Baroness Elsa

A Misfit's Misfit

By John Strausbaugh

Greenwich Village in the years before the Great War was a magnet for misfits and outsiders from everywhere. Few were more strikingly odd than the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Everyone in the Village wrote about her (she's Frau Mann, the Duchess of Broadback, in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood), gossiped about her, drew and painted and photographed her. Since the 1990s feminist scholars have been at some pains to renovate her reputation from that of a mere eccentric to a pioneering and neglected artist who played a pivotal role in the dada movement.

The Baroness was very cagey about the facts of her life before she came to the Village. In her 2002 biography Baroness Elsa, literary historian Irene Gammel pieced together a portrait from numerous fragmentary sources. The Baroness married into the title. She was born Else Plötz in 1874 in a small German town. Her father was a master mason and an abusive drunk who drove her mother mad. As a teenager Elsa escaped to Berlin, a vibrant arts scene in the 1890s, where she studied art, cultivated androgynous fashions, posed in flesh-colored tights for racy vaudeville tableaux vivants, was a chorus girl, and threw herself into a whirlwind of sexual relations that left her with syphilis, which may explain some her unhinged behavior later. Exploding on the avant-garde art and literary circles in Berlin and Munich as a model, mistress, and provocateur, she "exploited men financially, physically, and spiritually, and created a great deal of misfortune," an artist who knew her recalled.

She and her second husband, the bisexual writer Felix Paul Greve, friend of Andre Gide and H. G. Wells, lived and traveled on money given him by a former gay lover, who had Greve jailed for a year on fraud charges. On his release he wrote two novels, Fanny Essler and The Master Mason's House, based on Elsa's life. The former was a tell-all roman a clef about her sexual adventures among the esthetes and literati ("very talentless and a bit mean," one of them sniffed), the latter a thinly-veiled narrative of her earlier life. In 1909, to escape crushing debts, they faked his suicide and fled to America, ending up in rural Kentucky, where he abandoned her. He re-emerged in Canada with a new identity, the novelist Frederick Philip Grove, whose background wasn't uncovered until years after his death in 1948.

Elsa meanwhile made her way to New York City, where in 1913 she married the Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was thirty-nine, gave her age as twenty-eight on the marriage license, and concealed the fact that she was still married to Greve. Leo was twenty-eight, a former army officer and fallen scion of a noble Westphalian house. They honeymooned at the Ritz, then he returned to his job as a busboy. When the Great War broke out the following year he sailed for Europe to fight for the Fatherland, but his ship was taken by the French before it reached harbor, and he sat out the war a prisoner. He never fired a shot until 1919, when he put a bullet through his brain.

When the Baroness moved to the Village her behavior became increasingly, often desperately bizarre. Visitors to her tenement hovel on West 14th Street described the filth and stench, with varying numbers of stray dogs and cats prowling among the clutter of objects she brought in from the streets to use in her sculptures and outfits. Some art historians believe that the Baroness's sculptures made of plumbing parts she found on the street were the immediate but uncredited inspiration for Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal piece Fountain.

She also shoplifted from various department stores, resulting in several arrests. As her personal hygiene grew lax, "a reek stood out purple from her body," according to William Carlos Williams.

Over time no arty soiree or bohemian frolic was complete without an appearance by the Baroness in one of her strange getups. When she first walked into the office of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap's Little Review she was wearing a bolero jacket, a kilt, spats, a multitude of dimestore bracelets, two old tea balls hanging from her breasts, and a black tam o' shanter with ice cream spoons dangling from it. On that first visit the chronically impoverished Baroness stole five dollars in stamps. She later stole silverware and raided the Review's mail for subscription payments.

In return, she gave them some of her dadaist poetry to publish. She freely mixed various languages real and invented, private puns, and raw sound to produce work like this lament: 

Narin – Tzarissamanili
(He is dead)
Ildrich mitzdonja – astatootch
Ninj – iffe kniek –
Ninj – iffe kniek!
Arr – karr –
Arrkarr – barr

The Review's readers were violently divided about this work, some hailing the Baroness as an avant-garde genius, others begging the editors to stop printing her indecipherable gibberish.

For hats she wore peach baskets, waste paper baskets and, once, a wedding cake. She attended a costume ball at Webster Hall wearing parrot feather eyelashes and wouldn't leave the stage until she was awarded a prize. She carried small dogs and large sculpted penises as props. At a reception for the British opera diva Marguerite D'Alvarez, she "wore a trailing blue-green dress and a peacock fan," Anderson recalled. "One side of her face was decorated with a canceled postage stamp (two-cent American, pink). Her lips were painted black, her face powder was yellow. She wore the top of a coal scuttle for a hat, strapped on under her chin like a helmet. Two mustard spoons at the side gave the effect of feathers." She greeted the famous coloratura with regal condescension. When D'Alvarez proclaimed that she sang "for humanity," the Baroness loudly scoffed, "I wouldn't lift a leg for humanity!"

Women on the scene tended to admire the Baroness' bold individuality and frank sexuality. The men tended to be traumatized by her feral advances. The artist George Biddle recorded that he fled from her in terror when she tried to kiss him, and the poet Wallace Stevens reputedly wouldn't venture below 14th Street after she made a pass at him. Evidently only Williams, the hunky obstetrician and poet from New Jersey, was man enough to go toe to toe with her. He met her after she was released from the Jefferson Courthouse jail for shoplifting an umbrella. The Baroness conceived a ferocious desire for him, and when he turned her down, she stalked him in print, in New York and in New Jersey, where she physically attacked him. On their next meeting, in Central Park, he punched her in the mouth, knocking her flat on the ground. Police hauled her away. Her heart broken, the Baroness shaved her head and lacquered it vermillion, then "stole the black crepe from the door of a house in mourning and made a dress of it," Anderson recalled. 

The Great War, the Red Scare that accompanied it, and the start of Prohibition all had serious dampening effects on the Village's freewheeling bohemian spirit. By the early 1920s the zeitgeist had moved on to Paris and Berlin, and many notable Villagers followed it. Baroness Elsa left New York bound for Paris in 1923. Very little was heard of her here after that. When she died in 1927, having left the gas on in her room as she went to sleep, it was not clear whether she'd intended suicide or was merely careless.

Published February 27th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.