Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (sometimes also called Else von Freytag-von Loringhoven) (12 July 1874 – 15 December 1927) was a German-born avant-garde, Dadaist artist and poet who worked for several years in Greenwich Village, New York City, United States. Her provocative poetry was published posthumously in 2011 in Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.
Limbswish, ca. 1917-1918
As a neurasthenic, kleptomaniac, man-chasing proto-punk poet and artist, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven left in her wake a ripple that is becoming a rip--one hundred years after she exploded onto the New York art scene. As an agent provocateur within New York’s modernist revolution, "the first American Dada" not only dressed and behaved with purposeful outrageousness, but she set an example that went well beyond the eccentric divas of the twenty-first century, including her conceptual descendant, Lady Gaga.
When my sister began making dresses trimmed with shoehorns and eggbeaters, I told her they were strangely irresistible. She asked, “Have you heard of the BARONESS ELSA VON FREYTAG-LORINGHOVEN?” A German-born provocateur, fashion plate, poet, sexual adventurer, DIY junk sculptor, proto-punk and feminist performance artist, and kleptomaniac who rode her creativity to the edge of madness in the early (1910s) bohemia of Greenwich Village, Von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) out-weirded most of her Dadaist contemporaries. In his Cantos, Ezra Pound wrote that she lived by a “principle of non-acquiescence.” She wore riotous found-object ensembles — including a tomato-can bra, a coal-scuttle hat, ice-cream-spoon earrings, and postage stamps pasted to her cheeks. (Wallace Stevens avoided going south of 14th Street for fear of encountering her, and William Carlos Williams would recall that the Baroness once offered to give him syphilis, insisting it would “free his mind for serious art.”) The Baroness acquired her noble title from her second husband, whom she married in 1913; when war broke out, he returned to his native Germany and subsequently killed himself. Alone in the Village, she modeled for artists and appeared in a brief film by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Her readymade sculptures included the plumbing pipe she called “God.” She wore black lipstick, dyed her shaved scalp purple, and got into fistfights. More than once, upon being arrested, she “leaped from the patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration,” according to Margaret Anderson, who published her poems in The Little Review. The postwar years, spent in Berlin and finally Paris, brought lean times, loneliness, and stints in insane asylums. When the Baroness died of asphyxiation, the gas having been left on in her apartment overnight, Djuna Barnes claimed it wasn’t suicide so much as a “bad joke.” There’s life yet in her poems, battle cries of mad desire:
No spinsterlollypop for me!
Yes! We have no bananas
I got lusting palate
I always eat them…
There’s the vibrator
Coy flappertoy! …
A dozen cocktails, please!
Though neither her works nor her name are instantly recognized in the 21st Century, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was the living embodiment of Dada in her time. There was no division between her life and her art, and both of them shook up the bourgeoisie. Simply by being, she had profound effects on the other Dadaists who knew her: some applauded; some were repulsed; and many came to fear her. Avant-garde publisher Jane Heap (1883-1964) summed her up best by saying that the Baroness was " ... the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada."