Interview: Hannah Rothschild, author of The Baroness

Thelonious Monk and his patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter pictured in 1964. Picture: Getty
Thelonious Monk and his patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter pictured in 1964. Picture: Getty
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When Nica Rothschild first heard Thelonious Monk she knew her old life was over. Her niece Hannah talks family history with Lee Randall

Moody, mournful, and hauntingly atmospheric, the song Round Midnight was a game-changer, not only for its composer, troubled genius Thelonious Monk, but for a wealthy young woman from one of Europe’s most exalted families. Hearing Round Midnight inspired Nica Rothschild to ditch her old life and start afresh.

Growing up in London, Hannah Rothschild didn’t know she had a great-aunt Pannonica – Nica for short – until she tuned her ear to the whispering: “She’s known as ‘the Jazz Baroness.’ She lives with a black man. . . She flew Lancaster bombers in the war. That junkie saxophonist Charlie Parker died in her apartment. She had five children and lived with 206 cats. Twenty songs were written for her (no it was 24). She raced Miles Davis down Fifth Avenue. . .”

Intrigued, Hannah embarked on a 20-year quest, interviewing dozens of musicians and family members, including Nica, whom she befriended in the final years of her life. What she discovered first inspired Hannah to make a radio documentary, then a film, and now, she’s written an absorbing book, The Baroness. It explores the reasons why, “one day in 1951, without warning, Nica gave it all up and went to live in New York, where she swapped her upper-class friends for a group of brilliant, itinerant black musicians.”

Hannah and I catch up at Bafta’s HQ on Piccadilly, where she tells me about the challenges she faced working with the same material in very different mediums. “With a film you have to create a symbiosis between sound, picture and content. You can’t go into long digressions, or you’d lose your audience, whereas with a book, you are able to develop an idea. I spent a long time time making The Jazz Baroness film, because I had to do it in between other projects. When I came to write the book I thought, ‘No problem, I know the story inside out.’ But oh God! Wake up! For me the theme of this book is ‘Can you escape your past?’ Writing allowed me much more scope to build up who Nica was and what she was escaping from.”

To some extent, the answers overlapped with Hannah’s own uncertainties about her heritage. She, too, felt out of step with the family. Her father is Jacob, the present Lord Rothschild. She and her three younger siblings were raised in London, then she read history at Oxford before joining the BBC and also working as a print journalist.

Her family is comfortable, she says, but she’s quick to point out that the ultra-pulent Rothschild lifestyle was finished off by two world wars. That still leaves their incredibly powerful name. “It conjures up instant connotations to people, who think, ‘Money, Jewish, etc.’ As an un-confident young woman, I found it difficult living up to the grandeur of the name and the preconceptions. Now I feel privileged to come from this family who are endlessly fascinating. But it took time, and going out there and creating my own body of work.”

By contrast, her great-aunt Nica was the youngest of four and the third daughter – which disappointed her parents, Charles and Rozsika. She spent her childhood moving from one stately home to the next, adhering to a carefully regimented routine designed to suit grown-ups and not lively youngsters.

The children had no friends, and no privacy. Nica’s elder sister, Miriam, who bucked family tradition to become a renowned entomologist, told Hannah: “Freedom didn’t exist. . . It was all perfection, but as far as the children were concerned, it was boring and repetitive.”

There were other clouds in the sky: Nica’s sister, Liberty and father, Charles, were mentally ill, and in 1923, Charles slit his throat. Suicide was illegal and shameful, and the family wielded its enormous influence to keep the details out of the paper. Sadly, that code of silence applied at home, too.

It’s clear from The Baroness that this was no family for girls. Rothschild women couldn’t work in the bank or inherit. Their births were recorded only if they were daughters of first sons – good news for Hannah – and their husbands and children went unacknowledged. Rothschild women were solely there to facilitate the ease and care of men. Lacking independent means, much less independence, they were expected to obey their fathers and then their husbands, who were often Rothschilds as well.

“There’s no doubt that women were the powers behind the throne,” says Hannah. “They created the very important networks between cousins that kept the fabric of the family strong. You can’t blame this on the English aristocratic system, because it started in the ghetto, in Germany. Then the family got here and all their beliefs were enforced by the English system, which worked against women at that time.” For Nica, who was born in 1913 and came of age during an era of dramatic social upheaval, this proved hugely problematic. It didn’t help that she, herself, was headstrong and wilful.

