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The Jewish Jazz Baroness

The Jewish Jazz Baroness

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

She was a Rothschild, an aristocrat, a war hero (she was awarded the Medaille de la France Libre for her anti-Vichy efforts) and an ambassador’s wife. But Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswater, better known as Nica, was probably most famous for hosting jazz giant Charlie “Bird” Parker in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel the night he died. The New York tabloids vilified her, but her role as a patron saint for modern jazz couldn’t be tarnished by those louts. She was a staunch friend to Thelonious Monk and his family and dozens of others. Now, Nica is the subject of a brisk and witty biography, “Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness” (W.W. Norton), written by music journalist David Kastin. In a telephone interview last week, Kastin told how he came upon her story.

Q: When did you first hear of Nica? How did that lead you to writing the book?

A: When you start poking around into the bebop era, you delve into the musicians’ lives a little and this name pops up: The Baroness! It’s gonna get your attention. The first thing you hear about is the scandal after Bird’s death, the lurid headlines like “Bop King Dies in Heiress’ Flat.” Before you know it you’ve bought into this caricature, what one person I know called “this Eurotrash baroness.” That’s how she’s depicted. What else was a white woman doing in that world? That was my first confrontation with her.

In 2004 I was on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and there was the Stanhope Hotel. I flashed on this recollection of what took place there, I realized that we were coming up on the 50th anniversary of Bird’s death, and I started thinking about the coverage that might take place. And I realized that I didn’t know much more about her than when I first encountered her [name]. … I started researching and realized there was more to her story. I did get an article published, but I got so caught up in the research that it didn’t come out until after [the 50th] anniversary. That article came out in 2006 [and was selected for] the DaCapo best music writing series in 2007. An agent saw the piece and said, “you know there’s a book here."

It was her brother Victor, an avid amateur pianist, who introduced her to jazz.

Yes. You think about the lifestyle she had grown up in, it’s a kind of fairy tale world: huge estates, wild emus and Galapagos tortoises on the grounds. No limits, their horizons were just endless. [Jazz piano great] Teddy Wilson is touring England, Victor wants jazz lessons, so why not take some lessons with Teddy Wilson? And sure enough, Teddy’s there and Nica’s sitting in, listening. When she came to New York later, he really provided here with an entrée into the scene.

The Rothschild family is legendary for its secretiveness. I gather you got no cooperation from them.

She had five children who are now in their 60s and 70s, and they were united very strongly that their private life was not going to be violated, [that] their mother’s private life was not going to be violated. They drew a firm line and you weren’t going to get across it. I realized their mother had been vilified in the tabloids; her life had been distorted. She had paid a high price for the freedom she dedicated her life to. But when I started to look into the story of the Rothschilds, I realized this went back generations. All of the family burned their private papers.

You’re Jewish yourself. There’s some fascinating material in the book on Nica’s Jewish identity and her identity as a Rothschild.

I was interested in that. What prompted it actually was when I came across a chapter in Max Gordon’s memoir [of his years as a jazz club owner]. He has a chapter on the Baroness, in which she says, “Jazz didn’t do my marriage any good.” She says to Max, “We were a weird mishpocha but we were close.” What was her consciousness of her Jewish identity? Everyone said there was never anything she brought out that could be identified as an attitude about her Jewish consciousness. I asked Hannah Rothschild [a cousin who made a documentary film about Nica], and she said, “You can’t grow up a Rothschild in England without being conscious of your Jewish identity.” Nica’s great-grandfather was the Jew elected a member of Parliament, but he had to fight for 11 years to be seated because he was Jewish. His son Nathaniel was made a peer, the first Jew to sit in the House of Lords.

I came across a brief autobiographical sketch that Victor had written. He wrote, “My parents were either atheists or agnostics; there was no Jewish indoctrination in the home. My parents sought to identify with a progressive non-religious view of the world.” But [Nica] spent considerable time with her grandmother after her father’s suicide. Her grandmother did follow Jewish traditions. Her uncle Walter was the recipient of the letter from Arthur Balfour announcing support for the Jewish state. So it’s a mixed bag.

And her daughter Janka made aliyah.

I never could penetrate how that came about. I know people who had grown up with Janka and they had no inkling; it happened very suddenly. She continues to live in Jerusalem to this day.

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