Book Review: The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild

Pannonica Moth

Pannonica Moth

Butterflies are moths with better public relations.
– Gaden Robinson, The Baroness

The butterfly is the iconic image for survivors of domestic violence.  I was drawn as a moth to a flame to The Baroness:  The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild.  It was the World’s Best Book Club’s (WBBC) July selection.  The story of Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild de Koenigswarter is extraordinarily intriguing.  Her namesake is the moth.  Seriously.  The family has an obsessive-compulsive gene that causes them to acquire massive collections of things like bugs and dogs and jazz musicians and cats.  Nica’s father Charles collected butterflies and fleas.

A poor person with mental illness is frequently called “crazy” while a wealthy person with the same diagnosis is “eccentric.”  By the same token, the poor “hoard” while the wealthy “collect.”  Hannah Rothschild stripped her family’s story of this veneer and quite bluntly acknowledged mental health issues including hoarding:

I wondered where this impulse to acquire comes from and why so many members of my family seem to share it.  Part of it is a form of hoarding, one-upmanship and conspicuous display.  But concurrent with this ostentation is the collector’s desire to create a perfect, ordered world over which they have some control, a sense of power and security; perhaps at the heart of collecting is the simple need to create external order out of internal chaos.

I think she may have a point.  My domestic violence experience certainly fueled my own drive to collect Department 56 Christmas houses.  I had a powerful need to create a perfect, tranquil world ~ my own Christmas Carol ~ each holiday season.

WBBC July, 2013 photo by Monty Wawatai

WBBC July, 2013 photo by Monty Wawatai

Survivors [of World War II] had to reconstruct a life
out of debris and desolation.
– Hannah Rothschild, The Baroness

The Rothschild family were the world’s bankers. Although their wealth was trimmed substantially by post-World War II taxation, they remained insanely wealthy. Yet, they weren’t terribly happy. My sense is that Nica was very lonely despite the fact that she was perpetually surrounded by jazz musicians. She was their patroness and likely funded their drug and alcohol addictions.

During World War II, Nica fought for the French Free Army and was awarded a medal and made a lieutenant.  She thrived during these years, but she became a bird in a gilded cage after the war:

Nica was a member of the first generation of emancipated British women, well-brought-up young ladies were still expected to behave like the weaker, gentler sex.  Submissiveness, modesty and humility were required female attributes. . .

As a married woman she was there to entertain, to inform and to breed.  There was a temporary suspension of duties during the conflict but now she was expected to snap back into an uxorial role.  [submissive wife]

Ugh.  One of the many men who sexually harassed me frequently advised that I needed to become more “docile and submissive” if I wanted to succeed with my career.  What he meant was that I would be expected to sleep my way to the top ~ starting with him.

Victor, Miriam, Liberty and Nica Rothschild, circa 1923.

Victor, Miriam, Liberty and Nica Rothschild, circa 1923.

I should imagine you will soon get married ~
so you should learn as soon as possible that you are a worm.
A woman to be a successful wife must be a worm.
– Nica’s cousin, The Baroness

We can blame men for treating us with disrespect, but I think that we need to be more consciously aware that this sense of male entitlement is often instilled and enforced by women.  Therefore, we have the power to change this dynamic.  Hannah described the empowerment demonstrated by women during World War II:

Nica was not worm material.  Furthermore, the war had given her confidence, plus the opportunity to think, to act and to be herself.  She had managed, alone, to get her children to safety from France to America [they stayed with the Guggenheim family on Long Island]; she had survived torpedoes and malaria, and had smuggled herself across continents.  At various times, the Free French had employed her as a decoder, a driver and a broadcaster, and at the end of the war she had been decorated by a foreign army.  Slipping back into domestic life, even a uniquely privileged and comfortable one, was never going to be easy.

Nica’s mother-in-law refused to leave their home and died in a Nazi death camp.

Nica Rothschild with her children, Janka, Shaun, Berit and Kari in 1957.

Nica Rothschild with her children, Janka, Shaun, Berit and Kari in 1957.

My father was a very controlling person.
He reminded my mother of her own domineering mother.
– Patrick de Koenigswarter, The Baroness

Nica’s husband, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter also thrived during the war.  After the war, the marriage started to deteriorate:

Marriages rarely collapse over one incident; rather it is a steady accumulation, a layering of individual instances and incompatibilities that create a fault line, an accident waiting to happen. . .

Nica knew that to ossify in a particular situation, to carry on because that was what others expected, led to dire personal consequences.  [Her father was institutionalized for mental illness and committed suicide when she was 12.]

Nica Rothschild and Thelonious Monk at New York's Five Spot jazz club in 1964.

Nica Rothschild and Thelonious Monk at New York’s Five Spot jazz club in 1964.

My husband hated jazz.
He used to break my records when I was late for dinner.
I was often late for dinner.
– Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter

Teddy Williams, her brother’s piano teacher, introduced Nica to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and her life shifted on its axis:

Nica detected the passion and heartbreak underlying the music.  It resonated too with her that many women and black musicians had fought in a bitter and bloody war on the principle of freedom, yet both groups returned to a society that refused, by and large, to entertain change.

