A couple of weeks ago, I read a novel called Viper’s Dream by Jake Lamar which, in its early 1960s timeline featured ‘Nica’, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter – a daughter of the Rothschild family who abandoned her Baron diplomat husband for jazz, and specifically bebop pianist and composer Thelonius Monk. Best novel I’ve read this year, and it also renewed my enthusiasm for Monk, the best thing about bebop for me.
That drove me to pick out an read a book that’s languished on my shelves for a while – Hannah Rothschild’s memoir/biography of her great-aunt Nica. Rothschild’s book came out of The Jazz Baroness, a documentary film she wrote and directed in 2010 about Nica, which I streamed after finishing the book. I’m throughly immersed in Nica and Monk now!
In the film she went to New York and interviewed many who were there including Chico Hamilton and Sonny Rollins in particular, plus Monk’s son, Thelonius Jr, himself a jazz drummer and bandleader. Quincy Jones and Clint Eastwood also contribute. The film also included much archive footage of Nica and Monk with plenty of his distinctive jazz. Additionally Hannah interviewed her great-aunt Miriam and her father, the 4th Baron Rothschild about their memories of growing up in the family and Nica. Nica’s words are voiced by Helen MIrren with a posh accent.
I loved the way Hannah describes arranging to meet her great-aunt for the first time at a downtown jazz club – “Look for the Bentley,” said Nica.
Hannah expounds on Nica’s early life more at length in the book, telling us a little of the history of the Rothschilds and Nica’s parents, Charles and Rozsika, her mother a spirited Hungarian, and how they came to Britain as the first world war was starting. The youngest of their four children, Nica was born in 1913 into a life of privilege, but one in which she could do very little. The female Rothschilds were not allowed to work in the family firm under its constitution, instead, they stayed at home, receiving very little education waiting to be launched on ‘the season’ and to find husbands to sire another generation.
Nica was the rebellious one, learning to fly for instance, finding her way by roads and rivers, never having been taught the finer points of navigation. This scared her diplomat husband, the Baron Jules de Konigwarter, stiff! They had three children together, but Nica wasn’t really cut out to be a diplomat’s wife. It was when she heard Monk’s signature tune, ‘Round MIdnight’, (listen here) released in 1944 that she had an epiphany.
It would be 1954 before she got to meet Monk, and she never looked back, becoming his constant friend and confidante, managing him and his family. Monk’s wife Nellie was glad of Nica’s help especially with his episodes of bad mental health – Monk was essentially bipolar/schizophrenic. Although it’s clear that Nica and Monk loved each other, it was essentially platonic; Nellie had no rival there.
Nica’s lifestyle was lavish, renting suites in various NYC hotels – she had to smuggle her black jazz musician friends up to her room, as they weren’t permitted through the main entrance usually. She had to leave the Stanhope after Charlie Parker died in her suite. Although some of those in the film make it clear that Parker wasn’t a nice man, she found him lonely.
Eventually she ended up in a house in New Jersey across the river, known as the ‘cathouse’ – where she famously kept 306 cats who roamed freely, except for the garaged Bentley – Monk reputedly hated the cats. And taking me back to where I started – it’s at the cathouse where all her jazz friends congregated that Viper’s Dream begins.
Hannah Rothschild has painted a rich portrait of her great-aunt and her family from the boredom of a protected childhood to the freedom of the jazz world in which she became a beloved patron. The documentary was superb, concentrating as I said more on the jazz side of her life. Hannah’s style recognises a kindred spirit, which reinforces her own feelings as a bit of an outsider. She’s not judgemental and never sensationalises Nica’s life, telling it how it was, in both film and book. The latter carries many pictures from the family archives and a helpful family tree, bibliography and notes, as well as a list of all the tunes written for Nica, of which the most famous is ‘Pannonica‘ by Monk (listen here).
I so enjoyed my excursion into this world. You don’t have to love jazz to appreciate the film or the book at all – Hannah Rothschild evokes the age really well, particularly highlighting the difficulties posed to black musicians at the time and her tireless support for them.
Source: Own copy. The Baroness, Virago paperback (2013), 307 pages incl indexes, notes etc. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.
The Jazz Baroness – 2010 (1hr 21 mins) available via various streaming platforms – or BUY at Amazon via my affiliate link on DVD.