Seeking harmony

Hannah Rothschild brings the life story of her great-aunt Nica out of the public imagination and onto the page.

July 26, 2012 13:22
Thelonius Monk

Thelonius Monk. (photo credit: Courtesy)

‘She was known as the Jazz Baroness ... She flew Lancaster bombers in the war... [saxophonist] Charlie Parker died in her apartment ... She had five children and lived with 306 cats ... Twenty songs were written for her ... She raced Miles Davis down Fifth Avenue ... Did you hear about the drugs? She went to prison so he wouldn’t have to. Who’s he? Thelonious Monk.’ Speculation is fun: Pannonica Rothschild, scion of the most well-known family in contemporary Jewry, lived for many years with her private life rooted firmly in the public imagination. But as a new biography suggests, Nica – as she was known by family and friends – had a life more complicated and engaging than the gossips would allow. Written by documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild – the great-niece of Nica – The Baroness has the makings of an epic drama, spanning continents, cultures and social sensibilities.

THE ROTHSCHILD family background is well documented: Patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his five sons, sent to the major European capitals to advance the family’s banking business; the genteel wariness with which society circled the wealthy Jews, and the caution with which the Rothschilds rebuffed this interest.

“Obsessive secrecy is a family trait, and secrets have, on occasion, served us well,” the author notes. But secrecy spawns speculation, especially when one’s life is lived out in the public gaze.

Rothschild – the biographer – sketches out her great-aunt’s ancestry with the informed confidence that comes with unimpeachable knowledge. This provides a useful context for the reader to shape an appreciation of Nica’s milieu. “Despite their astonishing material advantages and cosmopolitan backgrounds, their horizons were as limited as those of many less fortunate women,” Hannah Rothschild writes. Roziska, Nica’s mother, was by any standard a remarkable woman. She could read in four languages, and was reputed to be the first woman in Europe to serve a tennis ball overarm – problematic, “as it exposed the shape of the breast.” But marriage to Charles, Nica’s father, put an end to this. Conformity, conservativeness and discreetness verging on secrecy were the order of the day.

Emotional fragility ran through the family.

Nica’s father struggled with depression and committed suicide when Nica was nine. The lifelong illnesses of her older sister, Liberty, also weighed heavily: “Nica understood from an early age that suppressing one’s needs and natural vitality leads to terrible forms of self-destruction.

It was one of the reasons she would, in the future, refuse to be trapped in an unhappy life,” her biographer proposes.

And thus, we arrive at the crux of The Baroness: the search for happiness. For a while, Nica lived a relatively conventional life: marriage to French diplomat the Baron de Koenigswarter, five children, order and routine. But then the marriage began to fail. “The reason my marriage broke up was because my husband liked drum music and used to break my records if I was late for dinner,” she commented laconically. “I was frequently late for dinner.”

As the legend – repeated in The Baroness – goes, the second half of Nica’s life began thus: about to return home to Mexico – where the family was based – after a trip to New York, an acquaintance played a recording of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” for her. “I’d never heard anything remotely like it,” Nica recalled. “I must have played it twenty times in a row.

Missed my plane. In fact, I never went home.”

What was it about jazz and Nica? Rothschild never quite gets to the heart of it, but she sketches the mise-en-scène well along the way. Taking up residence at the luxury Hotel Stanhope on Fifth Avenue, Nica became a patron of the jazz scene.

She supported out-of-sorts musicians; she paid for the burials of Sonny Clark and Coleman Hawkins, and tried – in vain – to rescue Bud Powell from himself. Her suite was open-house to her jazz “cats,” hosting jam sessions running late into the night.

But this was the ’50s: Jim Crow wasn’t quite dead and buried, and mixing between the races simply didn’t happen in polite society. Tongues began to wag unkindly, and when saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker died in her rooms, it was merely another layer to the already prurient gossip about Nica’s association with the jazz scene.

Nica meets Monk, the inspiration for her break with the past, and their relationship occupies much of the last third of the book. They were an odd couple: the wealthy white Jewish woman and the largely self-taught musician, dogged by drugs and ill health and money problems for much of his life. Monk was married too, to Nellie; no surprise that the prurient whispers suggested at more than a friendship between the two.

As Rothschild the biographer sees it, it was more than friendship: Nica simply adored Monk, but in a purely platonic way. The truth is that the evidence points to this and no further. Nica, famously, took the rap for Monk when he was arrested for drug possession in 1958, and was almost deported from the United States as a result. Later, as his physical and mental health declined, he spent the last six years of his life as her guest in her New Jersey home.

ALL THIS detail is reported dutifully; one senses that by this point Nica’s biographer has run out of steam. The trouble with The Baroness is that the first half of the book, while richly reported and in its own way quite interesting, nonetheless sets out the detail of a not-especially-exceptional life.

Nica in New York – where she remained until her death following what ought to have been routine surgery in 1988 – is the truly fascinating part of her life. And while Rothschild – the biographer – offers up well observed and thoughtful detail about the role of jazz in African-American emancipation, she never quite manages to find Nica within this. A shame, because in many other ways this is an entertaining book.

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