The Rothschild baroness who fled family life to devote herself to an American jazz genius

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Thelonious Monk and Nica de Koenigswarter at the Five Spot jazz club, New York, 1964 - Getty
Thelonious Monk and Nica de Koenigswarter at the Five Spot jazz club, New York, 1964 - Getty

Pannonica (Nica for short) Rothschild was born 1913 and grew up surrounded by immense wealth at Tring Park, Hertfordshire. In 1934, she was presented at court and a year later married the French diplomat, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter. By 1948, the couple had five children, but during a visit to New York Nica heard a recording of Round Midnight by a then unknown jazz pianist called Thelonious Monk. Immediately entranced, she listened to it 20 times in a row and, leaving behind her husband and five children in England, moved into a suite at the Stanhope hotel to devote her life to the musician. Writer, Natalie Livingstone tells the extraordinary tale here, in an extract from her book The Women of Rothschild.

With her leopard-print coats, her long cigarette holder, her aristocratic drawl and her silver Rolls-Royce, Nica was bound to be noticed when she arrived in New York. Toot Monk, son of Thelonious, the jazz musician who Nica had travelled to Paris to see play earlier in the 1950s, remembered the day on which she first pulled up outside his family’s apartment block in the impoverished San Juan Hill area of Manhattan. ‘[I]t was certainly a sight to see – the whole neighbourhood knew she was there.’ It was often well after five in the morning before she returned to her apartment, and her exploits soon became tabloid fodder. By early 1955, a year after Nica’s arrival in the city, the gossip columnist Walter Winchell had begun chronicling the antics of ‘the Baroness’.

Toot recalled how she would often drive up to Harlem on ‘missions of mercy’ – bringing food to musicians who needed it, or sourcing instruments for those who had lost theirs. When Coleman Hawkins was taken ill on stage and refused to be hospitalised, she visited him regularly, regaling him with lively anecdotes and restocking his fridge. Another time, when Bud Powell, who Nica knew suffered from de- pression, disappeared, she combed the length of New York to find him.

‘This bitch was so rich,’ Hampton Hawes fondly recalled, ‘she had permanent tables reserved at all the clubs and a number you could call from anywhere in New York to get a private cab. If I was sick or fucked up I’d call the number and the cab would come and carry me direct to her pad.’

The ‘pad’ was her suite at the Stanhope Hotel, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 81st Street. The Stanhope was a quiet, conservative place, where male guests were expected to wear suits, and where racial segregation was strictly enforced: black visitors were allowed to enter only through the service entrance.

Nica’s friends had to be smuggled into her suite; the bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, known as ‘the Yardbird’, or simply ‘Bird’, was a regular. In the early 1950s Bird had struggled with poor mental health and addictions to alcohol and heroin. His health had worsened in the spring of 1954, following the death of his three-year-old daughter Pree, and for a while he was committed to the psychiatric ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. After his release, Bird spent much time with Nica and her teenage daughter Janka at the Stanhope, playing the board game Pegity with Janka or holding long and meandering conversations with her mother.

Among his interests were extrasensory perception, African politics, chess, mysticism and the paintings of Salvador Dalí. But unlike Monk, whose presence dominated the room even when he was silent, Bird was ‘a relaxed type of person, and sometimes you hardly knew he was around’.

Monk and Koenigswarter in 1964 - Getty
Monk and Koenigswarter in 1964 - Getty

Early in March 1955 Bird stopped by the Stanhope shortly before he was due to head to Boston for a gig. He had stomach pains, and was exhausted by a ‘bandstand fight’ between himself and Bud Powell at Birdland – the New York jazz club that had named itself after Parker in an attempt to cash in on his popularity.

Nica suspected instantly that her friend was seriously ill, and had her suspicions confirmed when he refused the offer of a drink. Minutes later, he was vomiting blood. Nica summoned her doctor, Robert Freymann, who asked Bird if he was a heavy drinker. Bird managed to summon the energy to wink coyly and reply: ‘Sometimes I have a sherry before dinner. . .’

Freymann diagnosed Bird with advanced cirrhosis and stomach ulcers, and urged them to go to the hospital. He was met with resistance: Bird was not going back to any institution. Nica promised she would care for him at The Stanhope. Over the next few days Nica and Janka took turns to bring Bird endless glasses of water, which he drank thirstily, and sometimes brought straight back up, laced with blood. Dr Freymann visited frequently. Once Nica realised that Freymann was unfamiliar with Bird’s work, she made sure to play his records during the doctor’s visits, a gesture which momentarily roused Bird from his stupor. On Saturday, 12 March, having been propped up in a chair to watch Tommy Dorsey’s Stage Show on CBS, Bird started to laugh, then to splutter, then to choke, before slumping unconscious in his chair. He was dead.

