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Editor’s Choice: The Baroness, the Search for Nica Rothschild

The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild by Hannah Rothschild, Knopf, 282 pages ($26.95). It is among the best-known and most tragic legends in a music well-filled with both legend and tragedy: Charlie Parker died in her suite at the Stanhope Hotel. He’d “knocked on her door on the night of March 12, 1955” and she’d welcomed him in. “He had recently attempted to kill himself by drinking iodine following the death of his daughter Pree and the departure of his wife Chan.” His hostess and her daughter made sure he was “propped up in front of the television watching 'The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show’.” He began to laugh at the juggling act “then choked and suddenly died.”

It was her Bentley nine years later that was conspicuously parked on the sidewalk outside Buffalo’s legendary jazz club The Royal Arms in 1964 when Thelonious Monk, fresh from the cover of Time magazine, played one of the strangest gigs any true jazz titan ever played in Buffalo. She was Monk’s lifelong friend, companion, admirer, patron and mother hen. We learn from this book that on a fateful October 1958 night in Delaware, she claimed Monk’s weed – found by state cops in her Bentley – was hers, not Monk’s. The great jazz critic Dan Morgenstern told the author “she was prepared to sacrifice herself for him. She did not think twice about it. That was what she was like.”

Until it was thrown out of court years later for improper search by Delaware’s state cops, she thus had a three-year sentence hanging over her head. (Marijuana possession was a much more severe crime in 1958.)

She is Nica DeKoenigswarter, “The Jazz Baroness,” the Rothschild heiress who is, without question, one of the most mysterious and most fascinating and most controversial nonmusical figures in all of American music. Few ever deserved – or, for that matter, required – a definitive biography more than Baroness Nica DeKoenigswarter, whom this book’s title calls “the rebellious Rothschild.” Because it is written by Nica’s great-niece, documentary filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, we are treated to rather more Rothschild family politics than we might care about. But in her tale of Nica’s crucial relationship with some of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived, the book is revelatory and unique. – Jeff Simon