I played piano for the Jazz Baroness, by Frank Richardson

An old axiom of enlisted men was that you didn’t volunteer for anything. Stepping forward a pace in a regimental lineup when a call went out for piano players probably meant you would end up moving the general’s piano down two flights of stairs.
After a year and a half at Fort Belvior (Virginia), many friends in the company were reassigned to various overseas outfits; I suspected soon it would be my turn. For many of us, it was a pretty easy Army life. As a sergeant, I had a Class A pass, which meant that after the Army workday was over, I was free to leave the post, as long as I stood roll call in the morning.
In July of 1944, a warrant officer asked me if I could drive a Jeep, and then if I would be interested in volunteering for an assignment in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). D-Day was just six weeks old, and he told me a special unit was being formed to observe new techniques of warfare in combat situations. Each officer would have an enlisted man assigned to him who would drive him to wherever he wanted to do his observing. The enlisted man would write up the officer’s report and send it back to Washington. I volunteered.
My orders were secret, reading that I was to proceed by ATC (Air Transportation Command) from National Airport in Washington D.C. to London, and from there to the ETO as a chauffeur/secretary to the engineer member of the War Department Observer’s Board (WDOB).
I left Washington National Airport on August 29, 1944 on a four-engine ATC aircraft and flew to New York and then to Gander (Newfoundland). After an all-night flight, we landed in Scotland. After a few hours of rest, I boarded an Air Force C-47 and flew to London. I received orders to fly to Cherbourg (France) on September 2, arriving in Normandy, D-Day + 85.
I was met in Cherbourg and driven to Valogne. I sat in a tent for four days with nothing to do. On one of those nights, I attended an impromptu show put on by Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby who were on their way to USO units from Valogne.
I knew I was in Paris when I saw the Eiffel Tower—twelve days after it had been liberated after four years of German occupation, U.S. and French units were rounding up German deserters and French collaborators. I spent the first night in Paris sleeping on a marble floor in the lobby of a hotel, waking up to find someone had stolen my flashlight. The next day, a Jeep picked me up and drove me to Versailles, where I joined my assigned unit.
Our unit was just getting organized and we began operations; we had offices near the Palace of Versailles and slept in the old horse artillery barracks across from the palace. The nights were beginning to get cold and there was no heat in the barracks, so we slept in our clothes, minus our shoes, wearing our knit hats.
My first trip was with Colonel P, who had been in charge of building the American cemeteries in France following World War I, visiting those cemeteries. We spent a day at the engineering headquarters of the Third Army near Reims.
After two weeks in Versailles, we moved to Paris and took over the Rothschild Mansion at 22 Rue Galilee, about four blocks from the Arc de Triomphe. A German SS Signal outfit had its offices in the mansion during the occupation.
Our executive officer knew I played the piano, so he requisitioned one from somewhere. Soon after we moved in, the Baron and Baroness Koenigswarter moved into the second floor apartment area. They had been in North Africa during the occupation. They had the money and connections to get out of France before the Germans arrived. The Baron was a hero of the French Resistance Movement and was a tank commander in the First Free French Division, which landed in Italy in 1944. The Baron was awarded the Compagnons de le Liberation Medal in June of 1944. The Baron was very busy with his tank unit, and I saw him only briefly.
Enlisted men ate at a restaurant taken over by the U.S. Army on the Rue de Berri about five blocks from our quarters. One night after supper we were sitting around our room and I was playing the piano when we heard a knock on the door. We opened it and the Baroness came in and introduced herself. The Baroness was the daughter of Lord Rothschild of the English branch of the Rothschild bankers and she, along with her brothers and sisters, was born into a life of privilege and honor. Her father was a lepidopterist who discovered a species of butterfly in central Europe known today as Hungary, but was then called Pannonia. He decided to give this name to the butterfly and to his daughter—so she was named Pannonica. She married a young French aristocrat, an officer in the French army, the Baron Jules de Koenigswarter. 0709bt
After hearing me play, she asked me to come to her apartment soon and play more for her. I thought she was kidding.
