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Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

 

 

The Dada Baroness-to-be, baptised Else Hildegard Ploetz, used both versions of her first name, i.e. "Else" and "Elsa." "Elsa" clearly evolved as her stage name. The first record we have of it is from 1897 when the new name appears on the list of the cast of an ad hoc theatre troupe, then playing both classic and modern plays at theatres in the German provinces (see Klaus Martens´s essay "Two Glimpses of the Baroness." The Politics of Cultural Mediation. Ed. Paul Hjartarson, Tracy Kulba. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2003). Apparently the name "Elsa," with its echoes of Lohengrin's beloved in Wagner's opera, had a good ring to it. It thus appears only logical that she would adopt it again when she resurfaced in New York City as an artist in her own right.


Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, formerly Else Endell,formerly wife of Felix Paul Greve, née Else Ploetz, c. 1920

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, famous as "Dada Queen" and 1918-1923 ubiquitous in the literary scene of New York City, was first identified by Lynn DeVore as FPG's former companion and wife Else Greve whom he had forsaken in rural Kentucky. Modernist poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos have written about her. Some of her work as a poet was published in Margaret Anderson's magazine The Little Review. Paul Hjartarson and D.O. Spettigue first examined her letters and a memoir addressed to the American novelist Djuna Barnes in their research edited and published in 1986 and 1992. Two recent book publications contain excellent new research on the Baroness:

Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa. Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity. A Cultural Biography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002 (xxiv + 535 pp.; ISBN 0-262-07231-9; hc., $39.95).

The most extensive biography and analysis of the Baroness´s art as a poet and sculptor to date. Emphasis is on Elsa´s role as a sexually liberated and liberating member of the Berlin and New York art communities in the heyday of High Modernism.

BOOK REVIEW

Irene Gammel’s new, very well-produced, well-presented and fervently argued "cultural biography" is a seminal work in biography-based Gender Studies. Following other recent examples in the field of Baroness Elsa and F.P. Grove research and biography, the book is packed with information on the cultural contexts in Germany and the U.S.A. The excellently produced volume includes a beautiful set of ninety illustrations, many of them in colour, representing the, to my knowledge, largest collection of art works by and about the Baroness Elsa so far assembled in a book. For this alone, Gammel deserves thanks and recognition in both the literary and the art communities.

Born Else Plötz in Swinemuende (today’s Swinoujscie on the German-Polish border) in 1874, the later “Dada Baroness Elsa” remained a virtual unknown in Germany as the wife, successively, of the - then still not very well-known – Jugendstil architect August Endell (1901) and of the impoverished, incredibly prolific, and influential poet, writer and translator Felix Paul Greve (1907). She followed Greve, who had pretended a suicide in 1909 to escape his crushing load of debt, from Berlin into his new life in the New World in 1910-11, before being left behind, nearly destitute, by Frederick Philip Grove – her husband’s new name - in Kentucky. Somehow working her way to New York via Pittsburgh, she acquired her new trade-mark title by marrying the German Baron von Freytag-Loringhoven, in November 1913. This apparent stroke of good luck in both the love and the money departments, however, soon turned into another economic and existential disaster, since the new husband hurried back to Germany at the outbreak of the Great War, only to commit suicide a short time later.

Else Greve soon styled herself the “Baroness Elsa,” and became probably the most notorious figure among the well-known artists and writers who, after the Armory Show (1913), came to be identified with Modernism as it manifested itself in New York. Publishing a good deal of innovative, multilingual poetry in The Little Review between 1918 and 1923, posing for painters George Biddle and Marcel Duchamp and photographer Man Ray, and producing a number of striking art objects of her own – not least among them her unabashed self-stylization as a self-made work of art – she became known as the "Dada Baroness," sponsored, discussed, despised, laughed at, fought over, remembered and immortalised in their writings, photographs and paintings by some of the other leading figures of High Modernism, among them Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. Using her own body as an art object, she notoriously appeared in public with cancelled postage stamps glued to her cheeks, a coal-scuttle on her head, and metal tea-balls suspended from her nipples. She was both a trial and a daring challenge to the still mostly conventional New York society of her age.

She unwisely returned to Berlin and Germany in 1923, from then on living in even greater poverty, including periods in a poor-house and an insane asylum. She could, of course, not have arrived back in Germany at a worse time, with the country's economy and political system a shambles. Her ill-fated attempt at returning to a former, younger – and, perhaps, happier – existence, to solicit money from her former husband, August Endell, and erstwhile circles of friends and lovers, was a self-delusion, gained her nothing, and only entailed the loss of her newly conquered New York fields of activity.

During this phase of vegetating in the double hell of abject poverty and private and public obscurity, she wrote a strikingly frank (and most incomplete) memoir dealing, in the main, with her life as the companion of Felix Paul Greve, clearly the most important figure in her life, against whose opinions and life-conduct she had, in New York, so violently defined herself and from whose influence as an artist and a male she struggled to escape through her own spectacular work. Finally, in 1925, she contrived to be allowed to leave Germany. She settled among American expatriates in Paris, acting, for a while, as outrageously, as she had in New York. She died there in 1927 under unresolved circumstances, a suicide or a murder-victim. Her epitaph appeared in the respected Paris magazine transition.

