After hearing a singular piece of music, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, daughter of the Rothschild dynasty, abandoned her gilded cage to become a patron saint to the High Priest of Jazz, Thelonious Monk, and a muse to countless other musicians. More than just a groupie, she was a freedom fighter and a philanthropist who made scandalous headlines for kicking race and class norms in the shins. Let’s set the record straight on the bebop Baroness who went where the music called her.
1. She Missed The Memo
Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, known as Nica, was born on December 10, 1913, to one of the wealthiest banking dynasties in the world. Parents Charles and Rozsika already had children Victor, Miriam, and Liberty, but as only sons could go into the family business, they were counting on a boy to give them a spare for their pre-existing heir. Don’t worry, they got over it.
2. Her Name Bugged her
Nica told everyone that the inspiration for her name was a butterfly her father, an amateur entomologist, discovered while visiting her mother’s Hungarian estate. She knew full well the bright yellow and maroon-colored Eublemma pannonica was, in fact, just a stylish moth, but leave it to another expert at reinvention to give her backstory a little oomph.
3. She Lived In A Zoo
Nica’s uncle Walter turned the family home into a natural museum and petting zoo. He owned a vast collection of exotic specimens such as stuffed giraffes, dodo skeletons, and—here’s an image— bird skins! He also kept live deer, kangaroos, emus, and if he didn’t feel like taking his zebra-drawn carriage somewhere, he could always ride his giant pet tortoise. The animals may have roamed free on the estate, but others felt they lived in a cage.
4. She Had A Regimented Upbringing
Their upbringing may have seemed wild and unconventional—but it came with a dark side. While Victor was at boarding school, Nica and her sisters lived in a Groundhog Day-style loop of basic studies, bath time rituals, and a constant diet of boiled fish and eggs. They only wore white dresses that had to stay that way, so basically, anything fun was off-limits until Charles came home on weekends.
That was when he took them exploring, let them climb trees, and taught them to love music. They had no idea that inside, their doting father was struggling.
5. She Learned a Tragic Lesson
Nica’s father Charles suffered from depression which worsened after a battle with the Spanish flu. All he wanted to do was stay home and study nature, but mounting responsibilities at the bank led to nervous breakdowns. Visits to sanatoriums failed to improve his mental health, and in 1923 he took his own life.
Nine-year-old Nica learned there was a high price for not being true to oneself, and she was determined to never pay it.
6. She Let Loose
At 16, Nica’s nursery sentence was up and she was ready to have a good time. She became a night owl, socializing respectably in the evenings before sneaking friends into the attic for booze-soaked, jazz-binging parties—otherwise known to the in-crowd as “corridor creeping”. Rozsika was anxious to curb Nica’s blossoming wild ways, but her solution was less than ideal.
7. She Got Started
Rozsika sent Nica to a finishing school in Paris run by a pair of lecherous mistresses who charged a fortune to teach her little more than how to wear lipstick and ward off their gropey advances. After graduating, she and sister Liberty toured Europe, visiting cousins and having a blast—but there were also bumps in the road.
8. She Said “I Don’t”
Nica and Liberty’s popularity kept them in constant social demand—but they soon learned that their name made them targets. In Vienna, a conniving countess thought she could get her hands on all that Rothschild money by announcing Nica’s engagement to her son in the paper. Problem was, Nica barely knew the guy. They’d only met a few times at a riding club.
If the countess thought she could simply embarrass Nica into the marriage, she was out of luck. Rozsika read all the foreign papers and was quick to publish a scathing rebuttal.
9. She Spread Her Wings
Nica and her brother Victor were especially close. They shared their father’s passion for music so he took her to his lessons with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson. He taught her to drive—like a maniac, but still—and bought her a sports car for her 18th birthday. He also got her to take flying lessons with saxophonist Bob Wise. Nica’s life was picking up speed.
10. She Made Someone Breakfast
Nica had an early soft spot for musicians. At 21, her first love was a charismatic band leader named Jack Harris. Reflecting on their relationship 55 years later, she said she could remember everything about him, including his phone number. She did not clarify whether or not she lost her virginity to him, but…one has to wonder how she also remembered how he liked his eggs the morning.