It was not long before the same newspapers which had worked up Nica’s ‘Baroness’ persona turned venomously on her. With its prurience, racist overtones and heavy innuendo, Walter Winchell’s 17 March gossip column encapsulated the media response to Bird’s death: ‘We columned about that still-married Baroness and her old fashioned Rolls Royce weeks ago,’ wrote Winchell, ‘parked in front of midtown places starring Negro stars. A married jazz star died in her hotel ap[artmen]t . . . Figured . . .’

After that, the story exploded. The New York Daily Mirror ran with the punchy ‘Bop King Dies in Baroness’s Flat’, while the scandal rag Exposé wrote: ‘Blinded and bedazzled by this luscious, slinky, black-haired, jet-eyed Circe of high society, the Yardbird was a fallen sparrow.’

The very notion of an interracial relationship between Bird and Nica was scandalous enough, but the fact that she was a Rothschild gave the story an even bigger frisson. It was rumoured that Bird had been shot dead, and that Nica had paid off the doctor, not to mention the mortal wound in the autopsy report.

Others claimed that Nica had abetted Parker’s heroin addiction, which led to his downfall. Four years later, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar would publish a short story called ‘The Pursuer’, in which an alto saxophonist called Johnny Carter is provided with heroin by his patron and admirer, Tica, aka ‘the Countess’. In case these name switches were not clear enough, the story was published with the dedication: ‘In Memoriam Ch. P.’

Although Nica had managed to brief her close family about the news storm, she neglected to mention it to [her husband] Jules, who instead heard of the scandal from Walter Winchell’s radio gossip column. Relations between the couple, who were proceeding with a relatively amicable separation prior to Bird’s death, came to an abrupt end. Jules set in motion a quick divorce, in which Nica would lose custody of her younger children, retaining a close living arrangement with Janka and her elder son, Patrick.

Nica’s Rothschild family, though doubtless mortified by the furore, rallied to her support. Her brother Victor flew out to New York to settle Nica’s debts and deal with the Stanhope, which had taken the opportunity to attempt to evict her. A few weeks after Bird’s death, Nica and Janka moved into a new apartment at the Bolivar, 230 Central Park West. At the beginning of 1956, Nica took Thelonious Monk to the Steinway showroom in New York to buy a grand piano, which was delivered to the Bolivar on 30 January. On a recording Nica made in her hotel room on a Wollensak reel-to-reel, Monk gave a spoken preamble to the song ‘Pannonica’, explaining that it was ‘named after this beautiful lady here. I think her father gave her that name after a butter-fly [sic] that he tried to catch. I don’t think he caught the butter-fly.’

Koenigswarter with Monk's wife Nellie - Getty
Koenigswarter with Monk's wife Nellie - Getty

Another song – ‘Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are’ – was inspired by Nica’s battle with the Bolivar management over the late-night musical disturbances. Nica had always drunk heavily, but in the aftermath of Bird’s death her dependence on alcohol grew. Jazz memoirs from the period are strewn with references to her gold and silver hip flasks and the bottles of whisky she hid in her car, in a book with the pages carved out.

She would credit Monk with helping her to bring the drinking back under control. But other dependencies went unchecked. Freymann was one of several doctors across New York who offered his patients ‘vitamin shots’ – vitamin B12, with an amphetamine kicker.

Administering amphetamines was not illegal in New York, but the circumstances in which they could be given were increasingly restricted by state and federal law. In 1963 and again in 1964, Dr Freymann was found guilty of administering narcotic drugs to habitual users, who visited multiple ‘Speed Doctors’ in a single night. ‘If you wanted to make a big night of it,’ a patient recalled, ‘you’d go over to Max’s and get a shot and then over to Freymann’s and then down to Bishop’s. It was just another kind of bar hopping.’Thelonious Monk’s son Toot remembers Freymann taking an even more lax approach. He was a ‘brilliant guy’, Toot recalled, ‘a very nice man, but an enabler. So, he would give Nica anything she wanted, including bennies [Benzedrine].’

Although Nica had lost custody of her younger children in the divorce, Janka remained fully engaged in her mother’s life in America, sharing Nica’s hotel suite, friends and, increasingly, her narcotic preferences. In the spring of 1956, just under a year since Parker had died at the Stanhope, eighteen-year-old Janka was travelling back from a Jazz Messengers gig in Philadelphia when a policeman on a motorbike pulled the car over.

