On the night of 15 October, 1958, a vintage Bentley was pulled over by the Delaware State Police. Suspicions had been raised by the sight of a white woman driving with two black male passengers, one of whom had danced his way into a motel along the road in search of a glass of water. This man was Thelonious Monk and the other man was Charlie Rouse. Monk refused the officers’ request to leave the car and they beat his fingers with blackjacks. When the driver screamed that Monk was a pianist, they beat him harder. Minutes later, the officers found marijuana in a suitcase which the driver, Nica, claimed was hers. Had Monk been busted he’d have lost his cabaret card and the right to perform in New York for up to seven years.
Pannonica de Koenigswarter, or Nica, was a Rothschild by birth. Born in 1913 at Tring, a Rothschild house in Hertfordshire, Nica enjoyed a luxurious and cosseted upbringing. According to her sister Miriam, the internationally renowned naturalist, the only expectation upon Charles and Rozsika Rothschild’s daughters was to marry and breed and, although their brother Victor was sent to school and university, Nica and Miriam received little formal education.
Though music didn’t play a significant part in her upbringing, Nica claimed her first love was swing and she preferred bandleaders such as Jack Harris, a violinist who played at ‘coming out’ parties in the 1930s to traditional debs’ delights. Her unconventional taste in music was an early indication of a life to come of total nonconformity. For a time, however, it seemed as if she might settle down; she married Jules de Koenigswarter, an older, sophisticated, French baron who lived life to a strict schedule, unlike his wife who had a total disregard for timekeeping. They lived at a chateau outside Paris where two of their five children were born.
The Second World War changed everything. Nica’s brother Victor worked in bomb disposal (he was later awarded the George Medal) and her sister Miriam was a decoder at Bletchley. Keen to do her bit, Nica settled her children safely in New York and followed Jules to Africa to join the Free French working as an ambulance driver. She even made her way to Berlin and caught the last of the fighting. Like many women, Nica was emancipated by the war and emboldened by a real sense of achievement. Settling back into domestic routine was tough and it was even harder to slip back into the male shadow after years of war-time equality. Robert Kraft, a musician and friend of Nica’s, points to a similar sense of outrage felt by the black GIs returning to America from Europe to find that nothing had changed: they were still expected to use service entrances and, in many states, obey segregation laws. This discontent was echoed in a new style of jazz called bebop: music you couldn’t dance or sing to, a music that heralded a new individualism. It was no coincidence that Nica embraced bebop wholeheartedly and pursued every opportunity to hear it played live or on records.
Following the war, Jules was decorated for bravery and rewarded with a high-status position within the diplomatic service. The couple was stationed in Norway and then Mexico, but Nica chafed under the strict formality of life as an ambassador’s wife. Increasingly mesmerised by the jazz scene, Nica found more excuses to extend their regular trips to New York until, one day in 1951 she decided to stay. She told Stanley Crouch, the music critic, that this momentous decision was inspired by Thelonious Monk’s record Round Midnight, which cast a spell on her and inspired the start of a new life.
New York in the 1950s was the crucible of new music, thinking, writing, art and politics. Jazz, the fusion of indigenous and immigrant rhythms, was now an explosive scene, evolving with every new arrival: Charlie Parker from Kansas, Monk from North Carolina, Dizzy Gillespie from South Carolina and Miles Davis from Illinois, who met and played on 52nd Street and other clubs in the Village.
The life of a musician was cruel: erratic hours, limited opportunities for work, long spells on the road and the absence of a welfare system made it hard to support a family, let alone maintain a home. Many turned to drugs which were available at jazz clubs where money laundering and drug dealing were rife.
Having witnessed the Second World War, lost friends and family in the concentration camps and experienced anti-Semitism first hand, Nica refused to stand by and watch her new friends suffer because they were black. ‘I don’t see myself as a freedom fighter,’ she told Nat Hentoff in an interview with Esquire, ‘but I do see that a lot of help is needed.’
