Review: The Baroness - the Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild

New Statesman
The look of love: de Koenigswarter and Monk.

The Baroness: the Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild

Virago Press, 320pp, £20

Baroness “Nica” de Koenigswarter was born Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild in London in 1913, at the height of that family’s wealth and influence. She married Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, a French diplomat, in 1935 and had five children with him.

In 1951, after hearing a recording of the jazz classic “’Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk, she abandoned her husband and children and travelled to New York to become the pianist’s patron and companion. She remained extremely close to him – it remains the subject of conjecture whether or not they were lovers – until his death in 1982.

Their unlikely relationship became the stuff of jazz legend. There is an inherent glamour (albeit of a rather novelettish kind) in the story of a rich woman turning her back on a life of wealth and privilege to embrace the demi-monde of New York jazz – and there’s no doubting that the jazz world embraced her back. Charlie Parker died in her apartment at the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan in 1955 and some 20 songs were written for her, including Gigi Gryce’s “Nica’s Tempo”, Freddie Redd’s “Nica Steps Out”, Kenny Drew’s “Blues for Nica”, Tommy Flanagan’s “Thelonica” and Monk’s “Pannonica”.

Depending on your perspective, Nica was either a brave proto-feminist who crossed cultures and defied convention to devote herself to the music she loved, or a spoiled dilettante who did exactly what she wanted her whole life – and the hell with everybody else. But perhaps these views aren’t mutually exclusive. Nica’s great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, seems able to accommodate both in her new biography: “Perhaps [Nica] was nothing more than an irresponsible gadfly,” she muses. However, she concludes on a note of approbation: “She dared to be different.”

Rothschild extends touching sympathy and respect to her great-aunt but has a habit of patronising her reader. “Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia does not mean a split personality,” she admonishes at one point. Later, she explains: “Jazz encompasses diverse rhythms, scales, syncopations and styles ranging from early New Orleans Dixie and ragtime waltzes to fusion.”

This tendency to state the basics as if she were dispensing expertise is particularly aggravating when she gets the basics wrong. For instance, she tells us that, in 1935, “William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and F Scott Fitzgerald were topping the critics’ lists”. Perhaps she’s just guilty of a sloppy phrase – but one of the only major US journals to publish a list of the year’s best books in 1935 was the New Republic and neither Steinbeck nor Fitzgerald was mentioned there.

Meanwhile, Barbara Strachey was not “a leading light in the Bloomsbury set”, nor was Tom Wolfe part of the “emerging generation of American novelists” that included Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was not “published in 1929” but in two volumes between 1925 and 1926.

In one particularly confused and baffling passage, Rothschild announces that her forebears “were just the latest in a long line of ‘wannabes’ to erect shrines to their own success”, comparing the family’s lavish country houses in the Home Counties to “the fabulous palaces of Blenheim, Houghton, Castle Howard and Wentworth Woodhouse”, all of which “caused shock and consternation” when they were built.

It’s hard to keep track of all the ways that this is wrong. Although the Duke of Marlborough was forced to finish Blenheim Palace at his own expense, it was intended as a gift from the nation, so was hardly a “shrine” he’d conceived to his “own success”; the design of Castle Howard by Nicholas Hawksmoor and John Vanbrugh, meanwhile, did not cause “shock and consternation” but was widely acclaimed and led to Vanbrugh’s commission to design Blenheim soon after.

Even allowing for these slips, it isn’t obvious how the Duke of Marlborough or Robert Walpole (Britain’s first prime minister and the first proprietor of Houghton Hall) or the Marquess of Rockingham (who served two terms as prime minister and commissioned the greater part of Wentworth Woodhouse) can be considered “wannabes”.

These errors occur at the peripheries of Nica’s story and while the perpetual background interference is certainly a distraction, Rothschild does, thank goodness, know what she is talking about when it comes to the Rothschilds. Usually, a subject’s childhood and family background form the most threadbare parts of a biography; here, they take up half of the book.

There are some fascinating sections dealing with the family’s opulent 19th-century heyday, such as the descriptions of Nica’s great-grandfather’s private menagerie, which included “two million specimens of butterflies and moths, 144 giant tortoises . . . and other rare and fabulous specimens, ranging from starfish to giraffes”. These details make poignantly clear just how far Nica travelled in her life.

Rothschild is particularly interested in what drew Thelonious and Nica to one another and offers a variety of factors that may have underwritten their relationship (some more plausible than others): love of jazz, freedom of spirit, even a natural affinity between the descendants of slaves and those of Jews from the Frankfurt ghetto.

Yet she seems resistant to the most obvious explanation: that Thelonious offered Nica a sense of purpose and excitement, while she offered him a taste of the advantages conferred by money and status. To admit this is not to do either of them down. Their love for one another is obvious from this book and no less moving if it speaks of what each of them, before meeting, had lacked.

Edmund Gordon is writing the biography of Angela Carter, which will be published by Chatto & Windus