Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KOENIGSWARTER, Baroness Pannonica de

(b Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, 10 December 1913, London; d 30 November 1988, NYC) The full name comes from the notice of her marriage in 1935. She was a race-blind heiress who became a patron of jazz. Charlie Parker died in her Fifth Avenue home in 1955, and Theolonious Monk died 27 years later in her New Jersey house. She took jazzmen into her home, paying their bills when they didn't have enough work; she chauffeured them around New York, and confronted anyone who tried to take advantage of them. In the wider world her friendships with black jazzmen were the stuff of scurillious gossip, but the jazz world knew that she loved and understood the music.

Her nickname was Nica. She was the granddaughter of Nathan Mayer, the first Lord Rothschild, and the great-granddaughter of Mayer Amschel, who began his family’s rise from the ghetto in Frankfurt. Her father, Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, was a partner in the family bank. The Rothschild men were more than bankers, most of them accomplished in other ways as well, and Nica's father was a talented entomologist. (The name 'Pannonica' identifies several plants of the Pannonian plain that support butterflies and moths.) Unfortunately he suffered from clinical depression, and was sometimes hospitalized; he took his own life in 1923, at age 46.

Nica's sister Miriam was a distinguished zoologist, and Nica became an accomplished pilot. At age 21 at Le Touquet airfield in France she met Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, a French mining engineer, banker and pilot, ten years older, a widower with a young son. They were married in New York in 1935, and lived in a 17th-century chateau not far from Normandy. An officer in the reserves, the Baron was called up when the Germans invaded France, and left instructions to run if the Germans came close. Nica and the children escaped to England on the last train out of Paris. She then went to the USA, stashed the children with the Guggenheim family on Long Island, and joined her husband in Africa with the Free French, ending the war as a decorated officer herself. But her husband's extended family, as well as that of her Hungarian-born mother, were nearly all murdered in the Holocaust. She had experienced the ultimate in prejudice, which some people nowadays wish to deny ever happened.

The Baron joined the French diplomatic service after the war; they lived in Norway and then in Mexico, and the marriage came under strain. He was a controlling person who had no interest in art and music, interests that seem to be in the Rothschild blood. The Baroness credited her brother, Victor, later the 3rd Baron Rothschild, a jazz fan and amateur pianist who studied with Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, with introducing her to jazz; late in life, however, she told a fuller story in an interview for the Monk documentary directed by Clint Eastwood, Straight, No Chaser. Of the years 1949 to 1952 in Mexico, she remembered,

I was in the throes of the diplomatic life in Mexico, and I had a friend who got hold of records for me. I used to go to his pad to hear them. I couldn’t have listened to them in my own house, with that atmosphere. I heard them and really got the message. I belonged where that music was. This was something I was supposed to be involved in in some way. It wasn’t long afterwards that I cut out.

She materialized in New York jazz clubs in 1953 like some film noir siren, someone wrote, right down to the raven hair and long cigarette holder. She seduced with her friendship the greatest figures of the bebop era: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and many others.

Parker was very ill when he collapsed in her apartment at the Stanhope Hotel. After his death the New York Daily Mirror, which had never covered Parker while he was alive, screamed 'Bop King Dies In Heiress' Flat', and she became press-shy as the coverage went downhill from there. The hotels disliked the publicity and the occasional jam sessions; she moved to the Algonquin, then to the Bolivar Hotel on Central Park West, hence the title of Thelonious Monk's 1956 tune 'Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are'. Finally she took Monk's advice and bought a house in Weehawken, known as the Cathouse because Nica also kept a great many felines.

The great project of her life was the unstable Monk, whom she first met in 1954, and served as a surrogate guardian alongside Monk’s wife, Nellie. The Baroness paid Monk’s bills, took him to an endless series of doctors, put him and his family up in her own home and, when necessary, helped Nellie to institutionalize him. Monk and the Baroness were stopped by the police in Delaware on 15 October 1958; he was beaten by police and when a small amount of marijuana was discovered in her Daimler, she took the rap for her friend and allegedly served a few nights in jail; she was sentenced to three years, but after a long series of legal battles, she was acquitted. (Typically, although she took the rap, he lost his cabaret card for about 18 months: that sort of thing was why the musicians needed Nica's help.)

The Baron had divorced his wife in 1956 after the publicity surrounding Parker’s death in her home, and got custody of the three youngest children. All four siblings lived with her at one time or another, but one could speculate that her musicians became her family, or that she could help the more helpless among them the way she could not help her father when she herself was a child. In any case, while her family disapproved of her lifestyle and refused to talk about her, the younger ones came to understand what she was all about. Perhaps Sonny Rollins said it best:

She realized that jazz needed any kind of help it could get, especially the musicians. She was monetarily helpful to a lot who were struggling. But more than that, she was with us. By being with the Baroness, we could go places and feel like human beings. It certainly made us feel good. I don’t know how you could measure it. But it was a palpable thing. I think she was a heroic woman.

Tunes named after her by the composers include 'Nica's Tempo' (Gigi Gryce), 'Nica's Dream' (Horace Silver), 'Tonica' (Kenny Dorham), 'Nica Steps Out' (Freddie Redd), 'Inca' (Barry Harris), 'Thelonica' (Tommy Flanagan), 'Blues For Nica' (Kenny Drew), 'A Waltz for the Baroness' (Ray Draper), 'Here Nica' (Matthew Gee), 'Pannonica's Nocturne' (Samir Safwat), 'Inca' (James Spaulding), 'Theme For Nica' (Eddie Thompson), 'Inca et Nicaragua' (Barry Harris), 'My Nica the Girl I Love' (Bliss Bowman), and apparently two tunes each called 'Nica' (by Thompson and Sonny Clark) and 'Pannonica' (Duke Jordan and Monk). Monk also wrote 'Weehawken Mad Pad', as played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in the Roger Vadim film Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Her funeral took place in the 'jazz church', St Peter's Lutheran Church in New York, and her ashes were scattered in the Hudson River around midnight. (Monk's most famous tune is ' 'Round Midnight'.)

A book, Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, appeared in 2008, collecting her candid photographs of the musicians, and a compilation of their responses to her favorite question: 'What are your three wishes?' It includes a forward by Gary Giddins and a six-page introduction by a granddaughter. Two biographies were to be published in 2011: Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, by David Kastin, and The Jazz Baroness, by her niece, Hannah Rothschild.