Monday, June 4, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE BARONESS – The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild” by Hannah Rothschild (Virago/Hachette, $NZ39:99)

            Modern “cool” jazz pianist Thelonious Monk is not my favourite jazzman, but I have three CDs of his work in my collection (including his best album Criss-Cross) and I like the way he deconstructs melodies into his own particular rhythmic patterns. At first it almost sounds as if he is hitting the keys randomly, but then you hear the art behind it – the genius of rebuilding tunes on the very notes you don’t expect. It’s a pretty cerebral sort of jazz, and usually after listening to three or four tracks of Monk I run to the more open-hearted, frankly lyric, jazz genius of the earlier Sidney Bechet.

            Anyway, while Monk titles like “’Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser” more-or-less mean what they say, there are some of his titles that have never meant anything to me and into which I never enquired. One such is the Monk composition “Pannonica”, which appears as an “extra” on the Criss-Cross CD. It begins with Monk’s sidemen playing a kind of slinky, slow strut – the type of thing that might accompany the performance of an aged stripper – especially with drummer Frankie Dunlop’s shimmering beat on the cymbal. But then Monk’s piano and Charlie Rouse’s tenor sax take over and we’re cerebral once again.

            Who or what was “Pannonica”? I never knew.

            After reading Hannah Rothschild’s The Baroness I now know.

            Pannonica, commonly known as “Nica”,  was the author’s great-aunt (her grandfather’s sister), Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild (1913-88), younger sister of Victor, third Baron de Rothschild of the English branch of the Jewish banking dynasty. Kathleen Annie Pannonica’s father was an enthusiastic amateur entomologist, so it was not too suprising that he chose as her third name Pannonica, the name of an exotic moth. (I’m more surprised that this Jewish girl was given the distinctly Irish forenames Kathleen Annie.)

            Nica was the black sheep of the family, although that title is fairly relative as there were other problem siblings. According to the more respectable members of the Rothschild tribe, Nica was a disgrace. After a hedonistic teenager-hood spent partying and clubbing and being introduced to jazz, in 1935 the 22-year-old Nica married Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, a French Jew of Austrian descent. She thus became a baroness by marriage and her elders sighed with relief at the prospect of her settling down. So she seemed to do for a number of years. She followed her husband in his career as a French diplomat and joined him as a ranking offcer in de Gaulle’s Free French in Africa during the Second World War. She and her husband had five children. But she was restless, at best a negligent mother and an unwilling hostess to diplomatic parties. She wanted something else.

            After the war, she heard a recording of Duke Ellington’s symphonic “Black, Brown and Beige” and knew that what she really wanted to do was to live among jazzmen. She was already friends with the great Teddy Wilson. He lent her the first Thelonious Monk record she ever heard, “’Round Midnight”. This was her epiphany. She was hooked on Monk, she shrugged off husband and children and she headed for New York.

            So to the part of her life which, as far as I can see, is the only reason for anybody other than a blood relative to remember Nica Rothschild.

            She was for the last thirty-odd years of her life (until her death at the age of 74) the patron and protector of black jazz musicians in New York, driving them around first in her Rolls Royce and later in her distinctive blue Bentley, paying their bills, smoothing their entry into clubs which were hard to crack in those days of racial segregation and trying her very best to blend into the scene. Basically the jazzmen themselves saw her as this likeable oddball white chick who had lots of money.

            For a while she was  “romantically linked” to the drummer Art Blakey. When Charlie (“Bird”) Parker died in her hotel suite, after a life of drug abuse, all sorts of rumours swirled around. Were she and Bird intimately linked? Was she as heavily into narcotics as he was? Chief purveyor of the rumours was the overbearing columnist Walter Winchell (whose best epitaph is the parody Burt Lancaster did of him in the movie The Sweet Smell of Success).

            More than anything, though, Nica was the  friend and protector of Thelonious Monk. He, often strung out on drugs, was convinced of his own genius. But in all practical aspects of life, he preferred to lie back and let women look after him. For years his wife Nellie did the job, supporting their little family in one menial position after another while he lounged in bed most of the day, occasionally struck the keys when inspiration struck him, and expected always to be turned out in the best suits. Nellie Monk wasn’t all that unhappy when this rich white woman turned up to ease the financial burdens.

            It’s clear that there was never any sexual relationship between Nica Rothschild and Thelonious Monk, and it’s clear that Nellie and Nica had an amicable, if wary, relationship. But the pianist became Nica’s focus to the point where she was willing to take the rap for him and Bud Powell when they could have been convicted of possessing narcotics. (There’s no disguising the fact that drugs were a intrinsic part of the whole jazz scene.) Thanks to being able to afford the best lawyers, Nica just avoided jail and deportation.

            The purpose went out of her life when Monk died in 1982. She spent her last six years mulling over memories in her New Jersey apartment overlooking the Hudson, surrounded by her dozens of pet cats. Cool cats that they were, the jazzmen called Nica’s home Catville.