The Baroness had a brother who was a courier delivering messages to Washington for Winston Churchill. While he was in the United States, he met jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and took lessons from him. His enthusiasm for jazz carried over to his sister, usually called Nica.
A few days later, I went out in the field with Colonel A. He didn’t like sitting in the Jeep doing nothing, so as soon as we got out of town, he would drive and I would handle the map. When we got near a town with an Army installation, we would change back. Our first day, we toured the Verdun battlefields of World War I. We then visited artillery units near the front lines. After about a week, we returned to Paris.
Allied armies were moving so fast that communications had become a problem. The Signal Corps would lay its telephone lines along the side of the roads, often using motorcycles to lay its wire from large wooden spools. You could tell how close you were to the front by looking at the side of the road at the wires; the closer you got to the front, the fewer wires. Frank Mayer, who drove the Infantry Colonel Observer, was always at the front.
Most Jeeps in the forward areas had sandbags placed on their floors to lessen any damage from running over a mine.
After a few days in the field, I came in from supper to find the Baroness standing on the stairway to the second floor. She asked if I would come up and play the piano for her. The piano was a Pleyel Grand, the Steinway of French pianos. As I sat down, she poured me a generous portion of Courvoisier cognac. I played for an hour and somehow got myself downstairs to our quarters. A few days later, there was a repeat performance. She told me that as soon as the war was over, she was going to New York to get in on the jazz scene, and as I found out later, she certainly did.
By this time a new engineer colonel had arrived, and we were on our way to northern France, Belgium and Holland. On our way back to a little town in Belgium one evening, we were delayed by an artillery unit on the move, but stalled for a reason we didn’t know. The road was very narrow. Then the sky got dark and it started to drizzle. We were beyond blackout area, so we only could use the “cat’s eyes” that showed some light through a narrow opening in each headlight. The colonel got out of the Jeep and shielded the flashlight beam through his fingers; we crept around the whole convoy, a vehicle at a time until we reached the front of the column. The lead vehicle had slid into the ditch and the men were having a difficult time getting it out.
This territory had just been cleared of Germans, so we hoped there were no pockets of them around. The Colonel told me to turn on the bright lights and drive as fast as I could back to the village. It was a tense five miles, but we got back, turning our lights out just before we reached the village.
Two nights later, we were coming into Holland and again got caught in the dark. We had to cross a few bridges, probably no more than thirty or forty yards. As we reached the first bridge, the Colonel told me to stop the Jeep and he got out and walked across the bridge, then beckoned me across. I wasn’t too pleased with this arrangement, but we repeated this little drama twice more.
A few minutes later our anti-aircraft began shooting at what I later found out was a German reconnaissance plane that came over every night at about the same time. Our AA would fire rounds at it, but never hit it. A few pieces of shrapnel fell on the slate roofs of houses in the area. The Colonel told me to stop the Jeep, and he got out and went under the eaves of a nearby house. I sat in the Jeep.
Two days after we arrived back in Paris, the Germans mounted the great Bulge offensive, breaking through the American lines where we had been just three days before. When General Atton broke through the German lines at St Lo and the Falaise Gap in August of 1944, his Third Army was going so fast it was running out of gas and supplies. A series of one-way roads was established to carry gas and supplies. This supply line was called the Red Ball Express. As the Battle of the Bulge began, General Eisenhower ordered the Red Ball Express to drop everything and use all of its resource as troop carriers.
Quoting from Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose, “In the first week of battle, Eisenhower was able to move 250,000 men and 50,000 vehicles into the fray…It was also an achievement unprecedented in the history of war. Not even in Vietnam, nor in Desert Storm, was the U.S. Army capable of moving so many men and so much equipment so quickly.”
After the Germans were stopped at the Bulge, things went rather quickly, especially after the Americans captured the Remagen Bridge on the Rhine River.