11. She Met A Baron
At a lunch in France in 1935, Nica met a handsome Jewish widower, Baron Jules de Koenigswarter, a mining expert with a bank and fellow aviator. He knocked her goggles off when he took her straight from the restaurant to Le Touquet airfield to continue their first date. Jules may have had game—and his own plane—but still, Nica had doubts about their compatibility.
12. She Gave In
Jules could be daring, but he was a stickler for rules and regulations, which is why Nica nicknamed him the Commander-in-Chief. She loved that, on one visit, they gave their chaperones the slip to escape to Monte Carlo, but the rest of their courtship was a little too organized for her liking. When Jules told her to marry him instead of asking, her reaction was brutal.
She ditched him and fled to New York.
13. She Changed Her Mind
Nica thought she was done with Jules…but he wasn’t done with her quite yet. His pursuit was relentless and ultimately, his persistence paid off. Nica accepted his proposal and they married on October 15, 1935. On the surface, it seemed like a fairytale come true…but as we’ll see, it was more like a horror story for Nica.
14. Their Honeymoon Was Bonkers
The newlyweds smoked opium in Peking, crashed a plane, and survived on chocolate and booze while stranded in a roach-infested motel. In Japan, Jules won a sake drinking competition. They also visited a kinky toy shop and sent family members obscene gifts as a joke. Still, Jules planned most of the trip so meticulously that Nica didn’t see or do half the things she wanted. She’d have to get used to it.
15. She Swapped Her Old Cage For New One
By 1938, the couple had settled into their new forever mansion just south of Nica’s beloved Paris. They’d had their first two children, Patrick and Janka—but beneath the surface, Nica was hiding a desperate secret. She felt claustrophobic in her new role as mother and mistress of the staff of a two-hundred-acre estate. Jules loved entertaining, but it was Nica who had to carry out his compulsive planning for dinner parties of up to 60 guests. She was living exactly the life she’d hoped to avoid.
16. Her Husband Joined The Army
Busy with her new life, Nica had little time for politics. For a while, she was able to ignore the threats of Hitler and his forces to Europe, in spite of the Rothschilds being the poster family for much of their anti-Jewish propaganda. Jules joined the army when war was declared in 1939, but when the French surrendered to Germany, he resigned and volunteered with the Free French Army, a decision Nica would soon follow.
17. The Enemy Approached
Ignoring the advice of friends and family, Nica made a dangerous decision. She stayed in France to open her door to refugees. Within weeks she had 60 evacuees sleeping in her guest rooms. Staying was both crazy and brave. Her own cousin narrowly missed capture by the enemy when they took over her home.
Then Jules heard the Germans were getting closer to Nica, so he sent word for her to flee with the children, but it was almost too late.
18. She Barely Escaped
Nica managed to get visas to take the children and a maid back to England, but there were no more commercial boats or flights. She could’ve flown her own plane but couldn’t find enough fuel. The family left the house at dawn and walked with other refugees to a port where they boarded a crammed ship to London. It happened just in the nick of time.
19. She Saved Who She Could
Three days later, the Germans reached Nica’s French chateau. Their family had just narrowly escaped a seriously dark fate—but sadly, not everyone had gone with Nica and the children. Tragically, Jules’ mother had refused to leave their home, and ended her days in Auschwitz.
20. She Had To Do Something
Nica sent her children to stay with friends in Long Island so that she could sign up with the Free French Army in the hopes of reuniting with Jules. One of her duties was playing chauffeur to a General Koenig. The man hated women drivers even before finding himself the mercy of Nica’s lead foot. When she begged him to be sent to Africa where Jules was fighting with the Allies, the refusal was swift. Like that was going to stop her.
