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

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

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.