Frédéric Émile, Baron d'Erlanger was born to banker Raphael Erlanger and his young wife, Margarete Helene Albert (1800–1834). Just prior the birth of his eldest sister Susanne Adolphine (1829–1873), his father converted from Judaism to Christianity for his wife's sake. Susanne eventually married the Frankfurt merchant Franz Josef Carl Langenberger (1821–1878). As the eldest son, Friedrich Emil Erlanger became involved in extensive banking and bill transactions early in life. By age 19, he was so successful with his father in the brokerage business that he was appointed Consul General and fiscal agent at Paris by the Greek Government under Otto I. He visited the royal court in Stockholm and was involved in successful Swedish and Portuguese state financial negotiations. Queen Maria II of Portugal and her husband, Ferdinand II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, ennobled Raphael as a hereditary Portuguese Baron in order to thank Friedrich Emil, who would eventually inherit the title, for his services. Raphael was subsequently granted titles by the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen and the Austrian Empire, who named him a hereditary baron and awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Franz Joseph. In 1853 Frederick Emil fell ill and withdrew from business activities. In order to restore his health, he began to conduct travelers to Greece and Egypt. Here he met the Suez Canal planner Lesseps and became fascinated by the idea of the Canal. After his recovery, he became a partner of his father's Frankfurt bank, Erlanger & Sons.
On 30 June 1858, Frederick Emil Erlanger married a young Parisian socialite, Florence Louise Odette Lafitte (1840–1931). Her grandfather, Jacques Laffitte, was a banker, governor of the Bank of France, Finance Minister, and Prime Minister of France temporarily. In 1859, d'Erlanger officially took over the business of the banking house in Paris. He changed his name and was afterwards called Frédéric Émile Baron d'Erlanger. His marriage failed, however. The couple had no children and they divorced in December 1862.
On 3 October 1864, Baron d'Erlanger married the American Marguerite Mathilde Slidell (1842–1927), the daughter of the influential American lawyer, businessman and politician John Slidell (1793–1871). Slidell was the Ambassador of the Confederate States of America at the court of Emperor Napoleon III. His wife, Maria Deslonde Mathilde, was from an influential Creole family whose ancestors emigrated from Brest, France, in the seventeenth century. D'Erlanger met his second wife in New Orleans during a trip to America. She grew up on the prosperous plantation Belle Pointe in Laplace, Louisiana, 25 miles (40 km) west of New Orleans. Later, she moved with her family to Paris, where she and her sister received great attention because of their extraordinary beauty. Her sister Marie Rosine married Comte de Saint-Roman. D'Erlanger and his wife built a villa situated in the affluent 16th Arrondissement of Paris that still exists today. The access roads to the villa, "Villa Erlanger" and "Rue Erlanger," are named in his honor. In 1870, shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the family moved to London. The headquarters of the banking house moved there from Paris as well. D'Erlanger resided at 139 Piccadilly in London, the former home of Lord Byron. The German-born baron and all his family members became British citizens. He was authorized to use his foreign titles of nobility, despite some strong opposition at first.
The couple had four children. Raphael Slidell d'Erlanger (1865–1897) was a zoologist and professor at Heidelberg. Baron Emile Beaumont d'Erlanger (1866–1939) later successfully took over the bank's management. Baron Frédéric Alfred d'Erlanger (1868–1943) became a banker, but later acquired acclaim as a composer. François Rodolphe d'Erlanger (1872–1932) was a musicologist and painter whose palace, Ennejma Ezzahra in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, now houses the Centre des musiques arabes et méditerranéennes. His son Leo Alfred Frédéric d'Erlanger (1898–1978) eventually became the head of the family-owned bank.
Baron d'Erlanger was one of the leading bankers of Paris, the dominant financial center of continental Europe in the second half of the 19th Century. He invented high-risk bonds, especially for developing countries. He invested in railroads and mines in Africa, North America, South America, and Europe, as well as Russian and Tunisian government bonds and Southern cotton during the American Civil War. He financed the Simplon Tunnels between the Valais and Aosta Valley, then the largest railway tunnel in Europe.
Along with Paul Julius Reuter (1816–1899), the founder of Reuters news agency, his bank, Erlanger Ltd., funded the construction of a French transatlantic telegraph cable in 1869. His wife, Mathilde, Baroness d'Erlanger, sent the historic first message.
In 1889, during an inspection tour of their American railroad investments, the couple created the d'Erlanger Grant for start-up capital to build a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is known today as the Erlanger Health System.
Erlanger, Kentucky was named to honor the d'Erlangers' financial contributions.
As music lovers and influential members of the haute bourgeoisie who had personal relationships with the leaders of many countries, they promoted Richard Wagner and his music, including the first performance of Tannhäuser at the Paris Opera after the Franco-Prussian War. D'Erlanger also donated several art works, including the seventeenth-century allegorical tapestries depicting the Duke of Alba to the Hampton Court Palace of the British crown.
The d'Erlangers also funded the rescue of the murals from the Quinta del Sordo in 1873. This house, which they bought, was temporarily residence of Francisco de Goya. Goya's Pinturas Negras were costly to save from destruction. These "black paintings" that Goya painted directly on plaster, were gently transferred to canvas. After their lack of public acceptance at the Paris Exposition of 1878. These works were given to the Prado in Madrid two years later.
Frédéric Emile, Baron d'Erlanger died in Versailles on 22 May 1911. His second son, Emile Beaumont, Baron d'Erlanger, had previously succeeded him in the management of the bank.