The Baroness of Bebop
Schillinger, Liesl, Newsweek
Byline: Liesl Schillinger
Hannah Rothschild on the trail of her elusive, bohemian relative.
During a trip to New York in 1948 or 1949 (the fog of the decades has obscured the precise year), the British-born Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter (nee Rothschild) paid a visit to her brother Victor's music tutor, the jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. Like her brother, Nica was a passionate jazz fan, so when Wilson asked if she'd heard of the pianist Thelonious Monk and found out she hadn't, he put on a record. For the first time, Nica heard Monk's haunting composition "'Round Midnight." Instantly hooked, she played the record over and over--"20 times in a row," she later recalled. When she'd stopped by to see Wilson, she was on the way to the airport to fly to Mexico, where her husband and young children awaited her. She never took that flight. Instead she took rooms in the Stanhope Hotel, bought a Rolls-Royce (later she switched to a Bentley), and started squiring giants of jazz to clubs in Manhattan and along the Eastern Seaboard. In 1954, hearing that Monk would be performing in Paris, she hopped a plane. A friend introduced her to her idol, and for the next three decades Nica dedicated herself to the man and his music, "laying her time and love at the musician's feet like a cloth of devotion" and becoming known as the "bebop baroness."
If you didn't catch the 1988 Monk documentary Straight No Chaser (much of it filmed in 1968)--in which Nica, with her wheezing, smoke-rasped laugh, makes several indelible appearances--chances are you've never heard of her. Never mind; for many years, neither had her grandniece Hannah Rothschild, who belatedly discovered her existence when her grandfather (Victor Rothschild) mentioned his strayed sister in passing. Her great-aunt, she would learn, was a controversial figure, effectively expunged from the family tree. Intrigued, and unwilling to be put off by relatives who scoffed, "She is vulgar," or "She was not even interesting. She just lay in bed and listened to music," Rothschild went on to spend decades winnowing the myths and realities swirling around her notorious relative. In her new biography, The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, she pushes aside the smoke, the scandal, and the pearls to present a fair portrait of her compulsive, elusive ancestress.
In 1984, when the baroness was 70, the author, then in her 20s, flew to New York and called her to see if she was willing to meet. "Wild," said Nica. "Come to the club downtown after midnight." When she asked how to find the spot, Nica laughed and said, "Look out for the car." Rothschild writes: "The car was impossible to miss. The large, pale-blue Bentley was badly parked and inside it two drunks lolled around on the leather seats." That car (which appears amid dozens of richly evocative photos in the book) was the famous "Bebop Bentley," in which Nica, Monk, and Monk's wife, Nellie, once drag-raced with Miles Davis (in a Mercedes) down Seventh Avenue. Descending into a shabby basement room, the author found Nica in pearls by the piano, "smoking a cigarette in a long black filter, her fur coat draped over the back of a spindly chair, drinking whiskey from a chipped china cup." "Remember," she told her niece, swaying to the music, "there is only one life." After the baroness died in 1988, Rothschild embarked upon a quest to fill in the gaps in her record. Along the way, she briefly lost heart and abandoned the project, but Nica's friend, the great saxophonist Sonny Rollins, scolded her, "You have to carry on," adding, "her story is our story."
Ever since receiving that reproof, Rothschild has tenaciously immersed herself in resurrecting her aunt's story. She created a radio show and a documentary, both called The Jazz Baroness, but still found herself wanting to know more. Her detective instincts led her to speak with scores of Monk's and Nica's contemporaries, from Rollins, Quincy Jones, Curtis Fuller, and Roy Haynes to Clint Eastwood (who produced Straight No Chaser), Ahmet Ertegun, Ira Gitler, and Monk's son, Toot (now known as T. …