Elsa Hildegard Plötz (1874 – 1927) was destined to lead a Dada existence. Born in Germany, she escaped a tumultuous childhood by fleeing to Berlin, where she took up painting, trained as a waitress, and worked as a chorus girl. By 1907 she was married and living in Munich; in 1910 she moved with her husband to a farm in Kentucky. Abandoned a year later, Elsa moved to New York City, marrying Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven (although, presumably, she was still married). Not long after, Leopold committed suicide as a captive during the First World War.
Elsa, now the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, quickly emerged as a notorious denizen of Greenwich Village. Her eccentric dress and outlandish behavior included wearing a coal scuttle on her head, “strapped under her chin like a helmet,” as well as walking the streets with a birdcage on her head, complete with live canary. She decorated her face with postage stamps and tied tomato cans together for a bra. She treated her body as a work of art, and is considered to be among America’s first performance artists.
She became a model for numerous artists, and soon became a regular among the New York Dadaists, chiefly Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Francis Picabia. With Morton Schamberg she fashioned a Dadaist sculpture out of a plumbing trap and, blasphemously titled it God. She also wrote poems, including an amorous tribute to Duchamp that read simply: “Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel.”
A rare extant poem/drawing by Elsa is titled AFFECTIONATE. Interwoven within the abstract, faceted landscape in brown ink, the text reads:
Wheels are growing on rose-bushes
gray and affectionate
O Jonathan – Jonathan – dear
Did some swallow Prendergast’s silverheels –
he drunk forever and more
– with lemon appendicitis
Prendergast no doubt refers to either Charles or Maurice, prominent painters during the early 1920s. The identity of Jonathan is uncertain. Yet the title undoubtedly refers to Duchamp, who generally disliked writing letters, but, when pressed, usually closed them with Affectueusement...
Elsa published AFFECTIONATE, set in regular type, in the winter 1922 edition of the Little Review, edited by Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Francis Picabia and Ezra Pound. Opposite was a photograph of her sculpture Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, an assemblage of feathers and botanical objects within a wine glass.
Finding it nearly impossible to survive in New York City, The Baroness returned to Germany the following year; four years later she died in her sleep, alongside her dogs due to gas asphyxiation. Whether the gas leak was accidental or the act of a sailor she’d picked up from the streets that evening remains unsolved.
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