The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild
In 2011, David Kastin released the award-winning Nica’s Dream, a jazz journalist’s take on the life of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the European baroness who gave up home, husband and children to devote herself to jazz. Now, providing another side of the story is The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild, the acclaimed documentarian who happens to be the great-niece of her book’s subject.
Rothschild, whose cinematic works include The Jazz Baroness, a feature-length study of her notorious relation, presents the notion that Nica’s artistic self-banishment was not an unprecedented act of defiance. Rather, by chronicling the checkered history of her clan, she makes it clear that Nica’s choice was consistent with those family iconoclasts who trafficked in breaks from the norm. The Rothschild family’s very identity as banking giants was in opposition to its origins as denizens of Frankfurt’s cramped “Jews’ Lane” ghetto. Once the Rothschilds began to consolidate their influence over the world financial market, family life combined stunning extravagance with bracingly reductive views about proper conduct, particularly with regard to women; only Rothschild sons were permitted to operate the family businesses, and a cousin once described a wife as “an essential part of the furniture.” Nica was raised in, and later married into, a lifestyle of strictly regimented meals, leisure—even family interactions. (Rothschild says that Nica, like many of the family’s children of the time, was essentially raised without parents.)
Such lifestyles often lead to champing at the bit, and in this family, insurrection was accomplished through means both respectable, as with Nica’s sister Miriam, a celebrated science academic, and tragic, like those of Nica’s father, whose unshakeable depression led him to slit his own throat in 1923. Within this context, the author suggests, Nica’s flight into the world of jazz, allegedly prompted by an encounter with a recording of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” seems more understandable, one of a series of Rothschild revolts against the family status quo.
That said, Rothschild’s coverage of Nica’s “jazz years,” which takes up the second half of the book, is not as assured as her analysis of her own family’s peccadilloes. The author is something of a self-professed jazz neophyte, and many of her tales of Nica’s encounters with the music’s greats feel tentative. Though Rothschild does provide information on the last night of Charlie Parker’s life, spent at Nica’s suite at the Stanhope Hotel, and graces the book with brief sketches of moments with Art Blakey and a few other notables, the author’s focus is almost entirely on Nica’s relationship with Monk, which to be fair was the most significant of any she developed within the jazz world. She is inconclusive on Nica’s oft-speculated-upon involvement with drugs, and she likewise provides no definitive answer regarding Nica’s motives for shouldering a possession rap to keep Monk out of prison. Rothschild does manage to cull pathos from her tales of Monk’s last days, when he resided full-time with Nica and spent many an afternoon simply staring out his window at the Manhattan skyline. Nevertheless, a little family hauteur creeps in when the author characterizes the late-in-life Nica, surrounded by literally hundreds of cats while celebrating the music’s old guard above all else, as “the Miss Havisham of bebop.”
Despite these issues, The Baroness is a worthwhile read. It provides a fresh perspective on a heavily mythologized tale while serving as a reminder of the breadth and complexity of the music and the people who fall under its spell. The book’s subtitle may brand Nica as “the Rebellious Rothschild,” but as The Baroness illustrates, rebellion is the jazz world’s native tongue.