THE BARONESS : The Search For Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild (Virago Press, 307pp, hdbk)
Review by Andy Childs.
I can’t imagine it’s often, even in the catholic, rarefied atmosphere of Caught By The River, that the worlds of natural history and music can be woven into a tale so unlikely and extraordinary as this. The story of how privileged, wealthy Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild became infatuated with the music of black, jazz musician Thelonious Monk, left her husband and five children to go and settle in New York and devote the rest of her life to Monk’s career and well-being as well as that of the wider New York jazz fraternity has become fairly well-known in recent years. There has already been one other book – Nica’s Dream : The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness by David Kastin, several magazine articles and at least two radio programmes. There is also a documentary film about this strange affair which has been shown several times on TV, is now available on DVD and which was made by Nica’s great niece Hannah, the author of this book. What gives The Baroness the edge over all of these other narratives is the thoroughness and expansiveness that twenty years of research and access to relatives, in particular Nica’s sister Miriam and to Nica herself for a while, has afforded Hannah in her recounting of the story. Plus her very evident and strong desire to discover what forces could have propelled her wayward relative to embark on such a life-changing experience.
The first half of the book, which is decidedly non-musical but never less than fascinating, is taken up with a precis of the Rothschild family history, laying out the context in which Nica was born and raised and the life she was expected to conform to. Born in 1913, she was initially a disappointment to her father who really wanted a “back-up” heir to her older brother Victor, and in a family of great wealth her childhood was predictably very formal, controlled, repetitive, cosseted and boring. Her close relatives were not without their eccentricities though – bankers of course by profession, and wine-makers, the more free-spirited members nevertheless developed a passion for natural history. Nica’s Uncle Walter travelled extensively, amassed a huge collection of insect and animal specimens and built a museum in Tring (now an outpost of The Natural History Museum) to house it. Her elder sister Miriam became a distinguished entomologist and her father Charles collected butterflies. In fact Nica was named after what she was told was a species of butterfly but turns out in fact to be a moth. Somewhat taken aback to discover this Hannah is brusquely put right by an expert at The Natural History Museum who sniffily maintains that “butterflies are just moths with go-faster stripes”. Sadly for us perhaps, Nica doesn’t seem to have become at all engaged with the natural world but was instead introduced to modern music and jazz by her father who, before he caught and survived Spanish Flu after the first world war, went quietly mad and eventually committed suicide in 1923, seemed the sort of figure that could have been a more profound influence on Nica’s life. Depression and schizophrenia (the result of in-breeding according to Miriam who, incidentally is obviously deserving of a fulsome biography herself) to varying degrees were a curse on the family and as Hannah points out in Nica’s cloistered, suffocating and often lonely world she ‘understood from a young age that suppressing one’s own needs and natural vitality leads to terrible forms of self-destruction’. Nica’s brother Victor also played a part in her introduction to the attractions of jazz – he took piano lessons from the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and often Nica went along to watch. Her late teenage years were mostly taken up with finishing school in Paris, the Grand Tour with her sister Liberty and a debutante’s season in London during which her interest in jazz deepened. The post-1913 emancipation of music and the advent of ‘swing’ and big-band music gave the younger generation something to embrace that their parents despised and for the first time the possibility that there could be a form of art and entertainment that they could call their own appealed enormously to anyone, like Nica, with a latent rebellious streak. Coincidentally, across the Atlantic, a young generation of jazz musicians, including Thelonious Monk, were listening to the same music. But before their paths crossed Nica first met and married Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, later to be described as “authoritarian and humourless”, settled in France, had children, and when the second world war broke out narrowly escaped capture by the Germans by fleeing to England, then to the U.S. and back to Europe where she enlisted in the Free French Army and joined up with Jules in Africa. Victor Rothschild’s decision to sell off a substantial amount of family property and valuable art and the ravages of war which saw large amounts of art confiscated from wealthy Jewish families left the Rothschilds, and Nica, somewhat impoverished after the war. She really had no alternative but to settle back down into the formal, rigid life of an aristocratic wife. Jules took up the post of ambassador to Norway where they lived for two years before moving to a similar position in Mexico. Here, it seems, Nica’s life takes a swerve. Desperate to get away from the “bullshit” diplomatic life, she makes frequent trips to New York to hear music and live a little and it’s on one of these trips, in the late 40s, that she is fatefully bewitched by the music of Thelonious Monk when pianist Teddy Wilson who she has dropped by to see on her way back to Mexico, plays her Monk’s tune Round Midnight. She never did make it back to Mexico, taking up residence instead in the Stanhope Hotel, immersing herself more thoroughly in the NY jazz scene, and devoting her waking hours to finding the man whose music had already changed her life.