In March 1955, Nica was living at the Stanhope Hotel, a grand establishment on Park Avenue with a policy of segregation. Late one night, Charlie Parker called by unexpectedly. Parker was at a low ebb following the sudden death of his daughter and had recently attempted suicide by drinking iodine. A known drug addict, ‘Parker was lucky that Nica was prepared to open her door. There was no one left in New York who’d do that,’ commented Toot Monk. Nica told her version of that night’s events, how Parker collapsed and died while watching television, to two people. The first was Clint Eastwood, who told her story in his feature film Bird. The second was Robert Reisner, who was writing a book, The Legend of Charlie Parker. In 1950s New York, for a white woman to be alone with a black man in a hotel suite was cause enough for scandal. For a white, Jewish Baroness to be alone with the famous black drug addict musician on the night of his death sent society into an orgy of speculation. ‘Nica paid a high price for her kindness. After that she was harassed by the press and police,’ says Toot.
Tabloid newspapers and society gossip did not succeed in driving Nica back home or halt her numerous acts of kindness. The Jewish tradition of tzedakah had always been an important Rothschild principle: she took food and medicine to saxophonist Coleman Hawkins who was dying of malnutrition and a broken heart; she recovered Sonny Clark’s body from the morgue and paid for it to be flown home to his family. Perhaps her greatest gesture to the musicians she knew was to treat them with respect, a rare experience for African-Americans at that time. ‘She made us feel like someone just by being with us,’ said Roy Haynes, who was hired by Nica to play with Monk at a stint at the Five Spot in 1957.
In other cases she acted as manager, arranging gigs and transporting musicians in her vintage car. ‘I mean, who wouldn’t get a kick out of going in a Bentley?’ says her friend Phoebe Jacobs, who remembers seeing the car full of musicians with a double bass strapped to the roof careering up Park Avenue. Nica fought to scrap the cabaret card, required by artists to play in licensed clubs but regarded by many as a police tool to control black musicians. In some cases she provided money to the very hard up, in others medical or legal assistance and basic necessities.
But how did this life connect with a family from a Frankfurt ghetto whose five sons went to five different capitals of Europe to create five banks that would became powerful enough to help fund Wellington’s armies, the Gold Rush, the Suez Canal, the arrival of the railways and the quest for oil? Why had Balfour written to Nica’s uncle Walter Rothschild, acknowledging that the British Government favoured the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people (later Israel), and why did Queen Victoria turn down recommendations for Lionel de Rothschild, the first Jewish MP’s ennoblement with the words, ‘To make a Jew a peer is a step she could not consent to’? Could Nica’s life have any connection with all these disparate elements?
Over many years Thelonious and Nellie Monk, and their children Toot and Boo Boo, became part of Nica’s extended family. To this day, Toot Monk regards Nica’s children as brothers and sisters. Nica’s photographs, exhibited last summer at Arles and published in Les Musiciens de jazz et leurs trois vœux ( Jazz Musicians and Their Three Wishes), edited by her granddaughter Nadine and published in France, capture the atmosphere of her house in Weehawken. In Nica’s photographs of ping-pong games and musicians jamming nearly all are laughing. Her daughter Janka and her grandson Steven lived with her for many years and her other children Patrick, Berit, Sean and Kari were always close by. ‘The Cathouse’, as Nica called it, was as far removed from the grandeur and formality of Rothschild houses as one could imagine. However, like her father, uncle and sister, Nica liked to be surrounded by animals. The older generation liked exotic species including cassowaries, emus and wallabies, but Nica preferred cats. ‘I remember one time I counted 305, no, 306 cats,’ says Toot Monk. ‘There were cats everywhere, cats on the bed, cats on the fridge, cats in the cupboards.’