21. She Showed Up And Showed Out
Nica found a berth on a Norwegian freighter and hitched a ride to West Africa! Within weeks of arriving at camp, she got malaria, sunstroke, and nearly lost her life in a car crash. She finally found Jules and quickly made herself useful, working as a decoder, a driver, and host of a radio show where she broadcast jazz records and anti-Nazi propaganda. Rumor has it she also flew a Lancaster bomber. It’s easy to believe, even if there isn’t proof.
22. She Found Time For Romance
Jules and Nica took advantage of the fact they were one of the few married couples in the army—but that’s not to say that all was well between them. People whispered that when the hubby was away, the Baroness strayed. With Jules fighting in Tunis, Nica reportedly seduced a musician when he followed the jazz coming from her Cairo hotel room.
Back in Paris, Nica opened her doors to house servicemen. One claimed he was a third-wheel witness to Nica’s make-out with an officer. Guess all’s fair in love, etc.
23. She Was A Hero
Jules won the rare distinction of the Ordre de la Libération, the second highest honor in France given to heroes of the French Liberation. For her own service, which also included work with the War Graves Commission identifying bodies of men who’d lost their lives on the field, Nica earned the rank of lieutenant. Imagine, she dreaded her life going downhill from here.
24. Something Had To Give
Nica had tested her mettle and gained confidence outside of her pampered lifestyle, but after WWII ended, there she was at home again, running her household on Jules’ control freak schedule, feeling she was meant for more. They got on well enough to have three more children, Berit, Shaun, and Kari, but the conflict had reduced their finances. Jules found work as an ambassador. His posting in Mexico would change her life.
25. She Got The Call
Playing the dutiful diplomat’s wife in Mexico, she got a call from a friend to come over and listen to Duke Ellington’s symphony, Black, Brown and Beige, introduced on the recording as a “parallel to the history of the Negro in America”. It stirred her soul. Instantly, it was clear to her she “belonged where the music was”. She claimed it was a calling. She just wasn’t sure how to answer it.
26. She Missed Her Plane
If the Duke’s music gave Nica life, another artist’s work gave her a reason for living. On her way home after a trip to New York, she stopped by old friend Teddy Wilson’s place before the airport. He played her Thelonious Monk’s first record, “‘Round Midnight” and it blew her mind! She listened to it 20 times in a row and missed her plane. Forget the husband and children—Monk was her new obsession and she was determined to find him.
27. She Found Her Groove
Bebop was jazz you couldn’t dance or sing to. It was rebellious and passionate like Nica, and she embraced the entire culture and learned about its inner circle. She befriended musicians and became known simply as “The Baroness”. She offered artists support, got their instruments out of hock, drove them to gigs, and helped them pay rent—but there was still no sign of the man who inspired her new life.
Nor was there much sign of her husband, who she seemed to have forgotten entirely about…
28. She Turned Out The Lights
Nica moved into the Stanhope Hotel as a permanent guest and immediately began to cause trouble. She liked to take aim with her pistol at the lights in the hallway. The manager said, “We don’t mind if you shoot our staff, but please don’t shoot the lightbulbs”. Interestingly, back in her dinner party days, Jules switched a lightbulb on and off as a signal for Nica and other ladies to leave the gentlemen the room. He’s lucky she didn’t shoot one then.
29. She Was Race-y
Nica would leave her Rolls Royce running outside the Stanhope in case she needed to dash out. She would race it—and later her Bebop Bentley—against friends like Miles Davis, tearing up and down the streets of Manhattan. As part of their separation agreement, Jules stipulated that when the children visited, they could not be in a car with her. Who could blame him?
30. She Finally Met The Man
When Nica heard Monk was playing in Paris, she jumped on a plane to see him. At last! He was, she said, “the most beautiful man” she’d ever seen. Understanding his lingo was tricky at first, but the two still hit it off. They had such a ball in Paris that Nica rented the Royal Albert Hall in London so he could headline a series of jazz concerts. It didn’t happen because she couldn’t get the permits, but Nica vowed to make Monk a household name.
