Every Family Has One: 'The Baroness'

A story of jazz, wealth and family; 'Nica' Pannonica de Koenigswarter's life was truly one for the ages.

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild

Publisher: Knopf
Length: 285 pages
Author: Hannah Rothschild
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-03

Every family has one. The strange relation who blissfully ignores convention, or at least the majority of the boring ol’ aunts and uncles and elders who keep talking about those dreadful “good ol’ days.” This outlier breezes in and out of the family compound solely on his or her whim, operating on a life schedule not even remotely close to that of the family’s core.

Maybe there were issues that drove the rebel away from the hearth of home, maybe just a bigger world beckoned, maybe a little of both. Sometimes the prodigal is welcomed with open arms, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes not at all. But when he/she is back in town, life springs into a new gear, a disruptive excitement that’s just as engaging as it is (sometimes, thankfully) fleeting.

It’s always the kids who are most curious. Who is this stranger who’s somehow connected to us? Where did she come from? And why are her stories always the coolest?

Of course, those curious kids grow up, and piece by piece they learn more of the outsider’s true history. And as their lives take shape, they will discover how much, if any, of that wanderlust they share, or if their own form of it takes them down a similar path. As adults, they will get to see that stranger as someone not really so strange, someone who’s a flesh-and-blood person, not a mythic concoction – someone, however pronounced and celebrated the differences from everyone else, who is still and will always be part of the clan.

So the curiosity Hannah Rothschild started displaying about her great-aunt isn’t all that surprising. But do note that last name: Rothschild, the historic titans of European finance for centuries. As young adults often do, Hannah struggled for a bit with her place in the world, and within her family. She thought that tracking down her mysterious relation, who had been living some sort of utterly amazing life and wound up in New York City surrounded by generations of musicians and 306 cats, might provide her some clues. Not everyone was supportive of her quest, but eventually, she made contact with her great-aunt, and found herself in a world as far removed from the old-money Rothschild milieu as it could be.

And in this world, her great-aunt, Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, who’d married a baron and took the name de Koenigswarter, who’d lived more life and more lives than all the whispered family stories ever conveyed, wasn’t known as a Rothschild at all. She was referred to, both in art and life, as Nica, or more officially, the Baroness.

And she loved jazz. All of it, really, but none more so than that of Thelonious Monk.

Nica is best known for the extraordinary personal and professional support she gave Monk throughout his career. When the pianist couldn’t perform in New York during much of the ‘50s due to legal troubles, she gave him space to compose tunes. She wasn’t technically his manager or publicist, but she was his greatest champion. She looked after his health, she looked after his art – all without seeking a dime from him, or any sort of emotional involvement. And in what a later generation would call the ultimate act of a ride-or-die chick, she risked going to jail for him after a traffic stop gone bad.

Students and fans of Monk will surely recognize her name; one of his most beautiful ballads, “Pannonica” (1956) is named for her, and he wrote other songs in her honor as well:

Indeed, so did many others, including Gigi Gryce, Horace Silver and Art Blakey. Jazz fans in general are more likely to know the second half of Nica’s life better than the first – the years she spent as a nightly fixture on the NYC jazz scene, her deep fandom of and camaraderie with that scene, the night Charlie Parker died in her apartment.

But Rothschild became compelled by the full width and breadth of Nica’s story, and once she started digging in, she didn’t let go. First she produced a radio documentary, then a film doc, and now we have The Baroness, a study whose most fascinating material is the part of the story we know the least about: Nica’s amazing pre-jazz life, and the complicated history of one of the world’s most influential families.

Rothschild constructs that history in layers, beginning with Nica’s sister Miriam, their father, Charles, and his brother Walter. They were all entomologists, with the men amassing extensive collections of species. And it was out of that process that Pannonica was named, after a particular kind of moth. Never mind that Nica told her jazz friends she was named after a butterfly, and that they would go on to write songs with that reference.

Having solved that mystery, Rothschild continues working backward, recounting (and finally discovering for herself) the story of family patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild. Born in a Frankfurt ghetto in 1744, he managed to become a successful trader, then a banker. He sent his five sons to conquer the rest of Europe, and thus a financial dynasty with global influence was born.

Rothschild notes that Nica’s birth in 1913, to a fifth-generation Rothschild man and a daughter of a Hungarian army officer, was not completely joyous news. The family had wanted a boy, largely because the dynasty’s self-made policy dictated that only sons could run the family business. There was already a male sibling, Victor, who would have an interesting relationship with his little sister over the years, but Nica’s birth left the Rothschilds with a thin bench for future stewardship.