When, in the early 1970s, Thelonious Monk’s mental health deteriorated, Nica offered him a permanent place at her home. From then until his death, Monk rarely got out of bed, preferring to view the world through a sea of books, magazines and records spread out around him. Occasionally he’d play the piano or a game of ping-pong, but when asked why he refused to perform he replied, ‘I’m just tired of playing.’ He died in 1982 and at his funeral Nellie and Nica sat side by side.
Nica was my great-aunt and I had never met her. In 1984, aged 22, I made my first trip to New York and phoned her. ‘Would you like to meet up?’ I asked nervously. ‘Wild,’ she answered. ‘Come to the club downtown after midnight.’ This area had yet to be gentrified and was known for its crack dens, curfews and muggings. ‘How will I find it?’ I asked. Nica laughed, ‘Look out for the car’ and hung up.
The car was impossible to miss. The vintage Bentley was badly parked and inside it, two drunks lolled around on the leather seats. ‘It’s good they’re in there — it means no one will steal it,’ she explained. Set back from the street was a small door leading down to a basement. Nica sat at the table nearest the stage. She had long straight hair and a thin face etched with age and experience. Smoking a cigarette in a black filter, she dispensed with normal pleasantries and, picking up a flask from the table, poured something into two chipped china cups. We toasted each other silently and I drained the cup. Whisky cut into the back of my throat. My eyes watered. She threw back her head and laughed. She was seventy-one at the time.
It was the start of an unconventional friendship with a most exceptional woman. When it was cut short by her sudden death I took some time to realise that a relationship doesn’t have to end with death, particularly when a person’s friends are so very keen to tell her story. My profession is documentary film-making and I have spent my adult life making portraits of artists, both living and dead, capturing their spirit and times through interview, archive and their work. Some, like R. B. Kitaj and Frank Auerbach, were there to be interviewed. Others, like Picasso, Sickert and Eisenstein had died, but I believe there’s authenticity and value in any seriously attempted portrait. At the moment I’m shaping 115 hours of footage, including sixty-seven interviews, into a documentary feature for BBC Arena called The Jazz Baroness, a film of Nica’s extraordinary life. It is like a kaleidoscope made up of different patterns of seemingly unconnected parts, which together create an ever-changing picture. I learned that as a child, Einstein taught her magic tricks, and she played with gold bars in the vaults of the Bank of England; her beloved aunt was clubbed to death with meat hooks by SS officers outside Buchenwald; she lived in Josef von Sternberg’s house with many cats, several children and one grandchild. Again and again one thing was emphasised: she was a great patron, part Medici, part Guggenheim operating in the world of jazz.
There’s a scene in the 1988 documentary Straight No Chaser set in the backroom of a New York club where Thelonious Monk boasts about Nica’s family saying, ‘The Royal Family came to your family crying the blues and they laid the bread on him to beat Napoleon — I tell everyone who you are, I’m proud of you — she’s a Rothschild.’ History has a delicious way of evolving: here was a world-class American musician born in dire straits whose life and career benefited from a fortune made generations before by an unconnected European family who also suffered from the obstacles presented by prejudice. Clearly Mayer Amschel Rothschild, when preparing his five sons to develop their business across Europe, never imagined that the fruits of their labour would be used to offer protection and patronage to a generation of brilliant but often destitute jazz musicians. ‘She was like Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa rolled into one,’ said Monk’s son Toot. ‘She was our light and our joy,’ commented trombonist Curtis Fuller. Her story lives on in some wonderful jazz standards like Pannonica by Thelonious Monk, Nica’s Dream by Horace Silver and Art Blakey, Blues for Nica by Kenny Drew and Tonica by Kenny Dorham. Athough legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins rarely grants interviews, he made an exception for my documentary, saying, ‘Nica’s story needs to be told. It’s our story too.’
Hannah Rothschild is a writer and film-maker.
Photographs from Les Musiciens de jazz et leurs trois vœux ( Jazz Musicians and Their Three Wishes), published by Buchet Chastel, 2006, by kind permission.