Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pannonica Rothschild

Recently I read an article about a mother goat that adopted an abandoned wolf cub and raised it in China. The wolf is now three years old and the owner of the farm is going to release it into the wild because he doesn't want to keep it in captivity forever. The goat and the wolf are apparently inseparable and rely on each other like family. It's sad to think about their imminent separation but it’s fascinating to think about the two of them living together peacefully for so long.

I've been thinking a lot about relationships and how we formulate and nurture them. Not just romantic relationships, but all kinds. Family, friendship, and love. What does it take to bring two people together and keep them together? What are our motivations? I've been so lucky in life to have great relationships with the people I am surrounded by that I worry that I have neglectfully taken them for granted. My fear is that I haven't thought enough about what it is I am providing to keep my friends and family around. The story about the goat and the wolf however, has made me wonder that maybe thinking too much about what keeps us bonded is ultimately what could tear us apart. If they realized that they were supposed to be natural enemies on opposite sides of the food chain, what would happen? The wolf would probably eat the goat. Or the goat would never have cared for the wolf cub.  Their story is simply about love and care, two of the necessities that keep any relationship afloat.

In regards to my family and closest friends, even though I am very different from each person, we are so in love there is no way anything could come between us. While it's certainly not always easy to relate to one another, we make it a priority to stay connected.  Losing any of them would be unbearable so we all put in the work to stay together. These great relationships have helped me avoid ones that are harmful for the most part.

I am beginning to see that when I examine the qualities I value in my family and friends, they are greatly different than what I use to determine my compatibility with guys. When I meet a new guy, I only focus on the differences and how they just won't work with me. Or I overlook a lot of things that I wouldn't tolerate in a friendship because they have something about them that I think I am lacking. I hate writing it out, but my motivation for finding a guy seems to come more from a need for validation than mutual affection or emotional reciprocation. It's sort of an unbearable realization because I obviously don't want to be that person. And why am I that way? We have a lot of gender and community rules that list the types of traits that should be present in who we partner with. Some like to say they are “natural”, but doesn’t the story of the wolf and goat suggest that nature isn’t king? It’s more about what you "look" like with that person than what that person actually is about sometimes. (By "look", I mean physically, economically, and socially.)

I'm a bit arrogant as far as priding myself in my free spirited, go with the flow attitude when it comes to making friends.  My dating life is so calculated and planned however. When I was in college, I had two long term relationships with two guys who fit exactly what I thought I was looking for. Christian, well-educated, North Parkers, who came from exactly the same background as I did. They weren’t right for me though, which anyone could tell you now. I was able to trick myself for a while after I graduated because I started to date different types of guys. But I really just replaced my original shallow "guy guidelines" with equally misguided ones. They were just dressed up a bit differently. I should be thankful that at least I can develop and maintain real relationships on some level since I know the "shallow thing" is used by a lot of people when they form any type of relationship.  But as a person who wants to continually evolve and grow, I can't settle for this immature rejection of personal standards. How can you retrain your mind to not allow society to write the rules that will determine who you accept into your life?

Pannonica Rothschild was from the billionaire Rothschild family of the United Kingdom. She was born in the early part of the 20th century and her childhood was filled with wealthy eccentricities. She and her siblings were raised by a team of nannies and governess’ that were led by her mother who was ridiculously strict. Her father was a naturalist and their homes contained animals and other species that he collected on his numerous trips. Pannonica was named after a type of moth he had preserved. Her uncle even established a private natural history museum for their use. Life was not typical in anyway. 

Pannonica Moth
Zebra-drawn carriage

Coming from high society, much was expected of the children in terms of carrying on the family legacy. The girls were not encouraged to be more than wives and mothers, which is the path she originally accepted. With every ability to afford a top notch school, Miriam (her sister) and Nica were only given a gentlewoman’s education based on art and etiquette. She ended up marrying a Frenchman named Baron Jules de Koenigswarter and had 5 children with him. Being of Jewish decent, even her family’s prestige and wealth could not protect them from World War II. She lost many relatives to the Holocaust, but was able to save her children by moving to New York City. Her husband became a hero who fought against the Axis in Northern Africa and she herself served the war effort by working for Charles De Gaulle and his Free French Forces.

