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When we think Rothschild, it is almost inevitable that banking and high finance are the first things to spring to mind. Conspiracy theories come in a close second. But beyond their involvement in shaping the monetary map of modern Europe, or leading the lizard people, the Rothschilds were also major contributors to culture. (Baron Phillipe alone was a prolific vigneron, race car driver, playwright, screenwriter, producer, and poet). Even the family rebels had much to help give the world.
Charles, son of the first Baron Rothschild, was a Harrow and Cambridge educated banker who loved nothing quite so much as chasing after insects in the English countryside and around the world. In the Sudanese town of Shendi, a former stronghold of the Nubian Ja’alin tribe, he discovered and named Xenopsylla cheopis; what we know as the Oriental rat flea, the primary vector for the bubonic plague which devastated Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 14th century. He was a dedicated partner at NM Rothschild and Sons, though, and never missed a day at the bank. Instead, he used his scientific bent to the family’s benefit, keeping a close watch on the company’s gold refinery and working on new inventions for the extraction, location, and refinement of the precious metal.
In 1906, he departed London for the Carpathian mountains on a butterfly hunting expedition and found much more than insects. Rózsika Edle von Wertheimstein was a member of the Hungarian nobility, of much longer aristocratic standing than the Rothschilds, in fact the first Jewish family in Europe to be ennobled without converting to Christianity. She was also a national tennis champion, and intimidatingly intelligent. Every day she read a Hungarian, German, English, and French newspaper, political articles and all. Charles was taken with the dark-eyed 36-year-old, and wed her in February of 1907 in Vienna.
Only a year later, in August of 1908, their first child was born. A year after Miriam was followed by Elizabeth, and then the next year by Nathaniel, the future 3rd Baron. It wasn’t until three years after his birth that the youngest of Charles’ clan, Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, was born. Even balancing motherhood, Rózsika lost none of her interest in politics and current events. Whitehall insiders at the time, as well as historians, have identified her as a major force in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Indeed, Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, called her the “most remarkable” of all of the Rothschilds. Her youngest daughter, however, had much to do on the world stage, behind the scenes and otherwise, herself.
Panonnica or Nica, as Kathleen was commonly called, grew up in a world considered eccentric even by the standards of the British aristocracy. Her immediate family, and much the branch of the English Rothschilds from whom she was descended, lived together in a massive estate in Tring Park, Hertfordshire. It wasn’t uncommon to see her uncle Walter, the 2nd Baron and a devoted naturalist like his brother, riding one of the giant tortoises from his private zoo, the largest in the world. While the males of the household could escape to Harrow at 13, and thereafter to Oxbridge, the girls were given private tutors and kept within the family’s walls. Even with the salon atmosphere created by the endless stream of European and English Jewish intellectuals that came through the estate, it was a difficult environment for a lively young girl. Only made more so by the suicide of her father in 1923, driven to despair by the recurrent encephalitis which he suffered as a result of contracting the Spanish flu in the 1918 epidemic.
In the ‘30s, her brother Victor began to spirit her up to London to visit jazz clubs, and for his piano lessons from Teddy Wilson, of the Benny Goodman Trio. Wilson, an African-American from Austin who had studied violin and piano at the Tuskegee Institute, took a shine to the girl only 11 years his junior, and performed pieces for her, as well as gifting her records. She made more friends in the London jazz scene and picked up a lifelong love of flying from saxophonist Bob Wise.
It was during an aviary saut de chaîne in 1935 that she made the acquaintance of Baron Jules Adolphe de Kœnigswarter. Like Pannonica, he was from a prominent ennobled Jewish family with strong banking ties, although he was a decade her senior. Taken with the strong-willed and stunning Nica, he proposed after only a few months. She responded by catching the next flight to New York, and he followed. After weeks of pressing, she consented, and they were wed the same year. The civil engineer and his new bride embarked on a six-month honeymoon, from the Gobi Desert, where they crash-landed, to Japan, where Jules delighted in the illicit wares, and back to Paris. When Pannonica discovered that she was pregnant, she returned to London to have her first child (though she was already a parent to Jules’ young daughter by his first marriage to Nadine Lise Raphäel, who had died in 1932).
Afterward, she and Jules settled into Chateau d’Abondant, a Louis Treize style home built in 1750, where she also gave birth to a daughter in 1938. Her husband was a lieutenant in the French reserves, and when he was called up for service in 1939 he instructed his wife to flee with the children if the German advance came too close to their home, no matter what had to be left behind. By the time the German army flanked the Maginot line, Pannonica had made up her mind to evacuate, catching the last refugee train out of Paris for safety in London. Jules, however, feared for her safety in the English capital both because of the constant bombing and the threat of invasion. Soon, she and the three children had relocated to New York.
Her husband commanded Free French forces around Europe and Africa, and the former Rothschild society lady was determined to lend more than moral support. While still in New York she coordinated the shipment of and payment for medical supplies, and soon departed for Africa to lend her services as a translator. In the course of her time there, and in Italy, Germany, and France, she worked as an ambulance and truck driver, decoder, and radio host. At war’s end, the allied armies decorated her as a lieutenant.