Nica defied her mother to marry the handsome, widowed – and very controlling – Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, and by doing so, replicated the restrictiveness of her childhood. The Baron called the shots, and the young Baroness went along with him. “It comes down to expectations,” says Hannah. “She was brought up to believe that what she had to do was obey. Youth was a holding pattern for marriage. She was taught that you got older, you got married and had children, and you did what your husband said.”

Yet during the war Nica, who really did know how to fly planes, shipped her children off to her family and going against official edicts, followed her husband into battle. After the war, however, things immediately reverted to the status quo. Jules became a French diplomat, they had three more children, and lived the high life, complete with mansions, designer frocks and jewels, horses, sports cars, and non-stop entertaining. By 1951, Nica was fed up.

She told Hannah, “Should I tell you that at a certain point in my life I got a call? . . . I was in Mexico, where I was in the throes of diplomatic life and all the bullshit. . . and I got the message that I belonged where jazz music was. There was something I was supposed to do.” That was her state of mind when a good friend, pianist Teddy Wilson, played her Thelonious Monk’s first album containing that life-changing song, Round Midnight.

What did Nica hear? “Music has an ability to turn one’s emotions inside out. it cuts through in a way that no other art form can. It’s the most emotionally heart-rending, unbuttoning thing you can do. Round Midnight is very melodic; it’s very mournful, discordant, and I wonder,” muses Hannah. “I think of her trapped in her marriage, changing seven times a day into different tea dresses, serving cucumber sandwiches, and suddenly this tune seems to sum up her frustrations.

“It took her a long time to become confident enough to say, ‘I don’t have to do what you say.’ And for some reason, that song gave her the courage to leave. I actually sat outside Teddy Williams apartment in Queens and listened to it, wondering, is there something about this place? People have written about the extraordinary effect music can have at a certain moment in their lives, and I guess that is what happened. Then she didn’t meet Monk for three years!”

But once they did, Monk and the Baroness were inseparable. She supported him for years, and took him into her home during the final decade of his life, as he battled the physical and mental illnesses, and the addictions, that would kill him at 64. In Hannah’s documentary, Monk’s son says the vital point is that Nica “got” Monk long before anyone else.

Was it a romance? The question inevitably crops up. “It would probably sell more books if I said it was a torrid love affair, but I don’t think it was. He was very clear about it. He was very meticulous about good behaviour on the road and insisted his band members didn’t bring girls home on the tour. I think he was tremendously moral – using drugs isn’t necessarily immoral.”

When asked directly whether he’d bedded Nica, Monk indignantly replied: “I would never, ever do that to my best friend.”

What, then, was Nica’s relationship with Monk’s long-suffering wife? “Nellie lived with this man who didn’t earn any money or help her at home, and she herself was desperately ill, trying to support the family. Along comes a woman with money and a great big Bentley, at this extraordinary moment, before he was well known. She thinks Monk is the greatest thing in the universe and is prepared to keep him. If I were Nellie, I’d think, ‘Bring it on.’ She was quite relieved there was someone around to help. She didn’t see Nica as a sexual threat. Maybe I’m being naïve, but that’s my hunch.”

Nica’s largesse wasn’t merely for Monk. She was uniformly kind to jazz musicians, helping them get gigs and chauffeuring them around town. She bought Art Blakey a Cadillac, and Monk a grand piano. Monk’s son remembers accompanying Nica on countless missions of mercy, paying off someone’s overdue rent, redeeming pawned instruments, visiting musicians in the hospital, or getting groceries for those who couldn’t afford them. Everyone leaned on Nica, and she always came through.

As The Baroness makes clear, it takes an extraordinary woman to be the muse to so many artists. Among the songs written for or inspired by Nica are Monk’s Bolivar Blues, Pannonica, and Little Butterfly; Kenny Drew’s Blues for Nica; Sonny Clark’s Nica; and Art Blakey’s Weehawken Mad Pad, the title a nod to Nica’s New Jersey home on the bluffs overlooking Manhattan, where she lived with her cats, her daughter, and later, Monk.

On balance, does Hannah think history’s been fair to Nica? “I think it depends on what the contemporary attitude is towards black and white, on both sides. It changes dramatically decade to decade. There will always be a debate around what she did and what she got out of it. My original question was: ‘Can you escape where you come from?’ I’m not sure she did escape, but what those musicians gave her was something all her past and advantages didn’t: friendship and love.”

• The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild is published next week by Virago, £20. Hannah Rothschild’s documentary about her aunt, The Jazz Baroness, is available for download on iTunes, priced £1.89, or on DVD for £14.99.