Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven
By: Jessica Bruder | Categories: Art, Cusper, HiLo Heroes, Most Visited, Poetry

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!

***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Pablo Neruda and R. Buckminster Fuller.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the Anarcho-Symbolist (1864–73) and Psychonaut (1874–83) Generations.

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Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man.