So I had met Hannah Rothschild very briefly at Port Eliot festival, and then made the Rothschild-Waddesdon Manor connection, but beyond that nada, so I opened The Baroness- The search for Nica, the rebellious Rothschild with favourable endorsements ringing in my ears but not knowing what to expect.
I am always amazed (though shouldn't be) at the way that a book about a life unknown to me, and a world that hither to may have been of little interest to me, are both brought so dazzlingly to life that I am seeking out more of the same. I also defy anyone reading this book to not seek out a soundtrack for themselves and want to listen to the music of Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker, Miles Davies and Dizzy Gillespie. Even if you are not a jazz fan I suspect, like me, you may want to at least try and understand exactly what was the magic that caused a woman, with as much money and comfort as the world could buy, to desert her family for a life in New York where she became the patron of many-a drug fuelled, penniless, frequently homeless and down-and-out jazz musician.
'I'd never heard anything remotely like it. I must have played it twenty times in a row. Missed my plane. In fact I never went home. I got the message I belonged where that music was. I was supposed to be involved in some way.'
Pannonica (Nica) Rothschild born in 1913, the fourth child of Nathaniel and Rozsika Rothschild, aptly named after an elusive moth, and a direct descendant of Mayer Amchsel Rothschild who had founded the family banking dynasty in the Frankfurt ghetto, the Judengasse, during the eighteenth century, and very much against all the odds..
' a place of such indescribable squalor that Europeans, including George Eliot, made it a 'must-see' attraction as part of their grand tour.'
Goethe, also visited and wrote...
'The lack of space, the dirt, the throng of people, the disagreeable accents of the voice, altogether it made the most unpleasant impression, even upon the passer-by who merely looked through the gate.'
To his complete surprise, when he plucked up the courage to enter the gates of the Judengasse, the inhabitants were...
' human beings after all, industrious and obliging, and one could not help but admie even the obstinacy with which they adhered to their traditional ways.'
It was Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who in this unlikely setting, established his small coin business using his wife's dowry, eventually becoming one of the richest men in the Judengasse and the father of nineteen children, ten of whom survived childhood, so plenty to carry on the dynasty that the Rothschild banking empire was to become. As Hannah Rothschild points out, centuries of persecution has made the family 'secretive and inward facing' with little trust for outsiders, coupled with the belief that 'only money and power would protect them from anti-Semetism and a return to that early life of misery.' Marriage had to be within the Jewish faith and increasingly within the family. But as far as the bank was concerned it was only men allowed, the women were completely disempowered. Only Rothschild men could inherit and run the business, a principle still in practice today, whilst the women of the family were barred from working or setting foot in the bank, or inheriting shares, which reverted to surviving fathers and brothers in the event of a death. When the Y chromosome starts to diminish within the family and a succession of girls are born it heralds interesting times ahead.
But alongside all this came great business acumen and complete discretion for clients, an ingrained trait that, even today, made the writing of this book something of a challenge within the family for Hannah Rothschild as she attempted to uncover the life of her great-aunt Nica.
And so to Nica, the wonderful, free-spirited rebellious Nica and with a tension built up by Hannah Rothschild as the fate of the women within this patriarchally dominant family is gradually revealed, and to the point where I would have been seriously disappointed if Nica hadn't done a runner, because in the end I was willing her to escape. Suffering a form of de-oxygenated entrapment from real life, and of the highest order, Nica was never cut out for the rarifed atmosphere in which she found herself, something had to give.
It was the Second World War that did it. Nica's life until that one of dependence and moneyed privilege, pampered to the point of infantilism within a rule-bound, class-obsessed society, but with the war came Nica's chance. She took it and capitalised on it, dutifully travelling to the U.S. for the safety of herself and her children, as instructed by her French husband Jules, but then leaving to return to Europe to join the Free French Army. Nica had a busy and exciting war and as I read of her exploits it became obvious that she would never settle back into life as Rothschild woman... there to 'entertain, inform and breed.'
War decimated the family's fortunes and this makes for sombre reading, not only for the stupendous wealth that one family can amass in the shape of no less than forty stately homes across Europe (including Waddesdon Manor), but also for a family's persecution and demise at the hands of the Nazis when houses were ransacked and a known 3978 paintings seized.
It was 1948, perhaps 1949, no one is really sure, when Nica, stopping off on her way to the airport in New York to fly back to her family, hears the music of Thelonious Monk for the first time and changes the course of her life for ever. New York the 'post-war crucible of innovation' and it is to the jazz clubs of 52nd Street that Nica migrates in preference to the rarified world of European aristocracy. That doesn't stop her driving a blue Bentley convertible around the city and taking a suite in a top class hotel from which she organises and frequently bails out the jazz musicians.
Hannah Rothschild achieves a remarkable even-handedness as she writes of these tumultuous years in Nica's life, at times uncomfortable with Nica's behaviour, frequently suspending disbelief in order to try and understand her great aunt...how could she leave her children as she did... what about the 360 cats that shared the home that Nica was eventually forced to buy when no hotel would accommodate her.
And what of Nica??
Well I loved Nica. Setting aside the qualms I would share with Hannah Rothschild about the children (though they sought their mother out and Nica seems to have been close to some of them), in her New York life here was a woman who was selfless and generously committed to her cause, yes eccentric but accepting of others unconditionally and regardless of race, unflinching in the face of adversity of which there was a great deal. When Nica risks prison by taking the drugs-bust rap for Thelonious Monk in the hope that he will keep his perfoming licence... only to find that he loses it anyway, you want to weep for her. It all seemed a far cry, a complete repudiation of the social mores instilled in her as a child...or was it. Surely Nica reshaped those values of family loyalty and used them differently, and for the good of others above self and family.
And so the music. Who would have thought I would be seeking out and listening to the music that Nica loved, and then on tenterhooks waiting for the DVD, The Jazz Baroness, to arrive from Lovefilm (don't miss this film if you decide to read the book)
'The music is what moves me. It has something I also hear in the playing of the Hungarian gypsies, something very sad and beautiful. It's everything that really matters, everything worth digging. It's a desire for freedom. And all my life, I've never known any people who have warmed me as much by their friendship as the Jazz musicians I've come to know.'
As Hannah Rothschild suggests in her response to these words of Nica's ...
'Nica had found her calling, her version of paradise.'
and towards the end of the book...
'She made her sliver of a great fortune go a little further. She made a difference. In return she received the one thing she lacked and desperately missed during her childhood: friendship.'