Much of this and a good deal more (with the exception of Else’s actual marriage to Greve) had been known since the discovery and gradual part-publication of the Baroness’s fragmental memoirs and letters, found among the Djuna Barnes papers and first published by pioneering Greve / Grove and Freytag-Loringhoven scholars Paul Hjartarson (1986, 1992) and D.O. Spettigue (1973, 1992). Other scholars, Lynn de Vore and Philip Herring among the earliest, have written extensively about the “Dada Baroness” and her outrageous texts and art work, much of which seemed to have been lost or had at least remained unpublished. Initial research into Freytag-Loringhoven’s fascinating life and American career began as a minor appendage to the sensational and very gradual discovery of the German past of the great Canadian writer Frederick Philip Grove (aka Felix Paul Greve). The long work of culturally contextualising Greve/Grove’s life and significant literary careers in Germany and Canada, beginning in earnest about 1972, and the uncovering of the Baroness’s life and career lay more or less in the same hands until Irene Gammel's dissertation on Grove (1992), her several articles on the Baroness and my own German and Canadian books on Grove and his European and Canadian cultural circles, in addition to Richard Cavell's and Paul Hjartarson's recent new essays on the subject. All of these already carried extensive material on the German life and cultural context of Greve/Grove and the later Baroness plus much material from her published and unpublished memoirs and letters.

In her timely new work, Gammel presents, for the first time, a comprehensive contextualization and the first continuous narrative of the Baroness's life and career. It is eminently useful and informative in its many original findings, in spite of the occasional absence of hard biographical detail. In such cases, evocation and conjecture take the place of lacking documentation. Gammel's “cultural biography” of the “Baroness Elsa” makes good use of these and other accepted solutions of the biographer bent on telling a full tale. Naturally, her book includes a good deal of research on the Baroness's life first used elsewhere in the context of Greve/Grove and Baroness Elsa research, including her own previous work. Gammel duly acknowledges these as well as other sources. Finally, she makes good use of the generous support received from the noted New York art historian Francis M. Naumann, whose publications, most importantly his catalogue and exhibition dealing with New York Dada 1915-1923 (1994) gave Freytag-Loringhoven research much support from the art world. Further material and support was given by a German member of the Baroness's family.

As I have pointed out at some length, Gammel's book is part of a significant revival of interest, over the past ten years or so, in early twentieth-century cross-cultural developments, focusing on outstanding mediators of literature and culture. But there is an important difference from the previous work mentioned. Irene Gammel does not present us with a figure less significant than Greve/Grove or with one more curious but peripheral phenomenon, both exotic and erratic, among the predominantly male crowd of modernists in New York. Instead, Gammel sharply turns the tables on those who appear to have largely missed, at least to the extraordinary degree explained in the book under review, the implications of gender and sexuality for the artistic significance justly accorded the striking figure of this flaming latter-day Judith (Greve/Grove's adored head on the platter). Gammel presents us, for the first time in Freytag-Loringhoven studies, with a rounded picture of the Baroness less as spurned lover of better known companions, but as a full-fledged poet and sculptor in her own right and a sexual revolutionary of the first water.

If the Baroness, in her youth in Germany, really indulged in "sex binges," in Gammel's words, if she really may be called a "dangerous gender fuse" that, remaining unlit, "allowed the boundaries between 'sanity' and 'insanity' in modern art to be firmly established" (256), and if we now have to acknowledge a new category in modern art henceforth to be identified as "feminist dada" (256) seems to me one of a few overstatements in a good cause, but they will, like the whole of this immensely readable and challenging book, certainly provide fascinating grounds for discussion and further research.

Klaus Martens

Paul Hjartarson, Tracy Kulba, eds. The Politics of Cultural Mediation. Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Felix Paul Greve. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2003.

(See "Mediation Project" on this website).

A book of six essays on Felix Paul Greve and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven plus a bilingual text of Greve`s booklet Randarabesken zu Oscar Wild, translated by Paul Morris. The book is a joint effort of specialists in the field of FPG and EvFL studies in Canada and Germany: Richard Cavell, Jutta Ernst, Irene Gammel, Paul Hjartarson, Klaus Martens, Paul Morris. A truly intercultural enterprise.

In addition to a full set of copies of the Baroness's letters and memoirs to Djuna Barnes, the Saarbrücken CCAC Archive and Reading Room houses a small store of original research dealing with her German career as Else Ploetz - later the wife of the noted Art Nouveau architect August Endell and the companion and wife of Felix Paul Greve until c. 1912 - covering parts of her career as an actress and apprentice painter in Berlin and Munich. There is also some additional material pertaining to her life with Felix Paul Greve, including testimonials by others. This material is still unprocessed.

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