A story of war, jazz and the rebellious Rothschild who entertained Einstein and was moved by Monk, Hannah Rothschild’s biography is an extraordinary tale of how the other half live
“Nica has emerged from the chrysalis of nursery life at Tring, unfurled her damp, powdery wings and taken flight.”
The Baroness styles itself as the tale of Pannonica ‘Nica’ de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild), a twentieth-century British aristocrat with an unconventional story. However, what I found between the covers was an historical account of the twentieth century through the Rothschild family. Our tale begins in the slums of eighteenth-century Frankfurt, and takes us on a whirlwind voyage through the rise of the most powerful financial family the world has ever seen. We end up in 1950s New York, frequenting smoky bars permeated with the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, attached at the hip to the innovative jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Through Nica’s story we become party to history-making moments of war, racism, crime and, most importantly, jazz. Easily distinguished by her fur coat and ‘Bebop Bentley’, Pannonica Rothschild is an icon who never became iconic; though at times melodramatic and oblivious, this biography takes a step towards carving Nica the spot in modern history that her extraordinary life story deserves.
This biography is peppered with delicious anecdotes about the poster children of the twentieth century. Nica recollects the arrival of Albert Einstein at one of their grand pre-war parties, who would delight the children with magic tricks (a personal favourite proving to be his ability to take off his shirt without removing his jacket). Whilst studying at Cambridge, Nica’s brother Victor talked politics with Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, the Soviet spies who were radicalised at university, and later found himself to be a prime suspect in the legendary controversy. The wartime stories don’t pull any punches either, ranking at a similar level of ‘holy crap’ on the astonishment scale. She fled her French palais to return to the UK only days before the Nazis walked in – days between continuing her domestic life in England and deportation to hell on earth. After signing up to help the French resistance, she smuggled herself to the African front to join her husband – in a journey that involved sunstroke, malaria, and an almost fatal car crash – and fought on the front line. Even moments from her childhood partook in the extraordinary: one photo of the eccentric zoologist Walter Rothschild in carriage pulled by zebras would fit better in drug-induced hallucination than the British aristocracy. Forget the ‘Bebop Bentley’, it was Walter’s pimpin’ ride that got heads turning.
The anecdotes from her life in New York are just as tasty. For me, this biography was fuel for wistful fantasy: the stories of Nica sitting with Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg, listening to Bird, Dizzy and Trane were a feast for the imagination. She was courted by countless icons of popular culture, such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. She raced down Seventh Avenue in her ‘Bebop Bentley’ in hot pursuit of Miles Davis in a Mercedes. All of this is aside from her intriguing relationship with Monk: she was more mother than lover, acting as patron, groupie and, perhaps, friend. She endorsed this avant-garde master of bebop to the death, and was as dedicated to the man as much as she was to the music. She even hired out the Royal Albert Hall – as you do – to host a free-form concert that, unfortunately, never materialised. I craved a glimpse of creative flare in Nica herself: I longed for her to step on stage, or for her passion for painting to be brought to the forefront, but was sorely disappointed. After watching The Theory of Everything, I was disappointed to discover that it was a love story, not a love song to the genius of theoretical physics. After reading this biography, I was let down by how its dedication to Rothschild-dom overwhelmed Nica’s dedication to jazz.
The Baroness wasn’t necessarily what I thought it would be: I read this book for the juicy jazz stories, not the extensive Rothschild family history – as interesting as it turned out to be – that cluttered the first half of the volume. At times the tone was melodramatic. One chapter, later in the book, begins by setting a dark scene:
“Although the Baroness left New York a free woman she would soon be caught up in a chain of events that would lead to a spectre not only of personal disaster but also the end of the life she’d chosen, a life for which she’d sacrificed so much.”
As a novice when it comes to the life story of Monk, I was convinced that Nica’s reckless driving was finally going to cause a fatal car crash, and bring the end of this jazz giant. And then, when Monk’s very presence in a racist town results in the police being called, I feared that a sickening episode of police brutality was about to befall our hero. What actually happened was that Nica gets busted for drugs. It was a common occurrence in jazz circles of that time, and Rothschild writes in way that expects us to boo hoo because “for the first time in her life being white, rich, titled and even perhaps innocent counted for nothing”. In a story that explains how far Monk’s career was stifled by direct and systematic racism, it is difficult to take Nica’s pitiful situation without a pinch of salt.
Rothschild fails to fully acknowledge the extent of Nica’s ongoing economic privilege. Though it was eye-opening to consider the emotional neglect of Nica’s apparently advantageous upbringing – the big house and lavish parties pale in comparison to her father’s grizzly suicide and the prevalence of the untreated mental illness that plagued the family – I was yearning for more recognition of the practicalities of the Rothschild wealth. It’s an aristocratic history posing as something more down-to-earth. The Rothschild story may have humble beginnings, but their rise from a Frankfurt ghetto to bankrolling several European governments isn’t a sympathetic rags-to-riches tale: once the Rothschilds are out of poverty, it is as if it ceases to exist. The inestimable wealth of our subject, and the way in which it is often overlooked in this biography, not only detached Nica from her jazz idols, but also estranges her from the readership.
The book does draw an interesting socio-historical parallel between the plight of Jewish people in the early twentieth century, and the struggles faced by African Americans in the period that immediately followed. We hear how Nica and her family, despite being the most influential family in Europe, were alienated from much of upper-class British society because of their religion; we go on to hear accounts of the discrimination against the African American musicians of this tale, despite their being the most influential artists of their age. I was particularly surprised to discover that the anti-lynching song ‘Strange Fruit’, most famously performed by Billie Holiday, was written by a white Jewish songwriter, Abel Meeropol. The biography did end on a poignant note: after her death in 1988, Nica’s ashes were scattered in the Hudson, ’round midnight (inspired by one of Monk’s most influential compositions). In the final moment, we are reminded of the simple passion that lay beneath this long and complex life story, and the earnestness that is captured so perfectly by the the beautiful music that she inspired.