Left: Nica in 1947. Right: Villa Grande-Gimie Castle in Oslo, Nica's home when Jules was French Ambassdor to Norway
Monday, 30 November -0001

The wild Rothschild

She fought for the Resistance, kept 306 cats and left her diplomat husband for a penurious jazz musician. Here, Hannah Rothschild tells The Lady why her great-aunt Nica really was wild…

Written by Rebecca Wallersteiner

Even by the most bohemian of standards, film-maker Hannah Rothschild’s greataunt Pannonica, lived a most unusual and colourful life. And Hannah’s new biography of her, The Baroness, offers an extraordinary insight into it. Nica, as she was known to friends, was adventurous, fearless and supremely stylish – and it has taken Hannah nearly 40 years to research and write her fascinating story.

In person, Hannah is also striking, charming and witty. Like her great-aunt, she also looks much younger than her years.

Of course, the Rothschilds have been in the press a great deal lately. Hannah’s cousin, Kate Rothschild, who bears a striking resemblance to Nica, is currently involved in a rather public split from her husband Ben Goldsmith, after allegedly having an affair with Jay Electronica, the American rapper. In fact, Kate’s story has many uncanny parallels with that of Nica, another beautiful, glamorous and immensely wealthy young woman, whose own troubled marriage was split apart by her passion for a talented musician.

But when did Hannah first become interested in her great-aunt? In enunciated BBC English she says, ‘I was 11 when I learned from whispers that my great-aunt Nica had escaped marriage to a glamorous French diplomat to live with Thelonious Monk, a penurious African-American jazz genius in New York. Nica had exchanged a comfortable married life to a handsome, though controlling, diplomat and five children for a precarious existence hanging around jazz bars, acting as patroness and chauffeur to Thelonious Monk and his friends.’

Hannah-Rothschild-02-590Left: The first Rothschild home in Frankfurt. Right: Nica with husband Baron Jules de Koenigswarter

Her grandfather, and Nica’s brother Victor, renowned for water-skiing while wearing his Schiaparelli dressing gown, first piqued Hannah’s interest by commenting one day while she tinkled the keys of a piano, ‘You are like my sister. You love jazz but can’t be a**** to play it.’

Her family discouraged her from digging deeper into Nica’s fascinating history, but, like her greataunt, who joined the French Resistance, Hannah isn’t someone to be easily deterred.

Intrigued by this black sheep in the Rothschild flock, Hannah decided to find out what her great-aunt was really like. In 1984, she flew to New York for the first time and rang Nica when she arrived at her hotel.

‘Would you like to meet up?’ asked Hannah.

‘Wild!’ answered her great-aunt, then aged 71. ‘Come to the club downtown after midnight.’

‘How will I find it?’ Nica laughed.

‘Look out for the car,’ she said, and hung up.

Luckily, Hannah found that it was impossible to miss the large, badly parked blue Bentley with drunks lolling around on the leather seats. She also easily spotted Nica, sitting smoking at a table in a nearby jazz club, lost in the music and wearing her fur coat and perfect strings of pearls. Her great-aunt, the black sheep of the family, accepted Hannah immediately, possibly recognising a kindred spirit.

‘Are you as wild as your greataunt?’ I wonder aloud.

‘No,’ Hannah replies. ‘My great-aunt was a true free spirit. My life has been much more conventional. I grew up in Maida Vale, west London, and still live there with my three teenage daughters.’

By contrast, her great-aunt grew up surrounded by servants on the magnificent Rothschild estate, Tring Park. Here, the grounds were roamed by Nica’s uncle’s exotic menagerie of kangaroos, giant tortoises, zebras and emus. But it strikes me that Hannah has also rebelled, albeit in a different way from her great-aunt, by making her own way in life and choosing to work for a living, instead of relying on a trust fund. How many other BBC presenters, after all, are able to launch their book at Spencer House and fill the gossip columns while they’re at it?

Hannah first met Nica when she had freshly graduated and was at a difficult stage of her life. ‘I was failing to live up to the expectations of my distinguished family. I dreamt of working for the BBC but could have papered a room with rejection letters,’ she says. Nica, however, welcomed her without any expectations and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. ‘Remember, you have only one life,’ Nica advised her.