Several years after she first heard “Round Midnight,” Nica finally met Thelonious Monk in Paris.  She devoted the rest of his life to supporting his career and promoting his music.  Nica became infamous when jazz great Charlie Parker died in her apartment at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City.  The incident led to her divorce and eviction.

"Pannonica" score

“Pannonica” score

He was a good-looking cat.
She was a hotty.
– Toot Monk on the relationship between his father and Nica, The Baroness

Nica lost custody of her five children: Patrick, Janka, Berit, Shaun, and Kari. Hannah’s internal debate over Nica’s loss of custody was very intriguing to me.  It sums up the misguided opinions and harsh judgements too frequently heaped on protective mothers who lose custody:

She had borne five children but never seemed to find comfort in motherhood. Perhaps she never tried; perhaps she just accepted that child-rearing was best left to the professionals. Perhaps, if war had not broken out, if she had not had that heady glimpse of freedom, she might have stayed with her husband. . .

Nica’s newly chosen lifestyle of grand hotels and fast cars seemed like pure hedonism. . .Nica’s walking away from her responsibilities.

Jules’s behaviour might have been controlling and authoritarian, but I felt nothing but sympathy with his desire to protect his children.  Wanting to believe that Nica had put up a great fight to keep custody of all her children, I tried to find out details of the couple’s divorce settlement. . .I found nothing.  My respect for Nica wavered.  Perhaps she was nothing more than a wealthy, irresponsible gadfly after all. . .

Waddesdon Manor, Nica's gilded cage

Waddesdon Manor, Nica’s childhood home

It was time to stop judging Nica and attempt instead to understand her actions through the prism of her own experiences and the conventions of that time.  What of her own childhood?  She had never been parented; her father had died abruptly and violently.  Rozsika was a ghostly figure who left the business of mothering to the servants.  In turn, the children learned to avoid intimacy.  Victor used cruelty to keep others at arm’s length and he tormented and bullied many of his five children as well as his two wives.  Liberty could not cope with relationships of any kind.  Miriam worked obsessively.  Nica dodged getting close to anyone by scattering her love widely.  Her photograph albums show a woman permanently surrounded ~ either by cats, children or adults.

Thelonious Monk and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter get into her Bebop Bentley outside the Five Spot cafe, New York, 1964

Thelonious Monk and Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter get into her Bebop Bentley outside the Five Spot cafe, New York, 1964

 Perhaps Nica did not fight harder for custody of her younger children
because she knew she could not win.
– Hannah Rothschild, The Baroness

I was shocked to read that mothers frequently lost custody in Great Britain until 1969 ~ the year I was married:

There was another practical explanation for the terms of Nica’s separation. Prior to an Act of Parliament passed in 1969, many years after Nica’s marriage ended, wives were rarely granted alimony or gained custody of their children.

Wow!  At age sixteen, Janka moved in with her mother.  Patrick joined them until jazz jam sessions disrupted his homework.

Thelonious Monk died at age 64 in 1982.  Nica and his widow Nellie Monk shared the front pew at his funeral.  Nica died at age 74 in 1988.

Hannah Rothschild

Hannah Rothschild

She’s known at “the Jazz Baroness.”
She lives with a black man, a pianist.
She flew Lancaster bombers in the war.
That junkie saxophonist Charlie Parker died in her apartment.
She had five children and lived with 306 cats.
The family cut her off (no, they didn’t someone countered).
Twenty songs were written for her (no, it was twenty-four).
She raced Miles Davis down Fifth Avenue.
– Rothschild family whispers about Nica, The Baroness

What a life, eh?  I am profoundly grateful that the WBBC selected The Baroness.  It transported me back to my law school days and delightful gin-soaked nights with the late, great Dr. Henry B. Head at the Tavern Club in Chicago where I got many intimate glimpses into the gilded cage lives of the uber-wealthy.  I think Nica’s story is fairly typical for her social class and generation.  Many of the WBBC members and I agree:  the book should have been limited to a magazine article.  Hannah Rothschild has her own obsession:  her great-aunt Nica.

After I finished the book, I listened to my Round Midnight CD.  I had loved the movie and the soundtrack, but I was shocked that anyone would change the trajectory of her life after listing to “Round Midnight.” Next, I watched Clint Eastwood’s documentary Bird about the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker.  I had expected Nina to be featured more prominently, but her role was limited to the night the two met and the night he died in her apartment.  One of these days, I may try to track down Three Wishes because I’m curious about the collective wishes of jazz greats, and it might be fun to see Nica’s candid photos.

Related Posts and Links:

Nica Rothschild: The Baroness of Bebop by Lorna Koski [Women’s Wear Daily, May 8, 2013]

The jazz baroness and the bebop king by Richard Williams [The Guardian, December 21, 2008]


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