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An unusual friendship: Nica Rothschild and Thelonious Monk

By Laurie Bennett

December 9, 2009 at 10:00am

They made an unlikely pair.

She was a baroness, descended from one of Europe’s wealthiest families. He was the great-grandson of a slave.

Nica Rothschild’s devotion to jazz great Thelonious Monk began the first time she heard “Round Midnight” in 1951 and endured until her death 37 years later.

Born Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, she later became a baroness through her marriage to Jules de Koenigswarter, French ambassador to the U.S. and Canada. The two divorced in 1956.

She befriended Monk during a European tour, and eventually became not only his patron but his muse.

Thelonious Monk

Their close relationship is detailed in a recent biography by Robin Kelley (Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original) and a documentary (The Jazz Baroness), produced by her great-niece, Hannah Rothschild. The film is currently airing on HBO.

Nica helped support many American jazz musicians, arranging for rehearsal space, transporting them to clubs in her Bentley. Charlie Parker died at her home at New York’s Stanhope Hotel.

But Monk was her soulmate. Over the years, she provided him with a second home in Weehawken, N.J., and ensured that he received medical treatment for physical and mental problems.

Although many have speculated about the nature of their relationship, both Kelley and Hannah Rothschild describe it as a friendship rather than a romance.

Monk died in the arms of his wife, Nellie, in 1982. Nellie and Nica were also friends, collaborating in the care and feeding of Monk.

Yet the two women played distinctly different roles in his life. Kelley writes that Monk once advised a fellow musician who had approached a woman in a club they were playing:

Be sure that you want to have her for a girl or have her for a friend, because if you make love to a girl she ain’t gonna be your friend. Because you can have a friend, like Nica’s my friend, and I wouldn’t touch her. She’s the best friend I ever had.

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