            I suppose there are some things about Nica that were quite admirable. She was generous. She was without prejudices. Even if her great-niece overstates it, she was in some ways a pioneer of racial integration. It would be unfair to call her a groupie as she really was interested in the music first, was discerning in recognising Theolonious Monk’s genius at a time when others thought of him merely as an under-performing pianist, and did actually advance some musicians’ careers.

            At the same time, I must admit to some misgivings about both Nica and this book.

            My alarm bells began to ring as I read the quick summary of her life given in the introduction. Was this, I thought, going to be the story of one of those tiresome rich white chicks who hung out among blacks for kicks? Like Nancy Cunard in the 1930s, finding “negritude” the ultimate chic. The author partly anticipated my concerns in her introduction, asking “What if I found out that my aunt was nothing more than a dilettante, a permissive woman attracted by a certain lifestyle? Suppose that was all there was?” (Pg.10). A little further on she suggests the possibilities:- “Heroine or lush? Freedom fighter or dilettante? Rebel or victim?” (Pg.12)

            Hannah Rothschild is an insider, able to get much information out of interviews with family members, including her reproving great-aunt Miriam (Nica’s sister – a distinguished entomologist) who doesn’t like the family linen being washed in public but who can’t resist telling a good anecdote.

            Being a Rothschild, Hannah can’t forebear from giving about 80 of her 300-odd pages over to a history of the Rothschild family in general - from the crowded Frankfurt ghetto of the early nineteenth century to dominating the finance of Europe for generations. The family was sui generis, refusing to convert to Christianity when it mattered but not practising Judaism either. Generations of Rothschild heirs and offspring grew up not knowing anything of their religious heritage but knowing they are not goyim.

            Hannah points out that the family fortune was kept in-house because the dynasty intermarried. But, she suggests, the repeated and near-incestuous pattern of Rothschild cousin marrying Rothschild cousin led to a weakening of the extended family’s gene pool. Not only were later Rothschild men less capable of carrying on business affairs than the first couple of generations of the financial dynasty, but a high proportion were either schizophrenic or severely depressive. Some were suicidal. Hannah’s great-grandfather (Nica’s father) was one of the afflicted Rothschilds, becoming delusional and insane and eventually (in the early 1920s) committing suicide by slitting his throat with a razor.

            This, Hannah argues, was an inheritance that explained a lot of Nica’s more bizarre behaviour.

            While this may well be so, there is the strong sense that the great-niece is making the best possible case for her great-aunt, and is often making unconvincing excuses for her as well.

            She admits that at the time Nica was a teenager “with an unearned income at their disposal but no guiding Rothschild male role model, Nica and her siblings made up their own rules. [They]were driven by a sense of entitlement rather than duty. Miriam, Victor and Nica masked their insecurities with an air of imperiousness. None of them was popular or even well liked.” (Pg.85). This seems forthright and honest enough.

            Later, however, she responds to evidence that Nica slept with many US servicemen during the war by saying “Some will consider this typical of Nica, assuming that she was promiscuous. My hunch is that she was motivated by romantic rather than carnal love.” (Pg. 127). Later still, she deals with Nica’s drug use on the jazz scene thus: “I wondered about Nica and drugs. Was she an enabler or a user? A dabbler or a devotee? My hunch is that although she enjoyed the odd ‘happy shot’ or joint, she did not display any of the tell-tale signs of addiction.” (Pg.252)

            In both cases I can’t help wondering if the “hunch” is an admiring relative’s wishful thinking. That, at any rate, is my own hunch.

            Hannah accepts uncritically Nica’s view that the husband she abandoned was a control freak. But given that Nica and her husband were together for over a decade and had five children together, I wonder how much this is just Nica’s after-the-separation rationalization. Nica had the title “Baroness” only because of her marriage, and there is a definite whiff of snobbery in the way she continued to use the title to add to her status in her jazz years. Hannah continues the process by making it her title.

            To round off my grizzles, I note that when Hannah Rothschild attempts to discuss jazz, she often falls into journalistic clich├ęs. (“Blues and jazz evolved in the cotton fields where workers’ songs soared above the crops: optimism and despair set to music, uniting disparate people in desolate places” etc. etc. etc. Pg.149). And she accepts on trust many of the tales of Nica’s wacky deeds.

            In the end, I find this book’s claim for Nica as “rebel” none too convincing. At all times in her New York years, she was tied to her Rothschild clan by the umbilical cord of money. She may have walked out on their ideas of respectability, but she didn’t walk out on her trust funds, and she always had the readies when it came to buying her way out of trouble. How long would she have been acceptable to Monk, Bird and the others if she’d been just an eccentric white woman without a huge unearned income? “Rebel” fiddlesticks. We’re talking a wealthy bohemian indulging her whims.

            The lure of pure gossip kept me reading, though, as it always does in chronicles of the untalented rubbing shoulders with the talented. So The Baroness was a good place for me to enjoy the jazzmen, learn where at least some of the music came from, and sneer at the rich.

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