31. She Was A Champion
The reason Nica hadn’t found Monk in New York was that he couldn’t play there. He’d lost his cabaret card in 1951 when he took the blame for a friend’s narcotics stash. Nica fought tirelessly to have it reinstated, though it didn’t happen until 1957. Monk resented watching artists he influenced gain popularity while he could not. So did Nica, but were her efforts on his behalf driven by love?
32. It Wasn’t Like That
There was a lot more to their relationship than meets the eye. Monk’s son Toot thought Nica was in love with his father. “He was a good-looking cat and she was a hotty”. But there were never any signs of affection other than kisses on the cheek. When asked if they’d ever slept together Monk said, “Why would I do that to my best friend?”
If nothing else, they were kindred spirits. Nica loved his genius and he loved her for it. Besides, he had a wife.
33. She Formed An Alliance
Monk’s wife Nellie had to work hard to support her husband and children. When Nica pulled up to their San Juan district apartment in her Rolls, it was a blessing in a leopard fur coat. The women agreed to share the load in caring for Monk. Sometimes they’d all step out together; Nellie on Monk’s left arm, Nica on his right. Monk adored his wife and Nica respected that.
34. Her Reputation Was Solid
Nica’s relationship with Monk solidified her reputation in the jazz world. She was far more than a groupie, and Monk was pretty proud to have a Rothschild on his arm. Sometimes big Hollywood stars would show up at the clubs but they weren’t who musicians were trying to impress. When she was in the audience, word would spread—“Play well, the Baroness is out front”.
35. She Dealt With Familiar Problems
Like Nica’s father, Monk had mental health issues—and the consequences were terrifying. Sadly, being an addict exacerbated them. He had wild mood swings and would go days without sleep. Nellie would call Nica to help when Monk was on a destructive bender. He once tried to leave an airplane mid-flight.
Nica would laugh and say, with Monk, she’d been “in more nuthouses than you would believe”.
36. She Was A Hep Cat Lady
Nica generally moved from one hotel to another. Noise complaints—and Monk’s habit of wandering into rooms that weren’t his—were the usual reasons. With Victor’s help, she finally bought her own large home in New Jersey overlooking the Hudson, but she was more interested in filling it with cats than furniture. At one count she had 306. Monk hated cats, but that’s where the Steinway was.
37. She Made A Bad Stop
On October 15, 1958, Nica, Monk, and a musician named Charlie Rouse were driving to a gig in Baltimore when Monk asked Nica to pull over so he could use the restroom. West of the Mason-Dixon Line, segregation was still common, and it was a while before they found a motel with an “all welcome” sign.
Monk used the facilities while Nica and Charlie waited outside, but when he asked the desk clerk for a glass of water, she panicked and called the authorities.
38. She Took The Rap
Monk was back in the car when an officer pulled up and asked him to step out. He ignored the request while Nica explained who he was. She thought they’d be free to go—but she was dead wrong. More officers showed up, dragged Monk out of the car, and beat him unconscious. She begged them to stop, pleading with them to be careful of his hands.
A search of the car—conducted only after Nica asked what the charges were—turned up marijuana. She lied and claimed it was hers.
39. She Was In Limbo
A judge threw the book at Nica on April 21, 1959. She had to pay a $3,000 fine and serve a three-year sentence in prison, to be followed by deportation. Her family hired a lawyer who immediately filed an appeal and Victor posted her bail. For two years the threat of jail and exile hung over her.
Finally, a judge dismissed the case on the technicality that officers hadn’t followed proper search procedure. Sure, that’s what they did wrong.
40. She Was Only Trying To Help
By the 60s, Monk had gained widespread recognition, but exhaustion, substance misuse, and a grueling tour put him in a brief coma and led to mental breakdowns. Unfortunately, this had a devastating side effect. Nica fought Nellie over his treatments. When Nellie wanted him on a juice diet, Nica snuck him steak. When she signed Monk up for electro-shock therapy, Nica blew the bank on alternatives.
Nellie got fed up with the interference, and soon Monk was fed up with Nellie. In 1972, he moved in with Nica for good.