The passengers were Art Blakey, Horace Silver (drummer and pianist in the Messengers, respectively), Art Blakey’s ‘band boy’ Ahmed and Janka. All the police saw, as Silver later recalled, was ‘three black men in a car with a white woman’ – and ‘that was reason enough for him to stop us’. Blakey, whose car it was, argued with the police officer, who took them to the police station and had the car searched. The police found a loaded gun and a box of shells, for which Art had no permit, and a box of Benzedrine pills belonging to Janka. The police booked all four, threw Art Blakey and Horace Silver in one cell, and took Janka and Ahmed elsewhere. Horace wanted to call his father to get him to come and try and arrange bail, but Art told him: ‘Don’t worry your dad. I’ll call Nica, and she’ll get us out.’

But when he discovered that three of those being held at the station were black, the lawyer Nica had hired ‘didn’t want to get involved’, and it was only Janka who was let out, on a $5,000 bail. The news soon reached Britain, with the Daily Express running an article on 9 March under the headline ‘Rothschild Niece on Drug Charge’.

According to Silver, the court hearing which followed was ‘a farce’. Bribes had exchanged hands, he suspected; everyone was acquitted.

A year later Nica, Janka and the Steinway moved again, this time to the Algonquin Hotel in Midtown. Nica later recalled how she had chosen it because she had heard that it was ‘broader-minded’ and that they ‘liked having geniuses there’.

Monk, however, ‘turned out to be one genius too far for them’. A black man walking around the hotel corridors in a loud red shirt and sunglasses, occasionally knocking on the wrong door, was enough to provoke complaints from the elderly white clientele. When the management responded by telling Nica that ‘Mr. Monk is no longer welcome at the Algonquin’, she began smuggling her friend in when the night manager’s back was turned. It was a ploy that worked well – until they bumped into the night manager in the elevator.

Nica found herself in need of a fourth place to stay. Victor flew over at the end of 1957 to facilitate her buying somewhere more permanent – a 2,600-square-foot modernist pile, perched on a cliff top in Weehawken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.

Nica furnished the interior with Monk and his jamming sessions in mind: the Steinway was installed in an upstairs room, and a ping-pong table was ordered for downtime. Shortly after moving, in early 1958, Nica also bought two Siamese cats, a male and a female. Soon, there were enough offspring for the musicians who visited the Weehawken mansion to rename it after the proliferating pets: to Nica as well as her visitors, this would always be the ‘Cat House’.

The Rolls-Royce was replaced with a new car – the so-called Bebop Bentley – which Hampton Hawes recalled being put through its paces in a late-night drag race against Miles Davis.

Natalie Livingstone's book The Women of Rothschild
Natalie Livingstone's book The Women of Rothschild

‘Monk and his wife and Nica and I were driving down 7th Avenue in the Bentley at three or four in the morning – Monk feeling good, turning round to me to say, “look at me, man, I got me a black bitch and a white bitch” – and Miles pulling alongside in the Mercedes, calling through the window in his little hoarse voice cut down by a throat operation, “Want to race?”’ In Hawes’s recollection Nica nodded, then turned to the passengers and said, in her clipped British accent: ‘This time I believe I’m going to beat the motherfucker.’

In October 1958 Nica was driving through Delaware with Monk and his tenor saxophonist, Charlie Rouse. Monk was sweating profusely and was thoroughly miserable. As they drove through Newcastle, he asked: ‘Could we stop somewhere for a cold drink, a beer, a glass of water, anything?’ Nica pulled over at a motel, and she and Rouse waited in the car while Monk went in.

When, after ten minutes, he had not reappeared, Nica started to get worried, and was about to go in after him when a jeep screeched to a halt in the motel parking lot. Two police officers jumped out and ran into the motel. They soon re-emerged, with Monk held between them. Monk had asked the receptionist at the motel for a glass of water. Unable to understand his slurred speech, she had panicked, and called the police.

Having been dragged out onto the forecourt, Monk refused to answer any of the troopers’ questions. Nica explained that her friend was unwell, and begged the police to let them go on their way. They relented, and soon the trio were back in their car on the main road. But the ordeal was not over. Just minutes later, the police reappeared and flagged down the car. They had decided to arrest Thelonious over whatever had occurred at the motel. He passively resisted arrest, remaining silent when asked his name, and – in different accounts – either sitting on his hands or taking hold of the car door.

The police dragged him from the car and threw him to the ground. Further patrol cars skidded to a halt at the side of the road, and further police officers piled in on him, beating him with their batons.