Although only one member of the Rothschild family (Élisabeth, a wealthy Catholic who had married Baron Phillipe) died during the Holocaust, most of Pannonica’s maternal family and her husband’s relations perished. Jules chose to enter the foreign service, and was assigned as a counselor to the French embassies in Norway and Mexico City, before becoming agent-general of the French government tourist office in North America in 1953. Despite their successes in the war, the de Koenigswarter marriage was deeply troubled. Pannonica, who valued her independence fiercely after a restrictive upbringing under a strict mother, was unhappy with being treated as the ornamental wife of an ambassador after her wartime efforts and pursuits. Meanwhile, her freewheeling, adventure-loving husband had changed. He policed her friends and her musical tastes, banning bebop from various residences, and breaking her possessions for small ‘infractions’ against his rules, like tardiness to dinner. They separated multiple times, and finally divorced in 1956, him gaining sole custody of the three children born to them between 1946 and 1950.
Before the divorce she had already started escaping to New York for weeks on end, frequenting the city’s jazz clubs with her old friend Teddy Wilson, who introduced her to Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Indeed, another factor in Pannonica’s divorce, beyond the couple’s unhappiness, was her friendship with Charlie Parker, another companion she had met through Wilson. She had a suite at the luxurious Stanhope Hotel, and frequently allowed Parker, and many other musicians, to stay with her for long periods of time. On the 12th of March, 1955, Parker, a heavy heroin user and drinker, died of a heart attack in her rooms. Although Nica was not romantically involved with the 34-year-old saxophonist and composer, it was still a scandal for such a notorious drug user, especially of a different race, to have died in her quarters. The hotel asked her to leave, and her husband gave up any ideas of reconciliation.
Now liberated from her role as a diplomatic hostess, Pannonica was not one to be idle. She decided to put her considerable wealth to good ends as a patron of American jazz artists, and to use her free time to help them and their families navigate that world and the world at large. Because heroin addiction was such a common facet of the bebop scene, her intervention was often essential to the children of the artists she supported even having something to eat, or the artists themselves somewhere to sleep.“The pianist Hampton Hawes wrote that she was an angel of last resort. If someone was stranded somewhere too sick or loaded to get home, she had ‘a number you could call from anywhere and get a private cab . . . . She’d give money to anyone who was broke, bring a bag of groceries to their families . . . help them get a cabaret card.’”
Cabaret cards were as essential as food to New York musicians. Everyone who wished to work in a nightclub in the city, including performers, was required to have one of those permits in order to do so from Prohibition until their abolition in 1967. The cards were sometimes revoked for political reasons, or because the artist in question had drug or obscenity charges, among other issues. Frank Sinatra refused to be submitted to the process, and would not work in New York until they were gotten rid of. In the interim, Panonnica used her wealth and wile to get them or get them back for the musicians she supported, so that they could still be seen by critics and audiences and continue to earn money.
Nica spent the next few years, after her divorce, hotel hopping. Wherever she went she was followed by what seemed like a caravan of jazz greats, including Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, Lionel Hampton, and Thelonious Monk. However, the noise, partying, and mostly non-white friends did nothing to endear her to management anywhere. Eventually, Victor, the brother who had first brought her into London’s jazz scene in the ‘30s, bought her a New Jersey Bauhaus mansion overlooking the Hudson.
And she spent the rest of her life as the patroness of American jazz. In 1958, in order to prevent Monk from losing his cabaret card for a second time, she took the rap in Delaware for marijuana possession, and spent a few nights in county jail. She became an AMA licensed manager, counting among her clients Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Sir Charles Thompson, and The Jazz Messengers, bought a new piano for the famed Five Spot on Cooper Square, and wrote the liner notes for Monk’s 1962 album Criss-Cross. Even after her favored pianist’s death in 1982 she lost none of her love for the music, and continued to go out nightly. Likewise, her generosity never faltered; she paid for the funerals of Bud Powell, Sonny Clark, and Coleman Hawkins, and supported Larry Ridley and Barry Harris’ community jazz centre in Chelsea.
As time went on, Pannonica’s family drew closer. The children her husband had taken away returned, and daughter Janka took up her mother’s musical passion. From across the pond, her nieces and nephews began to visit with regularity, intrigued by the mysterious aging aunt who had escaped her gilded cage and started a new, unconventional life in New York. On November 30, 1988, Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the Rothschild heiress named after a rare moth, died of heart failure at the age of 74, the Bebop Baroness.
The legacy of Pannonica’s life as an American lives on, though. Les musiciens de jazz et leurs trois vœux, her book of interviews with and polaroids of 300 jazz musicians, was published by Buchet Chastel in 2008, and brought out in English translation the same year. More compositions and songs were written about and for her than almost any other figure in American jazz, and came from such leading lights as Gigi Gryce, Horace Silver, Tommy Flanagan, and, of course, Monk. Jon Hendricks provided lyrics for Monk’s “Pannonica.”
Softer than silk and as warm as warm milk
Light as air and able to fly
Lost songs no bliss while they’re waiting for her kiss
Pannonica my butterfly.
Fluttering one fair and bright as the sun
Light as wind embracing the sky
Colorful wings soft and gaily painted things
Pannonica my butterfly.
Like the lovely flowers I’ll wait for hours
Just to feel that touch the touch I love so much
One day she’ll flutter by and I’ll hold out my hand
And capture my butterfly.
Delicate things such as butterfly wings
Poets can’t describe though they try
Love played the tune while she steps from her cocoon
Pannonica my lovely, lovely little butterfly.