In terms of wealth and privilege Thelonious Monk’s background couldn’t have been more different than Nica’s although interestingly their respective families did share certain behavioural traits. Born ‘a country negro’ in North Carolina in 1917 he was raised from aged four in New York, mostly by his mother. Like Nica, his father was mentally unstable and absent for long periods and his mother was of necessity a strong character who obviously gave Monk the best she could in the circumstances. Bought up listening to classical music and jazz, music called at an early age for him and he began to etch out some sort of a living as a musician. He was called up by the draft board in 1943, declined to fight for “an America that refused to stamp out racism”, and was classified a psychiatric reject. He cut his first record in 1948 by which time he was married and a leading light in the bebop revolution even though Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker received more credit at the time, and Monk struggled to get regular work. Drugs, jail, money problems – the all-too-familiar troubles that jazz musicians seemed to have to endure – as well as a stubbornness and selfishness that elevated music in importance above everything else in his life including his long-suffering wife Nellie, made life hard.
Meanwhile, unable to track Monk down, Nica went back to England in 1954 to formalise her separation from Jules and on hearing that Monk was in Paris she got on a plane, saw him play and was smitten. What Thelonious Monk first thought of the attention showered on him by this striking lady of the British aristocracy is not clear but one can imagine. Monk went back to New York and Nica back to London where, as an extravagant gesture of her faith in him, booked the Albert Hall for him to play. Alas, work permit problems prevented this potentially historic concert from taking place and instead Nica decamped permanently to New York once again to be with Monk. The book notes that while Nica and Monk were rarely apart they were hardly ever alone, which invites speculation as to the exact nature of their relationship. Hannah neither confirms nor denies that there was a sexual element to their liaison. Nor does anyone else quoted in the book. From Nica’s point of view it was obviously very much ‘Love’ but from Monk’s it seems more like a romanticized form of dependancy. A harsh conclusion perhaps but the fact remains that Monk never left his wife during their relationship until his mental state (he was bipolar) became too much of a burden for her, and for a long time the three of them co-existed side-by-side in relative harmony. What also isn’t that clear either is whether Nica’s influence on Monk’s career and general well-being was as advantageous as one might assume. She drove him around in her Bentley, made sure he had money, and even took the rap when he was arrested for possession of marijuana (she had a 3 year jail sentence hanging over her head for a while). But her generosity and desire to please him might also have fuelled the drug and alcohol habits that eventually exacerbated his mental problems and failing health. Again, perhaps a tough verdict but there are other dissenting voices in this book and it is hard to completely dismiss the dilettante and groupie tags that are sometimes levelled against her even though overall her motives must surely be judged as benign. And her largesse extended very quickly to the wider community of black New York jazz musicians – she taught Lionel Hampton to read, bought Art Blakey a Cadillac, and made sure that even when she couldn’t save them that their funerals – Sonny Clark and Coleman Hawkins were but two – were dignified and fitting. Charlie Parker notoriously died in her New York apartment and the unwarranted attention of the law defending a society that deemed a white woman openly consorting with black men totally unacceptable dogged her life. Lesser women would have succumbed but Nica’s tough, fiercely independent, dutiful spirit, not to mention sense of humour, sustained her. Monk’s career never really took off in the way she envisaged. He did OK but his uncompromising attitude both musically and personally meant that he never made real money. His mental and physical health were declining inexorably, his wife Nellie was constantly ill, and eventually he moved out of the family house to go and live with Nica, by now resident in New Jersey with a house full of cats, and ‘retire’ from music. From 1972 to 1980 she never left his side and on Feb 17 1982, following a massive heart attack, Monk died aged 64. Nica remained in New Jersey. In bed most of the day she still went out late at nights to hear the music she loved in clubs and bars. She seems to have been wedded to the idea that bebop, as pioneered by her beloved Monk, was the only true strain of jazz and of course as its influenced waned on the jazz scene so did hers. The Miss Haversham of bebop is Hannah’s description of her that perhaps best portrays her rather sad yet defiant declining years. She died on Nov 30th 1988 aged 74 during heart bypass surgery.
