The English-born Pannonica de Koenigswarter (1913–1988) was a descendant of one of the world's wealthiest families. Inspired by her first experience of jazz music, she became a close friend and patron of several important jazz performers during her residence in New York City.
In 1948, Pannonica de Koenigswarter famously became entranced after hearing the jazz recording “Round Midnight,” by pianist Thelonious Monk. Thoroughly fascinated, she delved more deeply into the music, and in 1953 she moved to the music's locus, New York City, abandoning her family and her 17th-century French chateau in the process. “I always likened her to the great royal patrons of Mozart or Wagner's day,” saxophonist Sonny Rollins recalled to Barry Singer in the New York Times, although Koenigswarter did more than that. She protected African-American musicians from discrimination in 1950s New York City and even opened her home to performers when they were ailing or broke. In fact, two of the greatest figures of jazz music's golden age, Monk and saxophonist Charlie Parker, died while guests in the baroness's home. She numbered many other top jazz musicians among her friends, and they repaid her with musical dedications and a kind of jazz immortality.
Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild was born in London, England, on December 10, 1913. She was a descendant not only of Hungarian aristocracy but of one of the world's richest families, the Rothschilds, whose fortune stretches back to investments made in the 18th century. The source of the unusual name Pannonica has been variously reported; Thelonious Monk told reporters that it came from a butterfly discovered by her father, while others contended that the animal was a moth, and still others that the name of both the baroness and the insect came from the Pannonian Plain, a region of Hungary. The baroness grew up in luxurious mansions in the English countryside, at one of which a menagerie of animals including kangaroos and emus roamed freely. Her father, bank partner and amateur entomologist Nathaniel Charles Rothschild, suffered from clinical depression and sometimes enjoyed water skiing wearing only a bathrobe; he was hospitalized several times and committed suicide when Kathleen was ten.
The newlywed couple took up residence in a French chateau called Abondant and started a family that would eventually include five children: Patrick, Janka, Berit, Shaun, and Keri (or Karis). Their happiness was cut short, however, by the outbreak of World War II. Jules joined the French army and directed Nica to bring their children to safety in New York City. After she did so, she returned to Europe aboard a Norwegian freighter and joined the Free French anti-Nazi resistance army. The animosity of both de Koenigswarters toward Germany was fueled by their Jewish faith.
During the war, the baroness hosted a Free French radio broadcast on which she played jazz recordings that were banned by the occupying Germans. She also saw action with the Free French in the Congo in central Africa and was decorated with the rank of lieutenant at the end of the war. After these experiences, she found it difficult to settle into the role of diplomatic wife, accompanying her husband first to Norway and then to Mexico City.
Drawn to the bright lights of New York City, Baroness Koenigswarter met jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, from whom her brother was taking piano lessons, in 1948 or 1949. Wilson played her a recording of Monk's “Round Midnight,” and she was entranced, playing the record 20 times in a row. Returning to Mexico City, she hid her jazz records from her husband, who would break the vinyl discs when she was late for dinner because he was obsessed with punctuality. The couple finally separated in 1951, and the baroness moved into New York's luxurious Stanhope Hotel and bought a Rolls-Royce, the first of several luxury cars that became her trademark.
Now a resident of New York City, Baroness Koenigswarter was able to spend her evenings making the rounds of the city's jazz clubs, where she was recognizable due to her dark black hair, bearing, and lengthy cigarette holder. She made friends with the leading musicians in the progressive jazz style known as bebop: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis (against whom she once participated in a drag race down Fifth Avenue), and Dizzy Gillespie. Often she would strike up a conversation by asking a musician, “What are your three wishes?” She often was able to take candid photographs of jazz greats, and she eventually published a booklength collection of these titled Les musiciens du jazz et leurs trois veux (the English edition, Three Wishes, appeared in 2008). Koenigswarter began to pay the bills of musicians who were living on the edge financially, and when they lacked transportation to a gig, she would chauffeur them in her Rolls-Royce or Bentley.
In 1954, hearing that her idol Thelonious Monk would be performing at a concert called Salon du Jazz, the baroness boarded a plane for France. She was introduced to Monk backstage by pianist Mary Lou Williams, and the two began a long friendship. Rumors swirled about the nature of their relationship, but both denied that it was anything more than platonic; Monk was married (and remained married to his wife, Nellie, for the rest of his life), and, in the words of the baroness's granddaughter Hannah (as quoted by Stephanie Busari of CNN), “I believe what kept them together was their love of music, particularly his music might I add. A real companionship and friendship.”
Rumors about Koenigswarter and her relationship to the mostly African-American musicians intensified when Parker, having abused heroin for some years, died suddenly in March of 1955 while watching television at her Stanhope Hotel suite. A tabloid newspaper headline quoted by Liesl Schillinger in Newsweek headlined the story “Bird in the Baroness's Boudoir.” Jules and Nica divorced the following year, perhaps because of the scandal, but she remained on good terms with at least some of their children. Although Patrick de Koenigswarter moved into his mother's home for a time, he eventually left, complaining that studying for school was impossible because of the allnight jam sessions held by musicians there.
As Dan Friedman noted in The Forward, “Nica knew all the great New York jazzmen and helped them, whether by buying groceries, acting as an occasional ambulance service, paying overdue rent, getting musicians' instrument out of hock, or making hospital visits.” In 1958, her beneficence even extended to taking criminal responsibility: when she and Monk were stopped en route to a performance in Delaware, police found a small amount of marijuana in the car. The baroness asserted that the drugs were hers. She was jailed and faced a possible three-year prison sentence (marijuana laws were very strict in the 1950s), but the Rothschild family, although they had disinherited the baroness, funded a strong legal defense that saw her released on a technicality.
Koenigswarter dropped out of the headlines in the 1960s as jazz music declined in popularity, but her bond with Monk remained strong. In later years the pianist, perhaps suffering from mental illness, gave up performing and moved into the Weehawken, New Jersey, home that the baroness had bought in 1958. He remained there, cared for by both Koenigswarter and his wife, until his death from a stroke in 1982. Both women attended his funeral.
Baroness Koenigswarter continued her role as a jazz patroness in her later years, funding the Jazz Cultural Theater in New York City. Among her most lasting legacies are the jazz compositions dedicated to her; these include Monk's “Pannonica” and “Bolivar Blues” (named for a hotel where she lived briefly after being expelled from the Stanhope due to adverse publicity), and pianist Horace Silver's “Nica's Dream.” Pannonica de Koenigswarter died on November 30, 1988, in New York City.
Kastin, David, Nica's Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness, Norton, 2011.
Rothschild, Hannah, The Baroness: The Search for Nica the Rebellious Rothschild, Virago, 2012.
New York Times, October 19, 2008, Barry Singer, “The Baroness of Jazz,” p. 23.
Newsweek, http://www.newsweek.com/trail-bebop-baroness-62951 (November 8, 2017), Liesl Schillinger, “On the Trail of the Bebop Baroness.”
British Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jwcr6 (November 14, 2017), “The Jazz Baroness.”
CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/11/showbiz/hannah-rothschild-jazz-baroness/index.html?hpt=hp_c1 (April 11, 2013), Stephanie Busari, “The Glamorous Heiress Who Devoted Her Life to Jazz.”
Forward, http://forward.com/culture/119145/pannonica/ (November 14, 2017), Dan Friedman, “Pannonica.”□