Feature

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild

Rothschild heiress Pannonica de Koenigswarter created a minor scandal when she left her family to pursue her passion for American jazz.

(Knopf, $27)

The woman depicted on this book’s cover was “without question one of the most mysterious and most fascinating and most controversial nonmusical figures in all of American music,” said Jeff Simon in The Buffalo News. In the late 1940s, Rothschild heiress Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter created a minor scandal when she left her diplomat husband and five children to pursue her passion for American jazz. Setting herself up in New York, the 30-something baroness soon became a friend and vital patron of such rising giants as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis. Given her importance, this “revelatory and unique” biography feels long overdue.

The author didn’t get much help from her fellow Rothschilds in bringing the story to light, said Richard Williams in The Guardian (U.K.). “This is a family with a tradition of incinerating personal papers,” so it’s no surprise that they stayed tight-lipped about the woman who became tabloid fodder when legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker died in her hotel room. Yet the baroness’s grand-niece persevered, and the result is a more rounded portrait of Nica than any published before. The so-called “Baroness of Bebop” threw herself into supporting jazz artists, paying their bills, lending her home to jam sessions, even chauffeuring musicians to out-of-town gigs in her Bentley. At one point, she took the rap for Monk’s small marijuana stash and narrowly escaped imprisonment.

Obsessive behavior seems to run in the family, said Megan O’Grady in Vogue.com. Nica’s very name honored a moth admired by her entomologist father, and Rothschild finds space to mull such family legacies. Yet she stretches her material too far when she equates the oppression faced by black musicians with the marginalization Nica experienced as a Jewish woman, said Sue Norris in the Financial Times. Even so, Rothschild builds a convincing case for her great-aunt’s significance. The sheer number of songs that Monk and others dedicated to the baroness proves that she was no joke.

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