41. The Worst Happened
Monk suffered a massive heart attack in February of 1982. At his funeral, Nica and Nellie sat together in the front row of the church as mourners paid respects to them both. Nellie and Monk’s children rode with Nica instead of in the family limo during the funeral procession, but along the way, the car broke down. Nica and her famous Bebop Bentley stayed on the side of the road while the cortege continued; a sad ending to this chapter of her life.
42. She Had Hotel Troubles
Nica’s favorite hotel, The Stanhope, was a segregated, but Nica refused to sneak friends up to her room and walked in with them openly. She kept a piano in her suite for Monk and others to play and sometimes jam sessions got rowdy. There were complaints that many of her guests were users, and this was true. The hotel tried to get Nica to vacate by increasing her rent and moving her to smaller rooms. Soon she’d have no choice.
43. Scandal Came Knocking
Jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker was a notorious addict. He was in a shocking state when he knocked on Nica’s door on the rainy night of March 12, 1955. His feet were swollen, and he was suffering from liver damage and stomach ulcers. Nica was still negotiating separation terms with Jules, and her daughter Janka was staying with her. She could have understandably turned Parker away, but she didn’t. Sadly, things were about to take an even darker turn.
44. She Heard Thunder
Nica bypassed the hotel’s on-call doctor and asked her personal physician to come to check on Parker. The doctor prescribed an unknown treatment and then left Parker to Nica and Janka’s care. He was sitting on the couch, watching a variety show on TV, and just as he started to laugh, he suddenly choked and died. Nica swore she heard a clap of thunder at that same moment. A great was gone and more trouble was to come.
45. People Had Questions
The event thrust Nica into a harsh spotlight of suspicion. Why did it take 48 hours to report Parker’s death? Nica said this was because she wanted to tell his estranged wife first, but skeptics jumped up with questions. Why did the medical examiner come to her room? What was with mislabeling his body and leaving it in the morgue? Some suggested there were sinister reasons behind it.
46. Crazy Rumors Still Exist
One wild theory said Nica needed time to cover up a murder; a fight between her lover Art Blakey and Parker ended with Bird shot in the stomach. Nica’s great-niece Hannah Rothschild said she once received an email from a woman claiming she’d witnessed Nica shoot Parker. And why? The woman said, “Nica disliked addicts”. Given her chosen lifestyle, this doesn’t really ring true. But the truth doesn’t always sell papers.
47. Headlines Screamed
Headlines like “Bird Dies in Baroness’ Boudoir” painted Nica as a wicked temptress who preyed on vulnerable souls. Famous columnist Walter Winchell had a hate-on for Nica and vilified her mercilessly as a dealing hussy. Parker would’ve collapsed on the street if not for Nica—but she paid a cruel price for her kindness.
The Stanhope evicted her, the authorities harassed her, and Jules finally filed for divorce. Thankfully, Victor was still on her side.
48. She Remained Cool
At 69, Nica could’ve gone to live with family, but she opted to stay with her cats and a musician named Barry Harris. Far from becoming a homebody, she remained a night owl, continuing to visit clubs and follow new music. Clint Eastwood sought her out to consult on his 1986 Charlie Parker biopic Bird.
Initially, she thought the actress playing her looked like a “constipated horse”, but by the premiere, she was cool with how the picture turned out.
49. Her Name Lives On
Nica asked every musician she met to tell her the three things they wanted most, and her children published those interviews in The Musicians and Their Three Wishes. Miles Davis answered, “to be white”, Louis Armstrong, to “live a hundred years”, and Monk said, “to have a wonderful friend like you”. She gave so many all she had, and they thanked her in the best way they could, naming and dedicating at least 20 songs inspired by her, including Monk’s “Pannonica”.
50. Timing Was Everything
In November of 1988, Nica had a triple aorta coronary bypass. She hoped to make a full recovery, but after 74 years of hard living, a few car crashes, and even a brief bout of cancer, her heart gave up. In her will, she requested that her family cremate her body, hire a boat, and scatter her ashes on the Hudson River with the specific instruction that it should be done, ‘round midnight.