For jazz buffs there is probably nothing in this book that they wouldn’t already know and Hannah’s assessment of Monk’s music and career is perfunctory. But she does enough to give the uninitiated a flavour of the times and circumstances that Nica and Monk lived through in New York. As the protagonist of the story the bulk of the book is about understanding Nica. You wouldn’t really expect anything other than a sympathetic portrait from a fellow Rothschild but Hannah does make a genuine attempt to understand and articulate the reasons, both nurtured and in her nature, why Nica did what she did. She must have been a remarkable lady and she certainly did extraordinary things that only the benefit of class and wealth could allow her to do. The Rothschild Family story, the history of jazz, and particularly the life of Thelonious Monk would have been a lot poorer in so many ways without her. As music-loving nature enthusiasts we can only wonder at what impact her spirit would have made on the world of natural history had she been so inclined.
BYRDS : Requiem For The Timeless Vol 1 by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House 1,200pp, hdbk)
…..the story continues.
We re-join our heroes late in 1966 with egos rampant and band relationships as unharmonious as ever. The Byrds continue to be erratic live – Crosby’s Beatles-inspired aloofness and disillusionment with playing live is blamed. Gene Clark rejoins temporarily for a so-so 12-date engagement at The Whiskey and ‘Mr.Spaceman’ is released as a single. At this point Jim Dickson begins to lose control and influence as co-manager and Chris Hillman emerges as a serious songwriter the result of which sees his house burned to the ground an hour after Crosby had been visiting and with McGuinn filming the whole episode! Completely bizarre. The Younger Than Yesterday album is released which Rogan rates their best to date, and I wouldn’t argue with that. Early in the momentous year of 1967 the band tour the UK and the gregarious Crosby hangs out with The Beatles and stays in London with new-found friend Graham Nash. Seeds are sown. It must be stated after last month’s bout of Crosby-bashing that although his ability to offend remains supreme in these chapters he is also developing into a very influential counter-culture figure and an adventurous and experimental songwriter – traits that inevitably increased tension within the band. Their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival was the beginning of the end for Crosby. His political preaching during their set ensured the band were left out of any TV coverage and then he made matters infinitely worse by sitting in with The Buffalo Springfield for their set. Rogan’s blow-by-blow account of the band’s breakdown does make painful reading and the surprise is that they lasted as long as they did. It all came to a head during the recording of their next album when Michael Clarke walked out to be replaced on the recording sessions by Jim Gordan, new producer Gary Usher alienated Crosby by siding with the McGuinn/Hillman partnership and then McGuinn and Hillman fired Crosby, an act that despite everything, Rogan insists “was one of the most shocking and self-destructive decisions in the history of Sixties’ rock music”. Blimey. Of course Crosby agreed, feeling, not without some justification, that he was a much better songwriter than any of the other Byrds and that they refused to recognize it. Anyway, he was paid off and bought a boat with the money. In the wake of his faltering solo career, Gene Clark was brought back in again to replace Crosby but nervousness and insecurity forced him to leave almost as quickly. The “Gene Clark elevator incident” as recounted on pages 393 and 394 gives us some idea of Gene’s state of mind at that time. To cap it all Michael Clarke is finally fired and now it’s just McGuinn (now Roger instead of Jim) and Hillman. Could things get any worse? Tune in next month.
New & Noteworthy…..
A glut of new titles on the horizon that ought to be investigated, among them…
My Song : A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance by Harry Belafonte (Canongate)
Who Is That Man : In Search of the Real Bob Dylan by David Dalton (Omnibus Press)
The Ellington Century by David Schiff (University of California Press)
The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth (Canongate) Re-issue.
Woolgathering by Patti Smith (Bloomsbury)
Patti Smith : A Biography by Nick Johnstone (Omnibus Press)
Big Day Coming : Yo La Tengo and The Rise of Indie Rock by Jesse Jarnow (Gotham Books)
Arcade Fire : Behind The Black Mirror by Mick Middles (Omnibus Press)
Too High To Die : Meet the Meat Puppets by Greg Prato (Greg Prato)