'The Baroness, the Search for Nica, Rebellious Rothschild and Jazz’s Secret Muse' by Hannah Rothschild (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012)
The House of Rothschild, the semi-official aristocracy of world Jewry, has been a constant source of fascination for Jews and non-Jews alike, with its fabulous wealth, global reach, and philanthropic undertakings. In Israel many places commemorate members of the family, especially those of Edmund de Rothschild, the munificent benefactor, who poured money into the country well before the State was founded, seeking to provide succor and employment for the impoverished Jews who were fleeing eastern Europe and Russia. I found this well-written memoir of one member of that tribe fascinating and almost impossible to put down.
Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, known as Nica, the third daughter and youngest child of Nathaniel Charles de Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family, and a Hungarian beauty, Rozsika von Wertheimstein, was born in 1913. She grew up in the rarified atmosphere of Tring House and various other Rothschild grand residences, “moved from one great country house to another…in reserved Pullman coaches…guarded night and day by a regiment of nurses, governesses, tutors, footmen, valets, chauffeurs and grooms,” as she described it. Together with her two older sisters, her days were ruled by a fixed regimen, with little or no contact with children of her own age, other than the cousins she met at various family gatherings. Everything was run on rigid, formal lines. The girls were educated at home while their brother, Victor, was sent to Harrow, where he suffered from anti-Semitism, epitomized by occasional ‘Jew hunts’ in which his role was to run fast enough to escape from the other boys’ beatings.
It would seem that quite a few members of the Rothschild family were susceptible to severe mood swings, if not something that could be defined more clinically, and suicide was not unknown. This was the case with Nica’s father, Charles as well as others, and every effort was made by the wider family to obscure every record of these events. Documents and medical records were destroyed, and the deed itself was glossed over by relatives. Some Rothschilds displayed characteristics that could only be described as eccentric. Nica’s older sister, Miriam, became an obsessive etymologist, and Charles’s obsession involved collecting and displaying stuffed wildlife speciments in his private museum. While Miriam did marry and have a family, her main concern seems to have been her study of fleas, butterflies and chemical communications, whose mating habits she studied intensely continuing her father’s unfinished research. She became one of Britain’s leading naturalists and went on to be awarded eight honorary doctorates and be made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Their brother, Victor, also had similar interests, going on to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, but he was also interested in jazz music and when he took lessons from jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson. he took his little sister Nica along. This later served as her entrée to the New York club scene. At the same time, he pursued his studies at Cambridge, in which he excelled, and continued to focus on zoological research, eventually being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was Victor who encouraged Nica to learn to fly, to become knowledgeable about jazz, and who bought her a sports car for her eighteenth birthday (and a plane for her wedding). It was at the time of her ‘coming out’ that Nica discovered jazz, first in London, especially at the fashionable Café de Paris and later on trips to Paris and Le Touquet, and then to New York, where she first came into contact with the leading jazz performers.
Hannah Rothschild, the author, gives a vibrant account of her search for information about her elusive great-aunt, who eventually slipped off the shackles of aristocratic life. In 1935, a few years after ‘coming out,’ as was the custom in England at the time, she married an eligible Jewish-French widower, Baron Jules de Koenigsvarter, and produced two children. The outbreak of the Second World War found the family living in grand style in France, and after taking her children to stay with their good friends the Guggenheims in America, Nica joined her husband in the ranks of the Free French Army, serving as an interpreter and broadcaster for the Resistance forces and engaging in exciting trips into Africa with Jules (both of them were pilots and owned a plane of their own).
After the war, the return to married life and the birth of another three children, Nica found herself increasingly unable to slip back into the routine of entertaining and return to the pre-war way of life. In line with the atmosphere prevailing in Europe, she was ready for a change. While accompanying her husband, now a French diplomat, in Mexico, a friend played her a record of Duke Ellington’s symphony, ‘Black, Brown and Beige.’ She later related that this served as some kind of wake-up call for her, making her feel that “I belonged where that music was. There was something I was supposed to do.”
At this point the author links Nica’s ‘calling’ to similar obsessions, albeit for other subjects, mainly scientific or financial, displayed by other Rothschilds, causing her to wonder whether there might not be some inherited obsessive-compulsive trait behind the single-minded determination that has characterized many of the members of the family over the generations.
In 1949, after a visit to New York, Nica visited Teddy Wilson, the jazz pianist, on her way to the airport to say goodbye. He played her a record by Thelonious Monk, which struck her as so brilliant and amazing that she insisted on hearing it another twenty times. She missed her plane and, in fact, never really returned to her husband. After that she made her home in New York, associated with the jazz musicians there, almost all of them black, went to jazz clubs almost every night, lived extravagantly and also helped, supported and encouraged many of them, although the one she was closest too was Thelonious Monk. At times these connections got her into trouble with the police, as drugs and alcohol were an integral part of that way of life, but in a very real sense Nica formed the mainstay and safety net of many jazz musicians, sharing their way of life and helping them out in times of need.
Although Nica and Jules were divorced and Jules retained custody of the five children, her eldest daughter Janka lived with her in New York from the age of sixteen. The small New York house that was eventually bought for Nica by her brother Victor, was a haven for dozens of cats as well as occasionally for jazz musicians who had fallen on hard times. It was the refuge where Thelonious Monk spent his last few years, afflicted by an unknown disease that made him incapable of playing or making music. Many jazz musicians dedicated music to Nica, the ‘Baroness of Jazz,’ who lived on until 1988, dying suddenly and peacefully in her New York home at the age of seventy-five.
In this thrilling book that describes the life and interests—you could say obsessions—of her great aunt Pannonica (Nica), Hannah Rothschild has brought to life a fascinating and indomitable character. What is more, for me, a classical-music afficionado, she has given an insight into the beauty and meaning of jazz, and opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of experience.