Nica screamed for them to stop but, as she later recalled with horror, could only stand and watch as they ‘beat on his hands . . . his pianist’s hands’. Thelonious was eventually forced into the back of a squad car. When he refused to bend his legs to allow the police to close the door, he was beaten into submission again. Before they drove off , the officers told Nica to follow them to the local magistrate’s office. Here, Monk was charged with disorderly conduct and fined ten dollars. When they found among Nica’s possessions a small amount of marijuana, they charged her with ‘unauthorised possession of a narcotic drug’.

The trial date did not come around until a year and a half later. At Nica’s New Year’s Eve party, Monk was on the piano as the clock struck, and broke into the song that had first induced her to seek out a future in New York: ‘’Round Midnight’. It was increasingly clear to Nica’s family back in England how important Monk was to her, so they finally came over to meet him. Feeling intensely nervous, Monk began self-medicating, and when Nica arrived at his apartment to pick him up ahead of meeting Miriam and her son Charles, he was ‘high as a kite’.

Although Miriam was, as Nica remembered it, ‘frankly cool about it’ and recognised Monk’s ‘genius’, it was obviously a less than perfect introduction. Things went little better with Victor, who had played such a guardian angel role over Nica’s wild years in America. Victor tried to impress his sister and her friend by recording his own performance of one of Monk’s compositions. Although Victor was quite pleased with his effort, Monk found it comically amateur, and spoofed it in a new recording of his own.

Nica’s brother, who had first introduced her to jazz years before, now found himself on the outside, mocked by the friend of his better-connected sister. Throughout these meetings, Nica’s family urged her to flee the country and return to England, so that she could avoid the trial and any possible jail time.

She refused, and on 22 March 1960 her day of judgement arrived. She sat outside the church of St Martin in Manhattan, and wrote to her friend Mary Lou Williams in her rapid, impressionistic prose: ‘Today is the day upon which my entire future may well depend . . . Life . . . or approximate Death . . . It’s simple as that . . .’

Despite the enormity of the situation she was facing, Monk remained at the forefront of her mind: ‘his protection is the root of the whole business . . . I have never discussed it with him . . . I do not believe he is really aware of it . . . I do not want him to be.’ She was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison, at the end of which she would be permanently expelled from the United States.

Nica’s defence lawyer lodged an appeal, and her brother Victor once again swooped in, this time to pay the bail of $10,000. The appeal came up in January 1962 at the Superior Court of Delaware. Nica’s appeal was based on the illegality of the police search that had found the marijuana: no warrant had been produced, and there was no way Nica could have consented to the search without ‘coercion or duress’ – she had, after all, just witnessed her friend being repeatedly beaten at the side of the road.

 Thelonious Monk - Getty
Thelonious Monk - Getty

This turned out to be crucial. All the evidence acquired in the search – including the drugs themselves – was deemed inadmissible, and the case against Nica collapsed. When news reached Miriam in England, she wrote to Dolly: ‘I have information from the States that Nica has triumphed in the law courts. This seems a near miracle!’

With the threat of a jail term lifted, Nica found new reserves of energy to invest in Monk and his music. That year, he signed with Columbia Records, and entered into what would be one of the most successful phases of his career, touring Europe and Japan.

He was always accompanied by Nica, or by his wife Nellie. Both women travelled to Japan, where the three of them spent time between concerts shopping for souvenirs and visiting the country’s famous jazz cafés. Back in America, Nica continued in her role of high-speed chauffeur, driving Monk and Nellie to the Newport Jazz Festival and to Buffalo for a week of shows at the Royal Arms nightclub – insisting on a detour to Niagara Falls.

But the deaths of several friends and idols (including Billie Holiday) in the 1950s had shaken Monk, and in the 1960s further bereavements of family and musical collaborators took an even greater toll on his mental health. When a fan gave him a tab of acid at a gig in 1965, Monk disappeared for a week. The year 1968 began promisingly. Nica had her children with her for a New Year’s party, and adapted Monk’s studio at the Cat House into a dormitory. ‘Happy happy happy New Year,’ she wrote to Mary Lou Williams.

‘Have all my kids, even Patrick, here . . . craziest Christmas ever!!!’ That May, Monk had a short residency booked in San Francisco. On the eve of the trip, he fell to the floor and began foaming at the mouth.

He was taken to hospital, where he lay in a coma for several days. When he came round, his humour was undimmed. ‘Y’all thought I kicked the bucket,’ he said.

‘Thought I was going to split. Thought I was gonna cut out. Aint that a bitch.’

The Women of Rothschild by Natalie Livingstone, published by John Murray, is available now

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