The Runaway Rothschild Hannah Rothschild tells Josh Spero about her great-aunt Nica, a Jewish baroness who bolted to the most unlikely of saviours, Thelonious Monk
The Runaway Rothschild
Hannah Rothschild tells Josh Spero about her great-aunt Nica, a Jewish baroness who bolted to the most unlikely of saviours, Thelonious Monk
HER FRIEND LIFTS up the needle, puts down the brittle black disc, replaces the needle and changes her life. The trumpet starts in immediately, the piano lilting a few notes behind. The double bass comes in and they pick up the tune together, a gentle nighttime idyll — a little suggestive but more intimate, really. Twenty plays later, she quits home for New York and goes in search of the pianist and composer.
The tune was Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight and the bolter was Pannonica Rothschild. Raised in ‘the Rothschild enclave’ of Tring Park, Hertfordshire, as her great-niece and biographer Hannah Rothschild calls it, she led a life straight out of Gormenghast: ‘She was never ever alone, so when she ate there was a footman behind her chair, when she slept there was a governess at the foot of her bed, she wasn’t allowed to draw a bath on her own.’ The food, by Europe’s finest chefs, came and went on a railway timetable: ‘You knew exactly what you were going to be getting day in, day out, morning, noon and night. So if you’re a free spirit, hell.’
Hannah and I are meeting in another aristocratic enclave, albeit one with the best-stocked gift shop in the county: Blenheim Palace, where Hannah was speaking at the literary festival about her book The Baroness after a screening of her documentary about Nica. Away from the house is a classical quadrangle with large rooms for lectures, and in one corner of the quad a pea-green carpet redolent of your grandmother’s house runs up a staircase to the landing outside the green room, where we are sitting, nibbling at sandwiches.
No one had spoken of Nica when Hannah was growing up — the disgrace of a Rothschild abandoning her aristocratic French husband and five children to pursue, for several years without even meeting him, a black jazz musician was sufficient to blot her out. It was partly the absence which captured Hannah — the mystery of her personality, her tastes, her thoughts — but also why and how she fled the ‘claustrophobic, highly gilded, luxurious and utterly stifling cage’, as Hannah puts it.
Listen to ‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk
Her life before bolting had not been unadventurous. Despite passing from one cosseted, corseted aristocratic life — as a young Rothschild — to another — as the wife of Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, whom she married in 1935 — Nica saw action in World War Two. The Rothschilds, Hannah says, were top of Hitler’s list, as well wealthy Jewish bankers might be, so Nica and her husband, well-informed by the Rothschilds’ pervasive network, fled France on one of the final boats out. ‘She wanted to join the British army but they wouldn’t have her because she was married to de Koenigswarter, which sounded too German,’ says Hannah. ‘But the French would have her, so she joined the Free French and went to Africa.
‘She had a pretty fascinating and dangerous time — she managed to get herself from the west coast to the east coast of Africa, she was a decoder, she drove ambulances, she apparently flew Lancaster Bombers, though I can’t prove that. She broadcast over the airwaves, and then in fact got from Africa through Europe to Berlin just before Hitler topped himself.’
Life after the war suggested tedious uxorious years as a new ambassador’s wife — and that was when she went. Nica herself confirmed her unhappiness in a later interview, as Hannah records in The Baroness: ‘I was in Mexico, when I was in the throes of diplomatic life and all the bullshit.’ The fuse was lit by Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, played to her by a friend: ‘I got the message that I belonged where that music was… It wasn’t long afterwards that it happened, that I cut out from there. It was a real calling.’ ‘Cut out’ has the authentic tang of jazz.
Photograph by Ben Martin/ Time & Life Pictures
WOULD NICA HAVE bolted for something, anything, even if she hadn’t been transfixed by ’Round Midnight? Hannah takes a long pause, then speaks quietly. ‘I think that clearly her marriage was in trouble,’ but even so the ’Round Midnight story is ‘most bizarre’: ‘Now, most of us put on a record and we like it or we don’t like it but we don’t normally leave home. Yes, of course, there must have been some underlying reason, but from that moment she left her lifestyle was absolutely fixed.’ Her life became about Monk and Monk almost alone.