Back in Paris, the Baron’s sister Odille returned to the mansion at 22 Rue Galilee from North Africa. She was my age and spoke fluent English. We went out to movies and dancing. She was a French aristocrat and told me about her “coming out” party, where she wore elbow length white gloves, dancing to the music of jazz great Django Reinhardt, who played for her party. One night just before the war was over in Europe, four of us went out to a nightclub. I was with Odille and the Baroness was with her escort who was an aide to General DeGaulle; pretty stratospheric for an ex-bank clerk from the U.P.
But even during the war, Paris was still Paris. On our trip back from Belgium in December, we stopped now and then at MP checkpoints to warm ourselves at first in barrels alongside the road. It got pretty cold driving in an open Jeep in December. We arrived in Paris late in the afternoon and that evening I was at the Rainbow Corner Enlisted Men’s Club listening to a concert given by the Glenn Miller Orchestra—that was Paris in the winter of 1944. On May 5, Victory In Europe Day (VE Day), Paris turned on the lights again after four years of blackout. It was a wild city for a week. I was out with my buddies from WDOB the day after when we saw an American twin-engine bomber fly under the arch of the Eiffel Tower.
In June, three of us from the WDOB applied for a six-week summer school to be held in Shrivenham (England). The school would be staffed by American college professors sent over to give the GIs something to do now that the European war was over. All three of us were accepted, so we spent a good portion of the summer in Shrivenham, spending our weekends in London. I was given credit for the classes I took when I registered at NMU in Fall 1946.
In November 1945, I was assigned to Frankfurt (Germany) where I spent three months and returned to the United States in March 1946 with enough points to be discharged.
In 1955, I read in a magazine that jazz great Charlie Parker had died in the apartment of the Baroness Koenigswarter. She had taken him in when he was quite ill and attempted to help him recover. She was living in New York at the Stanhope, a very plush hotel. After his death, they asked her to move. She moved to the Bolivar Hotel and lived there for many years. She had certainly made good on her desire to go to New York and get in on the jazz scene.
The February 24, 1964 issue of Time magazine featured a picture of Thelonius Monk on the cover. The article featured his life in the world of contemporary jazz piano. It also stated that his companion and chauffeur around the New York area was the Baroness Koenigswarter. There was a picture of the Baroness in the article next to her Bentley, standing on the curb holding a bottle of Chivas Regal. Jazz musicians who were in difficulty could call a special telephone number and the Baroness would send her chauffeur to pick up the person and deliver him/her to her apartment. She and the Baron had divorced, and at the time the article appeared in Time, he was the French Ambassador to Peru.
About this time, I was writing some music and I was sure if I contacted her, she would have helped me any way she could. However, I failed to contact her, not really knowing how to go about it. She moved to Weehawken (New Jersey) after she was asked to leave her apartment at the Bolivar Hotel because of the jam sessions that went on there to the early hours. She bought a home in Weehawken with large windows overlooking New York City.
Bud Powell, an excellent pianist, made a recording of “Portrait of Thelonius” and the cover of the recording used a painting by the Baronness. Gigi Gryce wrote “Nica’s Tempo” and Thelonius wrote the song “Pannonica” for her. When Monk became ill, the Baroness offered the top floor of her home to him and his wife, Nellie. They accepted and Monk died there in 1982.
I tried to contact her again in 1990 with the help of a good friend. Ironically, my friend lived in Leonia (New Jersey), which was about six or seven miles from Weehawken. One week after I made my inquiry in 1990, the Baroness de Koenigswarter died at age seventy-four.
More than sixty years later, I read that Christie’s auctioned off her Bentley at the sixth annual auction of exceptional motor cars in Tarrytown (New York) on April 28, 2001. It was known as the “Be-bop Bentley, 1957 Bentley S1 Drophead Coupe, one of thirty-one produced in left-hand drive. She was known as the ‘Jazz Baroness’ because of her friendship and patronage to the world’s jazz greats. She regularly transported many musicians, including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk and others.”
—Frank Richardson
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