during dinner about how she had had a crush on Jac, her older brother's friend, since grade school.

"My impression of Phyllis was this is the kind of woman we all want to be," she says. "These folks were just classy. They had done so much in their lives. I just felt energized after talking with Phyllis. Everything was so upbeat."

After the meal, Jac rose from one end of the banquet table at the Pointe and made a short speech, thanking his friends for joining him and Phyllis. Then he handed out tee shirts as tournament souvenirs. On the shirts was a crest and a Latin phrase meaning: "Don't ever play leapfrog with a unicorn."

Like everything else Jac Rothschild planned, the tournament and banquet ran smoothly. "He did it all himself," says Kenny DeForest, 69, Rothschild's longtime doubles partner. "That's the way he was. He was a military man, and things went properly and orderly."

Rothschild's planning skills were in evidence again a month later.
On March 14, 1990, he played a morning tennis match with DeForest. Afterward, he gave DeForest a sealed envelope. On the outside were instructions that the envelope wasn't to be opened until the next morning. Maybe it was unusual, but as DeForest says, "Jac used to give me a lot of things and say: `Read this.'"

That night, Jacquard H. and Phyllis M. Rothschild left their Central Avenue high-rise luxury apartment. They ate dinner and then checked into room 712 at the Park Central Holiday Inn.

The next morning, as DeForest had been instructed, he opened the letter. This is what he read: "Dear Ken: Phyllis and I simultaneously ingested five grams of secobarbital each yesterday, sufficient to be lethal. We are at the Holiday Inn. Imposing on an old, trusted, good friend, I would appreciate it if you would call the police, have them meet you there and identify us."

Jac wrote that the room had been prepaid. So had cremation. Letters to the police and the mortuary would be found in the room. Jac asked Ken to call the Rothschilds' son, Ron, a city administrator in Anaheim, California.

In the packet from Jac were 75 letters--addressed and stamped--to the Rothschilds' friends around the world.

"When there is no doubt of our deaths," Jac wrote, "please mail the enclosed letters. This is a lot to ask and Phyllis and I appreciate it greatly. Our best love to Peggy and you."

Kenny DeForest did as his old friend asked, starting with a call to police.

"It was unusual, absolutely," recalls Larry Martinsen, the veteran Phoenix police detective summoned to the Holiday Inn that morning. Martinsen, now an investigator for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, had been to many death scenes--but not like this one. "I saw two people lying in bed, side by side, covered up, holding hands," he recalls. "I had never come to a scene where there were two bodies holding hands. I don't think I'd ever forget that."

On the hotel room dresser were keys and a prescription bottle. "The items were laid out very neatly, almost a display," Martinsen recalls.

And there was a typed letter to police explaining what Jac and Phyllis Rothschild had done: "We were 82 years and 77 years old respectively. We were not depressed nor overly sick though certainly not comfortable. We just determined we were not going to reach the state where serious illness, or the general deterioration of old age, was going to make us completely dependent upon others with the attendant loss of dignity and meaning of life. If society were humane enough to allow doctors to give permanent release to patients on request (properly safeguarded) we would not have had to act before such great disability was a reality."

Above their signatures, Jac and Phyllis added, "Sorry to have caused you inconvenience."

It was about to dawn on the Rothschilds' family and friends for the first time that the "First Annual Rothschild Invitational" tennis tournament was actually the couple's own farewell party.

THE ROTHSCHILDS' SUICIDES weren't a complete surprise to their family and at least a few of their friends.

Jac Rothschild was healthy, but for more than a decade Phyllis Rothschild had suffered from crippling rheumatoid arthritis. "In my mom's case, every day was painful," Ron Rothschild says.

For two years, Jac Rothschild had talked about the idea of suicide, recalls Kenny DeForest. He knew the couple had joined the Hemlock Society, a group that advocates assisted suicide. But Jac never told Kenny how or when it might happen.

"He just said when the time came, they had the means to take care of it," recalls DeForest. "I didn't like the idea of him leaving the world this way. I didn't want it to happen. But I figured if that's what he wanted to do, I had no objection to it."

Despite all that, DeForest says, he wasn't prepared for that day in March 1990. "I got up and opened the envelope and it really broke me up," he recalls. "We had had no conversations about it lately. He was doing well. He was in good spirits. He had played well that morning."

Ron Rothschild was entering a meeting that morning at his office in Anaheim when his secretary interrupted him with Kenny DeForest's urgent long-distance call. Ron says he just sat alone in his office for a while. He recalls that he didn't feel shocked, exactly. "It was kind of a jolt or a hollow feeling," he says.

In the past year, his parents had outlined their suicide plans to him and had written detailed letters explaining the decision to their two teenage grandchildren. "It was kind of like they took it in stages," says Ron Rothschild.

First, he says, they talked about the idea of elderly people committing suicide before becoming too ill to take care of themselves. Rothschild describes his father as a "work hard-play hard" kind of guy and his mother as a philanthropist who loved sculpture and music. "They were fearful of being infirm," he says. "Neither of them wanted to get to the point that they wished they would have done it sooner."

Several months later, Jac and Phyllis told their son they had joined the Hemlock Society. In their next installment of news, they announced they were planning a double suicide.

"I questioned them to be sure that was what they both really wanted," Ron says. "I asked them: `Don't you want to stay and see how it all turns out?' And their answer to that, of course, was: `No one ever gets to see how it all comes out.'"

Looking back now, Ron Rothschild says his parents dropped hints during their last visit to him. It was the Christmas of 1989. "I could sense momentum, bits and pieces of their saying stuff, talking about their financial affairs," he recalls.

The biggest clue came when he asked about their future travel plans. His parents had lived and traveled all over the world and were especially fond of the Wimbledon tennis tourney in London. But Ron says they told him that Christmas: "I think we've done that for the last time."

Still, Ron Rothschild says, he did not know the suicides were imminent.
At the time, Kenny DeForest says, nobody guessed the First Annual Rothschild Invitational tournament had been a goodbye party. "It all kind of fit in place after I thought about it, after the fact," DeForest says.

Final Exit, a book that offers a recipe for suicide, is a current best seller that everyone's talking about. But when the Rothschilds were planning their own final exit, they stopped talking about it and threw a party.

Nobody at the Rothschild Invitational tried to talk Jac and Phyllis out of anything. Nobody knew. Their friends recall the tournament as quite a celebration, a time for jokes and good food. "Everyone was upbeat," DeForest says. "Everyone was having a good time."

That's what his parents wanted, Ron Rothschild says, adding, "They wanted to be up with people the last time they saw them."

And that's what guest Lisa Gervase-Briney remembers. "They were on show," she recalls. "This was their day."

"I had never come to a scene where there were two bodies holding hands."

"Their answer was: `No one ever gets to see how it all comes out.'