Picture the scene… Late at night in the segregated America of the 1950s, at the back of a smoky jazz club in the West Village, a gorgeous, White aristocrat with a British accent and a cigarette holder between her lips has her arms around a group of sweat-drenched African-American musicians after a heart-stopping jazz concert. Not the most conventional scene for the time! But nor was the life of this woman named after a beautiful butterfly, a moniker chosen by her father, Lord Charles Rothschild, “banker by duty, entomologist by passion,” according to Nadine de Koenigswarter, a Parisian painter and the baroness’s granddaughter. Aside from the lepidopteran title, her father also gave her a love of jazz, which she discovered as a teenager while listening to his record collection.
Pannonica was a free, creative spirit, and studied drawing in Germany before returning to England where she learned to fly planes. While at the Touquet airfield in northern France, she met her future husband, the French baron Jules de Koenigswarter. They married in 1935. Upon hearing the Appeal of June 18, 1940, they joined General de Gaulle in London before traveling to Equatorial Africa. While there, Pannonica de Koenigswarter worked as a coding agent, a soldier in the Free French Forces, transporting medical equipment on an old freighter that was attacked several times by U-boats, a commentator on Radio Brazzaville, and a military driver.
Jules became a diplomat after the war, but Pannonica struggled with the obligations inherent to the role of an ambassador’s wife. Despite their reciprocal love, the couple separated and Pannonica left for New York, driven by her passion for jazz music. Once in the city, she met pianist Teddy Wilson. It was in his living room that she first heard Thelonious Monk’s iconic song, “‘Round Midnight.” It was a revelation!
In 1954, she met Monk in person at a concert at the Pleyel concert hall in Paris. The following year, she moved to New York City with her oldest daughter, and took up quarters at the luxurious Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue. There, she painted abstract, colorful works of art “with any odd materials she could get her hands on,” including acrylic, milk, scotch tape, and perfumes. She also became a friend, muse, and patron of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and of course, Thelonious Monk, the grandson of slaves turned “jazz prophet.”
Pannonica spent her nights driving around Harlem and Greenwich Village at the wheel of her convertible Bentley, visiting different clubs. The live concerts were followed by joyous jam sessions in her suite, with musicians flocking back to see “Nica,” as her friends affectionately nicknamed her. She soon became their manager and set about negotiating their contracts. She regularly fed and housed them, taking the time to ease the blues in their souls. It was on her couch that saxophonist Charlie Parker, worn down by drugs and alcohol, passed away on March 12, 1955, at the age of 34. For the hotel’s management, Parker’s death was one scandal too many. A White, divorced woman who frequented Black jazz musicians now had a corpse in her room. She was asked to leave the establishment.
Following the advice of Monk, she purchased a house in Weehawken, New Jersey, where the musician spent the last nine years of his life. He nicknamed it “Catsville” – “cats” meaning “guys” or “musicians” in Black American jazz slang – and then “Cathouse” due to the dozens of stray felines rescued by Nica. Broke musicians would come to this oasis of calm to lick their wounds. “Nica and her protégés had finally found somewhere to relax, create, play ping-pong, sleep, rehearse, and have jam sessions in total freedom,” says her granddaughter. From 1961 through 1967, armed with her Polaroid camera, Pannonica recorded the faces of her guests. The result is hundreds of rare photos portraying the musicians in the intimacy of their daily lives. Some of them are shown sleeping, others eating or petting the owner’s cats.
Aware of their dreams, she asked 300 of these jazzmen a very particular question: “If you had three wishes that could come true immediately, what would they be?” She wrote their replies in notebooks – “being in good health,” “having money,” “not being subjected to racism,” “being considered a great musician” – and stuck their photos next to each. These unique testimonies have been collected in an original work, Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats, published by Abrams Image in 2008 with an introduction by Nadine de Koenigswarter.
This familiarity is almost enough to mask the baroness’s extraordinary daring. We should not forget that, at the time, “the name ‘Nica’ often made the front pages of the tabloids […],” says her granddaughter. “It was not a good time for interracial mixing.” Regardless of their status as jazz geniuses, Nica’s protégés had serious run-ins with the police. But that was not all. “When she accompanied Monk to his concerts in the South and they would walk arm in arm, people would cross the street or spit on the ground in front of them.”
The courageous Nica did not think twice about putting herself between Monk and the police when they tried to arrest him for no reason, begging the officers to not hit him on the hands. She also took the blame for narcotics possession after illegal substances were found in her Bentley, and even contacted the mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, to demand the removal of a discriminatory law that forced night club musicians to provide their fingerprints. This context helps us understand Miles Davis’s heart-breaking reply to Nica’s famous question: “I wish I was White!”
Pannonica passed away while undergoing an operation in November 1988. Her funeral was held at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York – the house of jazz! The ceremony was of course accompanied by a huge live concert. According to her final wishes, her ashes were then scattered on the Hudson River at roughly 12 a.m. in a nod to Monk’s famed song, “‘Round Midnight.” In a testament to the profound esteem these musicians had for the woman who tirelessly protected them, they dedicated some 20 songs to her, some of which have become famous hits, including “Nica’s Tempo” by Gigi Gryce, “Blues for Nica” by Kenny Drew, “Tonica” by Kenny Dorham, “Thelonica” by Tommy Flanagan, “Nica’s Dream” by Horace Silver, and, of course, the unforgettable “Pannonica” by Thelonious Monk.