Dress-down Friday: Sebastian Droste

Was it a curse or a blessing that German dancer Sebastian Droste was so readily associated with Anita Berber? He’s rarely mentioned outside the context of his relatively brief collaboration with Weimar Berlin’s most notorious performer, and the resolute failure of his post-Berber career might suggest that he was Richard Carpenter to her Karen.

Even before he met Berber, Droste was, like she, better know for what he didn’t wear. Born Willy Knobloch, he took the name of the near-naked saint whose martyrdom he burlesqued on stage. Whether in costume or en civil, he embodied a dark, calculated glamour which drew on the nightmarish visions of contemporary films. His dancing attracted a wide spectrum of opinion, and it is highly likely that his drug intake was the greatest factor in the success or otherwise of a given night’s performance.

Berber and Droste met around the beginning of the 1920s, the decade whose excesses they reflected, exaggerated, grotesque, as if in a funhouse mirror. Sufficiently volatile elements in isolation, the two were combustible in combination. Droste, as much hustler as artist, saw a way to repackage Expressionism and other avant-garde trends in a way that was digestible for the club-hopping bourgeoisie, and the result was the pair’s dances of “vice, horror and ecstasy”.

After the two returned from a tumultuous European tour in 1923 (during which they may or may not have married), Berber the infamous naked dancer had even less to wear when Droste made off with her furs and jewels, cashed them in and fled the country. He dropped anchor in New York like a swishy Nosferatu and tried to seduce the city with his own remix of druggy Weimar dread and an assumed barony.

His countrywoman Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who wore tea spoons as earrings, had left the city earlier that year. The “Baron” made similarly creative use of cutlery as the baroness, as captured by photographer Francis Bruguière. With his dark-ringed eyes – a collaboration between cosmetics and dissolution – the androgynous wraith was an exotic manifestation of Mitteleuropa in the New World. Too exotic, it seems. In May 1925, The New Yorker reported: “The Baron Willy Sebastian Knobloch Droste (creator of dances of Sin, Vice, Horror, Ecstacy, and Death) recently arrived at an exclusive dinner party, perfume and all, without sight of shirt or collar to accompany his Bond Street dress clothes, and discovered the hostess so out of sympathy with this radical departure in attire that he found it best to depart early.”

As the guylinered ghoul tried and failed to raise interest for his film projects, he wrote articles about Jazz Age New York for German newspapers and continued to pen the kind of campy faux-Expressionist poetry he had pioneered with Berber – luridly hued artifice shot through with authentic flashes of comedown terror. One of his poems depicts a fantastical epicene readying himself for the night’s cruising: “He took the powder puff/and powdered his slender thighs…/He dyed his eyebrows/And painted his lips…/Then he put a golden chain around his hips/And he dipped his fingers into rosewater/He put on white, silken socks/And he tied them with golden ribbons/around his shaved legs/And his narrow feet slipped/into soft suede shoes…” There’s still a “dull grey cape” and a beret to go before he’s ready to hit the town, but you get the idea.

Things didn’t quite pan out for the “baron” in New York. He was either too showy or too avant, or some off-putting combination of the two, and soon he was too ill to even mimic the sickly creatures that were his stock in trade. He returned to Germany in 1927 where he died soon after of tuberculosis, which would also claim Anita Berber the following year.

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  1. Stephen Michael Szabo

    Up to your usual standard of excellence, except for one small quibble. It should be “an assumed barony” or “an assumed title of baron”. Baronets are a uniquely British phenomenon, more than a knight, not quite a peer, whose title of “Sir” unlike that of British knights, is hereditary. So one sees “Sir X Y, Bt.” meaning the holder is a baronet.
    – Stephen

  2. Great post on someone I’ve always been intrigued by. My dream is that someday film footage of him and Anita will come to light, but I suppose that shall remain but a dream. In the meantime, this: http://youtu.be/XkODv3zkh40

  3. oh my… how fascinating. your post and thom’s video link

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  6. Humphrey Davies

    More nitpicking: those are sugar tongs in the baroness’s ears, not tea-spoons. And I would hazzard that the spoons in her hat are dessert spoons. And in her day, if you didn’t know the difference….
    That said, your blog is sublime.

  7. Thank you for posting this…I am a burlesque performer and am gathering material for when I portray Droste in an act I am creating!

  8. Reblogged this on Madness Blog and commented:
    This is fantastic. They deserve a movie, play or musical.

  9. Michael

    The darkness, the path of self-destruction, of types like Sebastian seems so fascinating and compelling to me. I also covet his liberation to be totally who he was.

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