I am such miserable thing

If you have any level of interest in Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven north of “idle fancy”, you will doubtless be fascinated by the huge amount of material by and about her which can be found online. The University of Maryland, particularly, holds an invaluable archive of the “Dada Baroness” (born on this day in 1874), including drafts of her autobiography – both in her own distinctive upper case handwriting and typescript – which was subsequently reworked by Djuna Barnes.

I’ve only scratched the surface but there are already some amazing treasures here, including dozens of poems in Elsa’s hand as well as a large amount of correspondence. Most of the letters date from the mid-1920s when the baroness had returned to Europe from New York and found herself on an unremitting downward spiral which only ended with her death in 1927. She sold newspapers in Berlin and was otherwise reliant on the support of friends. In desperate straits she turned to her father-in-law, to Peggy Guggenheim, even to George Bernard Shaw (“BERNARD SHAW – YOU ARE SUCH GREAT THING – I AM SUCH MISERABLE THING – THAT IS ALL I CAN TELL YOU”).

The letters make pretty difficult reading in every sense (deciphering the handwriting, parsing Elsa’s eccentric syntax and then encountering the desolation of her life). For light relief we must go further back, via the University of Manitoba’s archives of materials relating to Felix Paul Greve (Elsa’s second husband, later Frederick Philip Grove), and Elsa herself. This 1910 newspaper clipping is much more the baroness we know and love, finding her and Greve arrested as “suspicious persons” thanks to Elsa’s cross-dressing (although this was frankly at the vanilla end of her sartorial repertoire, as New York would soon discover).



  1. I went to the consulate with a large-wide sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with fifty flaming candles lit – I felt just so spunky and afluent [sic]! In my ear I wore sugar plumes or matchboxes – I forget wich [sic]. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald-painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of gilded porcupine quills – rustling coquettishly – at the consul – with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again – to entrance him. I should have liked to wear gaudy colored rubber boots up to my hips with a ballet skirt of genuine gold paper white [sic] lace paper covering it (to match the cake) – but I couldn’t afford that! I guess that inconsistency in my costume is to blame for my failure to please the officials? from an undated letter to Djuna…

    Body Sweats is just recently published. Elsa is the flash poet of our time.
    The real author of Urinal.
    First marriage to August Endell. Architect of the Hof Elvira Atelier.
    Imagine Elsa on a farm, feeding chickens in Sparta Kentucky.
    The move to Berlin in 27 was the only really stupid thing the Dada Empress ever did.
    Can anyone find the film she made? —“Elsa shaves her pubic hair”
    No one loves Elsa more than me!

    • August Endell was also the architect of the Hackesche Höfe in central Berlin. Just yesterday I was looking at a big slab of a book about his work. I know I always say this, but there’s really a movie going missing here.

      • Have you visited the HH?
        The Hof Elvira is startling and magnifico. There are some great pics online.
        Elsa married an arguably distinguished architect and an equally notorious novelist and then the Baron.
        She chose rather well, I think.
        The lost film I referenced was a collaboration of Man Ray and Duchamp.
        I have been looking for Else schlepping tagenblatts in the Kurfurstendam every time I view old Berlin celluloid.
        Irene Gamell was on a book tour several years back with her Bio of Elsa. I wonder. Did you catch her reading in Berlin?

      • The Hackesche Höfe are more or less unavoidable – heavily touristed but still stunning. And very well restored, which helps. If you’ve seen Wim Wenders’ Far Away, So Close (the mad woman’s breakfast of a sequel to Wings of Desire) the trapeze scenes where were shot there (pre-restoration).

        I wasn’t really aware of the baroness when that book came out so I missed it at the time. A friend of mine translated the German version.

  2. I have had that manuscript saved to look at for so long, but I just can’t get through it. Maybe I should toss aside sobriety the next time I try.

    John, I don’t even want to try Googling “Elsa shaves her pubic hair.” But good luck to you in finding that, ha.

  3. I would imagine that trim job would be like thrashing through a Babylonian rain forest with a Macormick reaper.
    Deep in the bowels of the UFA archives, on the same shelf with Leni Riefenstahl’s bio-pic of Simone Weil, these two never released epics wait to be discovered.

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