UnEarthed: Nica, the Bebop Baroness

VITALS

NAME: Baroness Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter

CRAFT: writer, jazz patron, socialite, scion of the House of Rothschild

DIG SITE: Verve’s “Jazz Masters 15: Charlie Parker” CD (1994)

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I mentioned in a recent article that autumn is a great time for jazz. The introspection of the music matches well with the ponderous nature of fall. This October, I was listening to the Miles Davis album Porgy and Bess from 1959 and I was remembering that I had once read that the Davis albums Kind of Blue (also ’59), Sketches of Spain (1960) and Porgy and Bess were essential listening. While I love Kind of Blue (who doesn’t?), I’ve finally accepted the fact that I do not care for the quiet and somewhat labourious music on the other two albums. I know I’m supposed to like them but I don’t – I feel the same about Shakespeare.

Then I listened to some Charlie Parker and came to another conclusion; along with cool/West Coast jazz, bebop is my favourite. It also is perhaps the coolest genre name ever, it and all it’s sub-categories; bop, hard bop, post-bop.

I’ve always known that Parker was a heroin addict and lived a troubled life – in true jazzbo fashion – so I decided to grab my pickaxe and start a test pit. I started by reading about Parker’s death and learned that he died on March 12, 1955 “in the suite of his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City, while watching The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on television”. My first question was: who in the jumping heck is this baroness?

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Bird was in such poor health when he died at 34 that the coroner estimated his age to be 53; that age even made it into this obit.

This baroness is Kathleen Rothschild. She was born in London, the daughter of Charles Rothschild and his wife, Hungarian baroness Rozsika Edle von Wertheimstein of Transylvania, of all places. The first interesting find as I dug my hole was the Rothschild Family. Charles was the son of Nathan Rothschild (1840-1915), the 1st Baron of Rothschild, Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, who had married his cousin from the Frankfurt branch of the family. Indeed, Nathan’s paternal and maternal grandfathers were brothers. Like royalty of ancient times, the Rothschild’s had their marriages arranged and were mated to others already in their family.

Nathan was the great-grandson of the founder of the Rothschild Dynasty, Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812). The secret to the financial success of the Rothschild family, spanning decades and continuing today, was Mayer’s insistence on keeping control of the business in family hands – with arranged marriages between first and second cousins – and establishing banking centers in major cities spread across Europe. During the 19th century, the Rothschild family possessed the largest family fortune in “modern world history”.

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The Rothschild family crest.

In more modern times, Rothschild family members married into other prominent families and made impacts on society, not exclusively in the area of finance. The family of Italian Baroness Afdera Franchetti married into the Rothschild family. Afdera was introduced to Henry Fonda by Audrey Hepburn, who had been confiding in Afdera’s sister her struggles to conceive. When Hepburn became pregnant almost immediately afterward, she felt a loyalty to Afdera’s family. Fonda and Afdera were married – Afdera was 25, Jane Fonda was 18 – from 1957 to 1961. Later, Afdera was arrested for smuggling after she had unknowingly carried a package in her luggage containing a single joint as a favour for a friend name of Mick Jagger. I’m telling you; the things you find on these digs!

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Fonda with Afdera, the fourth of his five wives.

Billionaire financier Nathan Philip Rothschild (born 1971), based in Switzerland, is the heir apparent to the title “Baron Rothschild”. David Mayer de Rothschild (born 1978) is a British adventurer and environmentalist who has been honoured by the National Geographic Society. In 1943, a Baron Elie Robert de Rothschild married Lady Liliane Elisabeth Victoire Fould-Springer, who is the great-aunt of actress Helena Bonham Carter. In 2015, James Rothschild, another financier, married Nicky Hilton, granddaughter of Barron Hilton and sister of Paris. So, Nicky Hilton is part of the Hilton Family and the Rothschild Family. No fair. How many billions is that?

But back to our subject. Kathleen was born into this wealthy and illustrious family and named after a moth. Her father was a noted entomologist – he had a collection of 260,000 fleas – and gave his daughter the name of a rare species of moth, Eublemma pannonica. In 1935, “Nica” married a French diplomat and together they fought for the Free French, Nica serving as a decoder and driver and later receiving decorations from allied armies.

Once when Nica was flying back to her family from abroad, she stopped over in New York City. There she heard a recording of “‘Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk…and she never went back to her family. She left behind her five children, settled in New York and was disinherited by her family.

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Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Blow, man.

Her life had been changed by three minutes and ten seconds of a type of music that was new to her and many others; bebop. No longer catering to listeners, some jazz musicians were taking a stand of sorts and making more personal, less accessible music. The whole bebop enclave held great fascination for Nica. She became perhaps the first prominent patron of this music and it has been suggested that, during this era, women and blacks faced some of the same struggles for equality in society which may help to explain in part her being drawn to black jazz musicians.

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Monk and Nica in the ‘Bebop Bentley’ outside the Five Spot.

Nica hosted jam sessions in her hotel suite, giving musicians a luxurious setting in which to congregate and share ideas. When needed, she would make her Bentley and chauffeur available for transportation to gigs. She promoted the music on radio and even published a book of her interviews with and photographs of jazz musicians.

When Charlie Parker found himself destitute, battling mental health issues and hopelessly addicted to heroin, he turned to Nica. He had stopped by for a visit when he had promptly died, putting Nica in a precarious position. In the aftermath of Parker’s death in her rooms at the Stanhope, the management asked her to leave. I can’t help but think that, considering the times, a white woman who spent all her time with black, drug-abusing jazz musicians would have been anathema to the hotel’s stuffy sense of decorum.

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A great shot of Nica and Monk.

I have heard that from the moment Nica met Thelonious Monk, the two were never apart. There is no evidence that it was ever romantic in any way. Nica wrote the liner notes to Monk’s 1962 album Criss-Cross on Columbia and implicated herself along with Monk when he was arrested for marijuana possession despite her innocence. She gave Monk a place to stay for the last ten years of his life which were also marred by what was assumed to be mental illness – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia – although this was never properly diagnosed. Nica was a devoted nurse to Monk these last years and his wife was also constantly present. Like Parker, Monk would die in Nica’s home – this time in New Jersey – in 1982. He was 64.

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The Baroness was also a muse of sorts and many musicians paid homage to her in song. Examples include: “Pannonica”, “Bolivar Blues” and “Coming on the Hudson” by Monk, “Nica’s Dream” – Horace Silver, “Nica’s Tempo” – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “Nica” – Sonny Clark Trio, “Little Butterfly” – Jon Hendricks, “Nica Steps Out” – Freddie Redd, “A Waltz for the Baroness” – Roy Draper, “My Nica the Girl I Love” – Bliss Bowman and many others.

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The Baroness later in life with her herd of cats. Barry Harris wrote and recorded “Cats in My Belfry” for Nica and her ‘friends’.

Nica is the subject of an excellent BBC documentary, The Jazz Baroness, made by her great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, in 2008.

So, as I tried to break away from the slumber of Davis’ Porgy and Bess, I ran to my man, Bird. While listening to a fairly rote compilation of his music, I read up on the man who died in the care of “his friend, the Baroness”. This lead me to Nica and to the wealthiest family in modern world history with stops along the way at inbreeding and entomology. I ended up in the present day with a guy who’s actually an “adventurer”, a different Nicky Hilton and her sister, Paris Hilton, of all people. Interesting artifacts. Another successful dig.

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