Perhaps such purity of obsession was prefigured in her younger life. She was passionate about hunting, saying: ‘If you throw your heart over the fence, the horse will follow.’ Hannah thinks she did that in every area of her life, Monk no exception.
Hannah Rothschild was born two generations and nearly 40 years after Pannonica into a family which bore the same name but had relatively little of the fortune of her great-aunt. ‘After all, the fortune had dissipated hugely during two world wars and due to the fact that really until my father came along, there wasn’t a great entrepreneurial Rothschild. So there had been this hiatus, really, between the 1900s and the 1960s, if you like, when there wasn’t an obvious — there were very competent Rothschilds but there wasn’t an entrepreneurial type.’ The entrepreneurial gene, Hannah says, has emerged in both her father, the fourth Baron Rothschild, and her brother Nat, habitué of both the business pages and the gossip columns.
It was Nat who introduced Hannah, a filmmaker before she wrote this book, to Peter Mandelson, the subject of her well-received documentary in 2010 covering the months up until the election. ‘I was very lucky with Peter Mandelson — I walked past a newspaper and it was that one where he made the comeback and he was there in front of a bright pink background going, “Love me! Love me! Love me!” And although I’d met him with my brother, I didn’t know him, so I didn’t think I’d ever get the go-ahead.’ The result was a film which captured the raging egotist and the uncomfortable loner, the political prince who unhinged his jaw to swallow his prey whole.
GIVEN A TRIUMVIRATE of her documentary subjects — Nica, Mandelson and Nicky Haslam — what attracts her to those extrovert people? She chews on a sandwich for longer than strictly necessary. ‘They’re very useful, these sandwiches — they give me a chance to think about the answer. I might be chewing for a very long time.’ She laughs. ‘They are extrovert, but on the other hand they’re also intensely lonely. You see [Mandelson] there on stage and he’s surrounded by adoring courtiers and special advisers, but at the heart I think he’s a profoundly lonely person. Nicky Haslam goes to every single party, but actually he goes home alone.’ Nica, too, was a voracious partygoer but went home alone. ‘I find that mixture of loneliness and gregariousness rather riveting.’
Watch a clip from Mandelson: The Real PM? by Hannah Rothschild
Hannah, who has a warm curiosity, a ready laugh and no hint of guardedness, has followed Nica for twenty years, despite unpromising omens from her older relatives, with a radio documentary, the film and now the book. The book took eighteen months, but its afterlife is much more consuming, as Blenheim is only one stop on Rothschild’s traversal of literary festivals.
‘This week I’ve done five, next week I’m doing four. I think every town in England now has a festival and I’m afraid if you want people to read your book you have to go out there and beat the bushes.’ Given, Hannah says, that the average person in the UK reads four books a year, you have to make yourself extra-appealing if you hope to be the one that isn’t the Fifty Shades trilogy. When I ask whether she enjoys the circuit, she says she does almost as if it strikes her as a surprise. It’s tiring but gregarious, whereas filming was communal, then abrupt.
Even though Hannah identifies with Nica as a free spirit, she recognises the chasm between then and now. ‘Writing this biography, I was constantly trying not to imagine what’s happening through the prism of our life now — people didn’t talk about stuff. “Feelings” is such an Oprah Winfrey-era thing, isn’t it?’ More laughter. ‘If you said to Sunny Marlborough, “Let’s talk about your feelings,” he’d probably… it’s a different generation.’
There was no emoting in Pannonica’s age. ‘It’s such a good word, I love that word. There would have been not much emoting. Her family were obviously about making money, owning things, being establishment, but she was about almost the opposite — she wanted the live moment. She wanted the things you couldn’t own. You can’t capture live music — you can record it, but actually it’s about being there, it’s about an experience.’