Her family basically funded the British military’s war effort and yet she still served her countrymen by risking her life for the liberation of Europe. I find her to be remarkably brave and I think it would be hard to come out of that time unchanged. She and her husband separated in the early 50’s and this is when the second part of her life began...

Imagine the scene…it's 1954, in Paris. Nica and her friend, Mary Lou Williams (a jazz pianist and composer) enter the “Salon du Jazz 1954” looking devastatingly elegant. It’s smoky, dark, and exciting. She is newer to the jazz crowd yet everyone in the world knows her name. Thelonious Monk is on his first ever trip to Europe where he is virtually an unknown, starving artist, not yet recognized as a transformative musical genius. They are introduced and almost instantly their lives are changed.

They end up back in New York, and Pannonica becomes a den mother of sorts to Monk and his Jazz cohorts like Dizzie Gillespie and Duke Ellington.  They are still creating and defining their sound.  People (white people) really don’t know what to make of Jazz in general, but Nica is instantly captivated. She goes from club to club, night after night, supporting and encouraging her new found community. She has liberated herself from the monotony of her high society peers. She of course is labeled an outcast. Who has she become? What kind of mother is she? Is this what she left her heroic husband for? A world of seedy night clubs and black men?

What reminded me of Nica and Monk when I came across the story of the goat and wolf, was not that one in particular should be considered the goat and the other the wolf, but each could equally be cast in either role. They both were responsible for nurturing and caring for one another on a certain level, interchanging between the dependant and the provider. It should be stated that theirs was not a story of romance, but of friendship. Monk in fact was married and had children, and Nica became quite close with his wife. She met Monk when she was 41 years old and had spent her entire life up until that point restricted by her wealth, two wars, and her marriage. When she found jazz, a part of her was freed, and she ran with that new found freedom.

Considering the time of their first meeting, it was pretty unheard of for a white woman to befriend a black man, especially one of enormous wealth and status. This was pre-civil rights America and everywhere was significantly segregated, even NYC. They were from different sides of the social world, yet they became soul mates.

Like most artists, he wasn't as well known during his lifetime as he was after his death.  He wasn't wealthy and Pannonica provided a lot of financial support.  She was sort of looked at by most people in her class as a lunatic who frivolously partied with the drug scene.  She originally stayed at the Hotel Stanhope in Manhattan but was forced out after an incident involving the death of musician Charlie Parker.  She then bought a home in New Jersey where she remained for the rest of her life.  There are many rumors including drug use and her neglectful parenting, but none of these appear to be true.  In fact, several of her children resided in her NJ home.  She gave up a lot of benefits her birth name provided her when she befriended Monk, but I think she realized that the rewards for choosing her own life, outweighed the ones she had been born into.

On a trip to Baltimore to perform a week long gig at a club, Nica and Monk were pulled over and detained for Marijuana possession.  Thelonious was beaten and arrested, however, Nica took all legal responsibility.  She knew that she would beat any type of criminal charge and she was correct, although the damage to her reputation was severe.  

There are a lot of indications (but no confirmations) that Thelonious was a drug addicted schizophrenic.  He is remembered, however, as the man responsible for some of the most complex musical compositions of the last century.  He spent the final 6 years of his life living with Nica in her home (which had basically become a "crazy cat lady" palace even though he hated cats). His wife couldn't take care of him with his addictions and mental state.  He and Nica became a part of each other's families.

Pannonica is mostly remembered as the eccentric muse called the "Jazz Baroness" and this is evidenced by the numerous musical pieces, composed by Monk and others, that are titled in her honor.  I would say that she is much more than a muse, a term usually reserved for women who "accessorize" men remembered for greatness.  She was an intelligent patron of the arts who helped legitimize the early years of jazz by garnering interest from others.  She has been an inspiration to me as I set out to deny the social rules that have dictated some of the decisions I have made in my life.  I think about what she "gave up" in order to gain her true happiness, and it reminds me that sometimes defining our lives outside the lines of expectations and rules, can lead to a richer existence.