Nica was thus consigned to an upbringing of no formal education, just relative isolation amidst the family’s massive estate and various retreats. But there were dark secrets inside the splendor: Nica’s father, who’d suffered for years from some sort of psychological illness, committed suicide when she was ten. Her sister Liberty had numerous health issues, and never lived a fully healthy life. And her mother was never the same after her husband’s death: Rothschild writes that she managed the household well, but took on the role of lady of the manor, a far cry from her more free-spirited life in Hungary.

So perhaps it’s little surprise that Nica began to assert herself apart from the family breed. In a hardly minor foreshadowing of things to come, she became a night owl at 16. As they matured, Nica’s personality diverged from that of her sister Miriam, and seemed closest to Victor’s; it was he who introduced her to this strange new American thing called jazz.

Nica met the baron Jules de Koenigswarter in France in 1935, and they married in New York City that year after a whirlwind courtship (they ended up marrying in New York because that’s where Nica had gone, to catch some live jazz, with Jules in hot pursuit of her). But Nica’s essential nature eschewed the stuffiness of manor-born convention, and her marriage to a manor-born man – one with a nasty micro-managing streak to boot – ensured only that her life as a married woman in France wouldn’t be all that much different from what she knew as a Rothschild kid in England.

Unfortunately, World War II intervened. Nica left the family chateau just days before the Nazis took it over. She decamped back to England briefly, then set off to fight alongside her husband in the Free French Army. Her WWII story turns out to be of a piece with the rest of her life: a pursuit of adventure, not feeling truly satisfied unless she’s at the heart of the scene.

After the war, that sense of pursuit led her back to her life’s true love, jazz. The marriage was hardly idyllic, even as Jules’ post-war diplomatic assignments took him all over the place, eventually to Mexico. From there, Nica made periodic trips to New York to catch up on the jazz scene. On one of those trips, pianist Teddy Wilson (whom she had gotten to know over the years, and who even gave a few quick lessons to her brother in London) gave her a record that would change her life irrevocably: Monk’s “”Round Midnight.”

Nica had already decided her marriage was over, and had taken up residence in the Stanhope Hotel in NYC long before the dissolution with Jules became official. She dove into the jazz life with both feet: her suite became a musicians’ hangout (much to the chagrin of the management), and she struck up friendships with many of them, including Blakey and Mary Lou Williams. But it was not until 1954 that she met her muse in person, after a gig in Paris. Nica immediately tried to line up a concert in England for him and his band. That would be only the beginning of their lifelong connection (and I do mean lifelong: Nica died on the same 1988 day as did Charlie Rouse, Monk’s longtime tenor saxophonist).

From Rothschild’s deep research about Nica’s upbringing and failed marriage, it becomes apparent that, while most heiresses don’t turn their backs on a life of leisure to hang out in jazz clubs night in and night out, Nica was never cut out to be one of them. Further, the qualities she became known for in the jazz world – a joie de vivre, an all-in passion to serve when the cause struck her, and a relative disdain for all the opulent trappings of both her youth and her marriage – had actually been on display all along throughout her life.

That’s what The Baroness does best, tell us how Katlheen Annie Pannonica de Konenigswarter became Nica. Rothschild continues the story through the rest of Nica’s life, centering on her selfless devotion to Monk, both as an artist and as a person. In fact, Nica was a fierce defender of many a jazz musician, but those stories are more fully explored in David Kastin’s Nica’s Dream: the Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (Norton, 2011). The difference between the two books is important: Kastin rushes through Nica’s backstory to get to the good stuff, and while he does make some passing family references, including Rothschild herself and her quest, he’s much more concerned with Nica’s impact on the jazz scene (Additionally and not surprisingly, Nica is a constant presence in Robin D. G. Kelley’s essential Monk biography).

But while Rothschild does cover the basics of Nica’s jazz years (although dates and chronology seem a little slippery as those years go by in her telling), her project – her entire pursuit of Nica – is something that Kastin’s book simply can’t be. The Baroness is, beyond its biographical nature, a story about family: how it shapes us, the mark we leave within it, the sense we make of the stories it leaves us, the reasons beneath the stories we bury. It seems to an outsider that Rothschild did the family proud by pursuing who Nica was and telling her story with passion and investment (although there are relatives who to this day will, apparently, never admit it). Indeed, her most essential point is that Nica was, in her own way, very much a Rothschild.

And that’s the nice thing about family outliers. They make it possible for those still struggling with the weight of tradition to imagine themselves within it. Rothschild doesn’t let on if the process of learning her family through its furthest-from-the-herd offspring, and vice versa, brought her any closer to a better sense of who she herself is. That’s a good thing; such projects often devolve into self-indulgent rambling (although how this whole thing has affected Rothschild herself would be interesting to know). She keeps the focus here on her great-aunt, who led a remarkable life by any measure. In the process, she also celebrates the entire Rothschild clan, which turns out to be, for all its centuries of wealth, power and intrigue, a lot like every other family.


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