Monday, August 12, 2013
The jazz baroness
“He was a good-looking cat,” said Toot Monk. “She was a hotty.”
He was talking about his father, Thelonious Monk, and Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Her nickname was Nica, and her maiden name was Rothschild. She was white, British, Jewish, rich, and married, and she was the great jazzman’s closest companion for the last half of his life.
I learned about the fascinating Nica and her relationship with Monk in The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild. This biography was written by Nica’s great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, who (like Nica) struggled against the expectations that come along with that illustrious name.
Nica and her sisters, Miriam and Liberty, were raised in surroundings of extraordinary wealth, rigid rules, and emotional neglect. Their educations were limited and their expectations severely circumscribed. As women, they would never, ever, work at the Rothschild family business. So what would they do? No one really seemed to know or care.
Miriam became a brilliant and influential entomologist, and Liberty suffered from mental illness. Nica, the beautiful youngest, married a European jet-setter, as rich beautiful young ladies did.
But by the mid-1960s, Nica had left her husband and children, and was hanging out in the Five Spot Cafe and the Village Vanguard, listening to live jazz in her fur coat and pearls. By the mid-1970s, she was living with Thelonius Monk and two hundred cats in Weehawken, New Jersey.
The Baroness is full of amazing characters, from saxophonist Charlie Parker, who died in Nica’s apartment, to Nica’s brilliant and steely sister Miriam. It’s really one of the most interesting biographies I’ve ever read.