The Jazz Genius and the Heiress: Thelonious Monk's Connection To English Aristocrat

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Consider for a moment, this song.


Werman: That is Thelonious Monk, playing not the Piano, but the Celeste. Those bell like tones in the introduction to the song. The song itself is titled, 'Panonica'; Monk composed it for a woman named Panonica, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter to be accurate. Now Monk didn't compose songs for any woman, but Pannonica or 'Nica', was different. To start with, she was a Rothschild, the wealthy Jewish dynasty that was essentially was the bank for Europe for hundreds of years. How Nica became to be the muse and the benefactor for Thelonious Monk is what her great niece, Hannah Rothschild, focused on in her book 'The Baroness: The search for Nica, the rebellious Rothschild'. Hannah Rothschild, incredible story here, some jazz afficionados will know some of the broad strokes of Nica's and Monk's story but you did some serious digging and research. Before we get to that relationship though, fill us in a bit on her background. She was born in 1913 into the Rothschild family, the first half of your book reads like a 'Downton Abbey' but with Jews and with of course the backdrop of growing European anti-semitism. What were the formative events then, that would guide Nica later in life?

Hannah Rothschild: Well interesting you say. She was 13 of course, the year before the First World War, so her first introduction to life was one of heartbreak and people not coming home. And then during that war, her father, Charles, who suffered from a mental disorder if you like, became more and more depressed. And after the war, like many other people, he caught Spanish Flu, Encephalitis, and actually in 1923 he killed himself. So, her early years were really marred by terrible tradegy. And the only great things during her childhood were animals, they were a family that loved animals and were surrounded by animals, and also music because her father had an early record player and would be sent many jazz records from America.

Werman: So, Nica's connection with Thelonious Monk, at first it was very impressionistic. I mean, she heard his masterpiece composition 'Round midnight' and it was as if she had just discovered fire. How and when did they initially meet and what was the attraction?

Rothschild: Well it's extraordinary this story. She was actually, 3 years before she met him in 1951, she was on her way from Europe to Mexico where her husband was the Ambassador, the French Ambassador to Mexico and she stopped off to see her friend, a pianist by the name of Teddy Wilson, and he said "Have you ever heard of 'Round Midnight?' by Thelonious Monk?". She said "Never heard of Thelonious Monk". Anyway, he put it on the turntable and it was just literally like a vinyl version of a spell being cast. And she never went home. And she talks about it "I play it 20 times in a row and I never went home".


Werman: In what way were you able to communicate with her about that? Is this through journals of hers that you read?

Rothschild: Well luckily, I mean, I didn't meet her very often, I met her in 1984, 1985 and 1986 and it was the first thing I did when I went to America for the first time, was to call her up. And I was very, very nervous and her telephone number and I rang her up and I said "Hi, I'm your great niece". And there was an incredible pause and then she went "Wild". Just not quite what you expect from a 71 year old great aunt. And she said "Come and meet me, at a club, around about midnight", of course, and I went Downtown and completely terrified and the only instruction she had given me, she said it's on 23rd Street, the only instruction she had given me was "Look out for the Bentley". Okay, that's not necessarily the normal kind of instruction, you'd get to go find somewhere. But, indeed, parked kind of diagonally, half obstructing 23rd St was this Bentley. And next to it there was a flight of steps, went downstairs to a club. And that's where she was. And indeed that's where she could be found in a Jazz Club in New York, every night of the week.

Werman: Right, at this point Thelonious Monk was still alive? In '84?

Rothschild: No, he died in '82.

Werman: In '82? So…

Rothschild: So, sadly I never met him. In fact he spent the last 10 years of his life in her house in Wihaucan, just across the river. Not playing an instrument, really hardly doing anything. He would get up, get dressed, and then lie down again.

Werman: Right. One thing that did strike me though, both of them, both Monk and Nica, had kind of a history of mental illness in their families. What's the significance of that?

Rothschild: Well, my feeling… I was trying to explore why these two very different and desperate people should you know, end up being such close friends and one connection that I think is, you know, holds water, Monk's father was a manic depressive. Certainly showed all the signs of manic depression. Nica's father was a schizophrenic who was driven so distracted by his depression, that he took his own life. Monk was diagnosed as a schizophrenic as well and I really believe that there was some atmosphere, something that she saw around Monk that reminded her of her childhood. And I think that she wanted to help Monk. I think that she couldn't help her father, nobody could help her father. But I think that she really felt here was a man that she could help, that she did understand, she wasn't frightened of his strange episodes, of his more outlandish behavior, because she had been brought up with that.

Werman: Now, Monk was married already to a woman named Nellie and Nica and Monk clearly from your account, loved each other. But were they lovers? And how did Nellie rationalize sharing her husband with this Jewish noble woman infers from across the pond?

Rothschild: Good question. And of course, that's what everyone, well not everybody wants to know but I mean you know, what was at the heart of this relationship. And I asked every single person who was close to them who was still alive: "Look, did you see any touchy feely stuff?", for want of a better expression. And everybody said "Absolutely not, it wasn't like that". And I think for Nellie who had been with him since she was 13, who had suffered incredibly penury and hardship through her husband not actually earning any money, was frankly quite delighted when this rich, you know, woman appeared with a checkbook and a fabulous Bentley and you know, absolute unstinting devotion. I'm not saying that the Monk family used Nica by any, because it was a completely mutual interest and dependency. But I think they weren't too bothered that she was so passionately keen on supporting him.

Werman: Now aside from the electric relationship between Monk and Nica, this is a very romantic book for Jazz lovers. I'd like you to describe the scenes at some of the after hours parties with those Jazz cats at the Stanhope (that's a hotel in New York where Nica lived). To start with, how was she able to get all these Black musicians inside that segregated hotel?

Rothschild: That was a problem, so Nica would have to either smuggle these musicians up in the service elevators or when she was feeling slightly more like having a major fight, she would march through the lobby with a musician basically holding one hand and one with the other hand and the instruments, and they would walk straight through and of course this scandalised the hotel management. Anyway so, she insisted her new found friends should come back to her apartment in the hotel, she insisted they ordered whatever they felt like…

Werman: And this is after staying up 'til 2am on 52nd Street listening to everybody there.

Rothschild: Well exactly. So, they make their way back in the Bentley, the Bentley will be parked badly outside Stanhope, in they go, let's order whatever you want from room service, and then the real sessions would start. So, of course, on 52nd Street lots of the great musicians were playing in separate little clubs. But that of course didn't apply in her apartment. So she had these kind of 'supergroups'; people who would never get to play together played together in her suite, and she thought it was incredible.

Werman: It was incredible.

Rothschild: Incredible. I mean, can you imagine? Of course she recorded lots of that stuff, and the tapes are still the possession of her children and hopefully one day they will come out and they will be us Jazz lovers.

Werman: Yeah, we hope. Hannah Rothschild is the author of 'The Baroness: The search for Nica, the rebellious Rothschild'. Thank you very much for bringing out this story about your great Aunt and Thelonious Monk, it was a really good read.

Rothschild: Thank you so much.


Werman: You can see a video of Hannah Rothschild explaining various theories on how BeBop sax legend Charlie Parker died in Nica's New York apartment in 1955. That's at