The Baroness

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

Charlie Parker died in her New York apartment. She supported and even nursed Thelonious Monk for the last thirty years of his life. She had five children and lived with three hundred cats, had dozens of tunes written about her, was the subject of numerous documentaries and magazine articles, and was portrayed by an actress in Clint Eastwood's biopic, Bird.

Now a fullscale biography has been written about her--THE BARONESS, THE SEARCH FOR NICA, THE REBELLIOUS ROTHSCHILD. Its author is Nica's great-niece, Hannah Rothschild, a British writer and director who knew what a daunting challenge it would be to write an accurate book about her. "Hers is such an extraordinary story," she explains, "a musical odyssey spanning both a century and the globe with all the ingredients of a melodrama: the heiress and the suffering artist; the butterfly and the blues; love, madness, war and death."

Nica--full name Pannonica de Koenigswarter, nee Rothschild--was raised in Europe, a child of ease and privilege, thanks to the immense wealth and power of her banking family, whose global reach included oilfields, railways, commodities and coal mines. "It was said that no one went to war or considered peace without first consulting the Rothschilds," comments the author.


The Rothschilds may have been a famous clan, but it was hardly a happy one. Home life was cold and regimented; Nica and her two sisters were banned (by decree of the founding father, N.M. Rothschild) from working in the family bank, except as bookkeepers or archivists. Nica grew up without an outlet for her innate creativity, a vehicle for her talent. As a consequence, she became a wild child, a reckless driver, an unlicensed airplane pilot. Out of desperation and confusion, she married young, gave birth to a slew of children, but still floundered in life. It wasn't until she heard Duke Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige symphony that she found a direction, a goal.

"I got the message that I belonged where that music was," she told a friend. "There was something I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be involved in it in some way. I got a really clear message. It wasn't long afterwards that it happened, that I cut out from there. It was a real calling. Very strange."

Nica left her husband and children behind in England and moved to New York. There she went through a metamorphosis and became a jazz princess--fan, friend, benefactor, protector and (occasional) lover of such musicians as Art Blakey, Quincy Jones, Teddy Wilson, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker and, above all, Thelonious Monk.

Her biggest epiphany came when she heard Monk's Round About Midnight. "She said she'd never heard anything like it, the sound and feeling of it," said pianist Teddy Wilson, the man who introduced her to the record. "She just kept asking me to play it over and over...She kept getting deeper and deeper into it as she heard it. You can't explain music, we do not know where she went or where that song took her, but from that point on, she had concluded that she was going to have to meet the guy who played this music."

Meet Monk she did and for the rest of her life she stayed by the side of this gifted but controversial and deeply tormented musician (the promoter George Wein called him "a bad piano player"). She supported Monk (and his wife Nellie, with whom she had a warm, trusting friendship), gave him a place to practice piano and crash when necessary, clothed and pampered him, drove him all over town in her Bentley Convertible, went to bat and almost to jail for him (when the police found drugs in her car).

As the jazz historian Dan Morgenstern comments in THE BARONESS, "She was prepared to sacrifice herself for him. She did not think twice about it. That was what she was like, the way she looked at things. That was the way she was."

Monk fell seriously ill in 1972. Nica did her best to help keep him alive. "My biggest regret is that I did not find the right doctor for him," she confided later. Monk died a slow death; he was ill for nearly a decade and did not play piano in all that time: "I have retired," was all he said.

After Monk was buried, Nica could have gone back to England to join her sisters. Instead she remained in her Weehawken, NJ house, which she shared with the pianist Barry Harris and an army of cats. She died on Nov. 30, 1988 of heart failure (during a triple aorta bypass). She left one request: that her ashes be scattered on the Hudson River, near Weehawken. "The timing was very important: it had to be done 'round midnight,'" she specified.

(Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 285 pages with photos; $26.95 hdbnd)