This article first appeared in Cotswold Life December 2012
The fates of those blessed or cursed with wealth and fame have always enthralled and entertained – and provided headlines and schadenfreude when it all goes horribly wrong. Sandra Kessell talks to Hannah Rothschild about her book The Baroness.
It’s a fair walk between Waddesdon Manor’s car park and the house itself and today I have enough time to drink in all the fabulousness of the French Chateau-style building, the perfectly manicured lawns dotted with contemporary sculpture, the precisely planned floral displays and the coach loads of visitors ambling along the raked gravel paths.
I’m here to interview writer and film director Hannah Rothschild, the eldest of Jacob, Lord Rothschild’s daughters, and to hear of her fascination with her Great-Aunt Nica, a rebellious Rothschild who broke ranks to live among radical musicians at the heart of the bebop jazz scene.
In Nica’s youth this extraordinary family home was a playground for the rich and famous. She was brought up in similar luxury at nearby Tring Park, one of several Rothschild houses built around Aylesbury Vale and filled with treasures ranging from the gorgeous to the downright bizarre. At Waddesdon, priceless Sèvres porcelain, clocks and artworks were amassed, while at Tring, weird, wonderful animals were gathered either alive to populate the grounds or dead to be to stuffed or mounted and preserved in glass cases.
Today, Waddesdon Manor is in the hands of the National Trust, though the Rothschilds still play a major role in its management. Hannah is deep in conversation with one of the back-room staff when I arrive, too early, and guessing from my notebook that I’m her next appointment, she excuses herself momentarily to introduce herself and ask if I’d like a coffee while I’m waiting. Her easy manner and solicitude don’t come as a surprise. In my experience, people in Hannah’s position make pleasant interviewees.
According to Nica’s sister, the great scientist and ecologist Miriam Rothschild, our lives are shaped by genetics and chromosomes long before we are born. It was Miriam’s exasperation with Hannah that piqued her voyage of discovery into their forebears’ history.
“Nica seemed to have escaped,” explains Hannah. “I got more and more interested by her, I was making films and programmes for BBC Arts and I would see her when I went backwards and forward to America and it seemed the films were less interesting than she was.”
Then suddenly, Great-Aunt Nica died. Hannah thought she had missed her opportunity, then discovered she could still build a relationship, of sorts. She made a radio programme and a TV documentary about Nica, but feeling she had scratched only the surface of her life, and with stacks of material to explore and record, she started writing a book.
Discretion and secrecy are Rothschild watchwords, so when word of the book got out, the wider family viewed Hannah’s intentions with suspicion. They thought there were more worthy Rothschilds to write about.
“The family weren’t universally thrilled by this – nobody was,” says Hannah.
So what was her father’s viewpoint?
“He said, ‘Do you think you really need to do this?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ And after that, he never asked again. He was very supportive,” says Hannah. “Having raised the question he then accepted the idea.”
Hannah’s touching and candid account conjures up such well-drawn characters you feel as helpless as if you were watching King Lear repel his favourite daughter and divide his kingdom. As you read, pre-conceptions dissolve. Some aspects of Nica’s life were all-too-well documented but what lay underneath was unexplored or had been glossed over. So did the real Nica grow on Hannah as incomprehensible actions became understood?
“Yes,” says Hannah emphatically. “When I said I had a relationship with her it was rather like the cycles one goes through with friends, you know, love, and irritation and frustration and love again, I went through very similar things with Nica. For me, when I found out that she had decided not to live with her children, I got very upset with her… I felt disappointed in that decision.” But she realised in divorce cases of that era the father was always given priority over the mother, so Nica would have been unlikely to get custody, even if she’d fought for it.
Hannah delved into Rothschild history to start her story. Then progressed to Nica’s earliest years.
Named after a moth by her entomology-obsessed father Charles – Nica – full name, Kathleen Annie Pannonica – was the youngest of four children. Where her eldest sister and brother put their privileged but emotionally constrained childhoods behind them and found meaning, recognition and gainful employment through science, Nica lived her young adult life as a social butterfly, revelling in glamorous high society, marrying a handsome European Baron, flying her own plane, driving fast cars and generally following a path, if not exactly expected of her, then not entirely alien to her class.
During the Second World War Nica’s brother Victor was head of a small department at MI5 and her sister Miriam joined Alan Turing’s decoders at Bletchley Park.
Nica, whose French husband Baron Jules de Koenigswarter had settled his family in Normandy, remained with their children at their chateau, escaping to English safety just in time to avoid the horrors of the Nazi regime. Her married name and history caused distrust in England, but determined to help the war effort, she followed her husband’s lead, joined the Free French Army and smuggled herself on to a flight bound for Africa, repeatedly getting out of scrapes to put herself back on the front line.
It was said that when Nica heard ‘Round Midnight’ after the war, her world shifted on its axis. She left children, husband and scandal in her wake as she pursued and befriended the New York musicians who made it.
Her longest, closest and most personal friendship – there’s no evidence to suggest it was anything more intimate, despite speculation – was with the avant-garde pianist and jazz composer Thelonious Monk.
A giant of a man, both physically and in terms of his contribution to modern music, he wrote songs about and for Nica and she, in turn, adored and supported him, his wife, friends and family financially and in just about any other way she could. While he lurched from mental health crisis to fame and ultimately legendary status, she went into a tail spin, falling from the highest social echelons to a life of squalor and ill ease.
In the Fifties she sheltered the great jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker when he was sick. He repaid her by dying in her hotel suite. She later insisted drugs found in her car were hers, sparing her less well-connected musician friends for whom a conviction would have meant suspension of their professional licences. She knew the trials of being a misunderstood white, upper-class Jewish heiress making international headlines were as nothing to being black, gifted and breadline poor in colour-conscious 1950s America. But she also knew the fallout would affect her family. An image of her at the time of her arrest shows not a devil-may-care socialite but a frightened and sick to the heart mother and sister aware she was about to inflict pain on her loved ones.
What emerges in The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, is an affectionate portrait of an exasperating, naïve, brave and principled woman – an absurdity of contradictions, a mix of dog-like devotion and reckless behaviour. Fiercely private, she drove the flashiest, look-at-me, open-top Bentley in New York. The girl who had spent her childhood dressed in pristine white lace living in houses of sumptuous luxury ended her dotage in a small apartment, surrounded by cats that ripped everything to shreds and left her home stinking. Born into wealth and possession beyond most people’s wildest imaginings and at her death worth $750,000, in her latter years she lived on a shoestring, satisfied by the ephemeral nature of music.
The Baroness is an oeuvre that has taken 20 years of research to complete, so now it’s done, does Hannah have another biographical project in mind? Is another family member sitting in her sights?
Hannah shakes her head and laughs. Her next project will be a work of fiction, she says.
Then she’s checking the time and working out whether she can show me the Manor’s latest exhibition before she has to honour another appointment with Candida Lycett Green to talk about a charity. We’ve over-run and can’t squeeze out another minute, and off she dashes, blonde hair flying, gold pendant swinging, duty and genes at her heels.
The Baroness, The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild, by Hannah Rothschild is published by Virago.