One of the completely forgotten names—but a name well-known among the literati of the 1920’s--is that of The Baroness.
The Mama of Dada was a public event.
She painted her shaved head red. The streets of New York were her theatre and the name of her act was Dada. She wore a tomato-can bra, a bustle with a tailight and a bird cage around her neck with live canaries inside.
Despite her title, the Baroness was no blue-blood.
She was born Else Hildegard Ploetz on July 12, 1874, in Swinemunde on the Baltic Sea, now within Poland’s border but then a part of Germany.
She described her father Adolf as a thick-brained Teuton, but vivacious-quick (even quick tempered, dangerously). She identified more with her mother Ida-Marie, whom she felt had a sweetness and intensity-passionate temperment-only softer than I--kept subdued-regulated by custom-convention.
When she was 18, her mother died of cancer of the uterus and she blamed her father, convinced that the cancer was caused by untreated syphillis Ida-Marie had contracted from Adolf. Her father remarried 3 months after her mother died and in 1892, she ran away from home and moved to Berlin where she lived with her mother’s sister, ‘an old maid devoted to my mother, hence to me,’ and frequented Bohemian theatre circles.
With a small inheritance, she was able to settle near Munich, and take art lessons at the flourishing artists’ colony. There she met architect August Endell, who was already renowned for several Jugendstil buildings. They married in Munich in 1901 and moved to Berlin where Endell designed Wolzogen’s cabaret theatre, the Uberbretti.
Two years later, Elsa left Endell and went off with his friend Felix Paul Greve who went to prison for defauding an aquaintance of 10,000 marks. While in prison, he built the foundation for a career in literary translation. He had already translated much of Oscar Wilde and other ‘decadent’ authors.
In her autobiography, Von-Freytag-Loringhoven wrote that she started writing poetry while waiting for Greve’s release from prison. Turns out that Greve was gay and a slippery character. In 1909, to escape debts, he faked suicide and left for America. Elsa followed later, but he deserted her and headed for Canada where he became Frederick Philip Grove, a novelist.
She headed to Manhattan and within a year was married to an expatriate German baron, Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. Soon after he sailed to Europe to fight in the war and took his own life a few years later, leaving Elsa with only his name.
By the early 1920’s the Baroness became a living legend in Greenwich Village. She posed for artists and appeared in a short film made by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp descriptively titled The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Her excessive love for Duchamp resulted in a number of poems and 2 portraits.
She worked on assemblage sculptures and paintings creating art out of rubbish and refuse she collected from the street.
Often arrested for her revealing costumes and ongoing habit of stealing anything that caught her eye, she ‘leaped from patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration.’
In 2004, a poll of 500 art experts voted Duchamp’s Fountain the most influential modern artwork of the 20th century.
But there always remained the question of who really produced this sculpture?
In 1917, Duchamp wrote to his sister and said, ‘One of my female friends who had adopted the pseudonym Richard Mutt sent me a porcelain urinal as a sculpture. Since there was nothing indecent about it, there was no reason to reject it.’
The strongest candidate was his friend Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and as of this date she is being credited for producing this sculpture and not Duchamp.
When many of her American and French expatriate friends moved to Paris after the First World War, von Freytag-Loringhoven tried desperately to join them. The end for her was sad. Her father had died and disinherited her. Destitute, she sold newspapers on the Kurfurstendamm in the winter of 1923-24 and was more or less a permanent inmate of several insane asylums. She finally got to Paris in 1926, but nothing happened for her there.
She died in her flat asphyxiated by gas left on, deliberately or by accident, by herself or by someone else.
This is the first major English collection of poems by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927) also known as ‘The Baroness’. It was published posthumously in 2011 by MIT Press, edited by biographer Irene Gammel and poet and poetics scholar Suzanne Zelazo.
Body Sweats includes images of the original handwritten manuscripts, themselves as art objects. The poems are organized by theme: love and longing, embodiment, city and consumption, performing nature, philosophical contemplation, death and suicide, aesthetic consciousness, sonic poems, visual poems, as well as a section containing long poems and poetic criticism.
Her delirious verse flabbergasted New Yorkers as much as her flamboyant persona. As a poet, she was profane and playfully obscene, imagining a farting God. With its ragged edges and atonal rhythms, her poetry echoes the noise of the metropolis itself. When she tired of existing words, she created new ones:
phallispistol, spinsterlollipop, kissambushed.
Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven set an example that went well beyond the eccentric divas of the 21st century, including her conceptual descendant, Lady Gaga.