Nica was born in 1913, the youngest daughter of Charles Rothschild and his wife, Hungarian Baroness Rozsika Edle von Wertheimstein and grew up at Tring, now Waddesdon Manor, which was modelled on a French chateau. Although Thelonious thought Nica was named Pannonica after a butterfly, her insect-collecting father had actually named her after a little white and yellow moth.

Hannah-Rothschild-03-590Left: Nica and Thelonious Monk. Right: Nica's mother, Baroness Rozsika Edie von Wertheimstein

His early death, by suicide, traumatised the family, but Nica pleased her family by rather conventionally marrying a dashing French diplomat, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter. Though not as rich as the Rothschilds, Jules was Jewish, widowed and reliable. For years, the couple seemed happy and well suited, and after bearing five children, Nica seemed to have transformed into a worthy Rothschild matriarch. As mistress of Jules’s chateau in the French countryside, she presided over everyday life, choosing daily menus, hiring and firing staff, and acting as hostess to distinguished guests and large diplomatic dinner parties.

But all that changed with the Second World War, when the family had to flee for their lives as the Nazis swarmed across France. Nica single-handedly shepherded her five children and staff to safety as Jules had already left to fight. Jules and Nica both joined the French Resistance, which raised her confidence in her own ability and gave her a taste for a freer life.

Life as chatelaine of Jules’s country home, after all, had not been very different from her restricted, spoilt and pampered childhood at Tring. Although she loved Jules, their temperaments were very different. He needed a planned, structured day and tended to be controlling, while she preferred to leave things to chance. They quarrelled about her lack of punctuality.

After the war, the cracks in their marriage widened further. In 1948, Nica heard Thelonious Monk’s jazz tune Round Midnight while on a trip to New York. Spellbound, she played it 20 times in a row, missed her plane and spent the next four years searching for Thelonious until she found him in Paris. She left her husband and young family, and remained devoted to Thelonious for the next 28 years.

So why did she exchange her gilded, jet-setting life for a risky existence hanging out in jazz bars, acting as patroness and driver to broke musicians? On the surface it may look as if she had little in common with Thelonious and his friends. But Hannah believes that their core bond was a love of jazz and a mutual understanding of mental illness.

As Nica’s father Charles had committed suicide when she was six, she felt a home with Thelonious, who displayed a variety of psychiatric symptoms. Although Nica was Jewish and not black, she and Thelonious would have, consciously or subconsciously, shared memories of centuries of persecution. Even 50 years ago, powerful, privileged Jews such as the Goldsmiths and Rothschilds would have been banned from certain clubs in London and America, and overheard derogatory whispers. In photographs, she looks much happier and in love with Thelonious than she does with Jules.

‘Nica found jazz wildly mood-altering: uplifting one moment, heart-rending the next,’ says Hannah.

Hannah-Rothschild-04-590Victor, Miriam, Liberty and Nica Rothschild

Delightfully eccentric, Nica spent her last 20 years living in a smallish house in New Jersey called Catville by Thelonious. Catville had been built in the 1930s for film-maker Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich’s infatuated lover and manager.

‘We had a deal whereby Nica would give me 50 cents for counting all her cats, who were named after musicians,’ says Hannah. ‘The place was heaving with cats, and 306 is the most I ever counted.’ Many were strays rescued from the slums, swept up in Nica’s Bentley to a better life in Catville.’

I feel flattered when Hannah admits to having enjoyed reading some published extracts of my diaries, and we discuss the dangers involved in mining one’s own life for creative material.

‘You have to tread a fine line when you are writing anything autobiographical because there is a danger of offending friends and family. But, of course, one writes best about one’s own experiences as this gives a story freshness,’ remarks Hannah.

‘And what do your relatives think about the book? Are they still speaking to you?’ I ask. ‘Luckily, the family seems to like it.’

The Baroness: The Search For Nica, The Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild (Virago Press, £20). The Jazz Baroness, written and directed by Hannah, is available on DVD.

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