German avant-garde artist Elsa Hildegard Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven was as flamboyant and imaginative as her name.
Born Elsa Plötz in 1874 near the Baltic Sea, she spent her adolescence studying and working as an actor and vaudevillian. She left home for Berlin at age 18, shortly her mother passed away—and her father abruptly remarried a woman she despised. In the city Plötz immersed in the Bohemian theater crowd and charmed several known artists, with whom she had affairs. She entered an open marriage in 1901 with architect August Endell, but soon fell for his friend, poet and translator Felix Paul Greve, whom she divorced Endell to marry instead. Greve was a huckster, imprisoned in 1903 for fraud. He even staged a suicide in 1909 to shirk his debts and flee to the States—with Elsa’s help. The two of them set up shop on a small farm in Kentucky until Greve upped and left her, too. Elsa headed east, working as an artists’ model along the way, and ultimately landed in New York City’s Greenwich Village where the Dadaists embraced her. Here she met husband number three, German-born Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. Unfortunately, this 1913 marriage was also short-lived: on a trip to Germany, the Baron saw the reality of World War I, and abruptly shot and killed himself.
The newly minted Baroness resumed modeling for artists, including Man Ray and Theresa Bernstein, but also produced art of her own. She wrote expressionistic and Dadaist poems, some of which appeared in The Little Review and other venues, and was an early practitioner of sound poetry. She painted and made sculptures from salvaged trash, most famously the plumbing pipe she titled “God”. The Baroness developed relationships with several of her contemporaries, including Berenice Abbott, Marcel Duchamp, and William Carlos Williams, in whose circles she was something of a legend—as much for her art, as for her antics. The Baroness was regularly arrested for her scanty outfits (think soup-can brassiere)—and petty theft, and even appeared in a short film produced by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp entitled “The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair.”
Many of the Baroness’ expatriate friends left for Paris after the war, and she, too, returned to Germany, assuming she could earn a living there. She was mistaken. Unable to sell her art or even leave the country, her mental health devolved. She spent several bouts in psychiatric wards. In 1926, the Baroness came into a small inheritance and traveled to Paris where, once again, she resumed modeling, but neither that nor her poetry yielded much income. The lively Baroness, so-called queen of American Dada, died by asphyxiation on December 14, 1927, after the gas in her room was left on overnight. Friends, including her agent Djuna Barnes and Peggy Guggenheim, doubted the death was intentional, though the Baroness wrote poems and letters around this time that reference suicide.
Posthumously, her life and work have earned critical attention. The Whitney Museum rediscovered and displayed one of her ready-made creations in 1996, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp. Irene Gammel published a biography, Baroness Elsa, in 2003, and Rene Steinke’s 2005 novel Holy Skirts, a fictionalized account of the Baroness’ life, was a National Book Award finalist. The Barroness’ own writings were compiled and released under the title Body Sweats in 2011. Some now credit her with creating Duchamp’s iconic “Fountain,” arguably one of the most influential artworks of the twentieth century.