The German Baroness
Else Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven's German poetry
In her “Autobiography,” written in the 1920s in Europe, Baroness Else von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927) reminisces in an associative and expressive style about the first thirty-five years of her life. Her account provides an exact mirror image of the events described in the 1905 novel Fanny Essler by Felix Paul Greve (1879–1948), but with additional details and observations that benefit from hindsight. Greve’s novel ends with the heroine’s death at the precise moment when she would have been rudely awakened by some terrible revelation about her lover. The real-life event was Greve’s arrest for fraud in Bonn in May 1903. The novel’s transparent intertextual references to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary are confirmed in the Baroness’s autobiography: Greve admired the French author to a point that he wanted to be like him. The Baroness’s narrative goes well beyond the novel’s time frame, and reflects the entire decade she lived with Greve from 1903 to 1911. Unfortunately, she provides little information for the years following, and her voluminous correspondence also offers only a few rare glimpses.
Much of the Baroness’s German poetry in her archives at the University of Maryland Collection complements the details in her autobiography and Greve’s novel. Many of her poems contain dedications to the influential persons described in both texts. But while the 1905 roman-à-clef persiflages the bohemian circle surrounding the poet Stefan George in Berlin and Munich in the 1890s under fake names, Else’s autobiography echoes her experiences in clear text. Her involvement with artist Melchior Lechter in 1896, her stormy affair with writer Ernst Hardt in 1898, her platonic travel through Italy with photographer Richard Schmitz, her May 1900 enrolment in the artists’ colony Dachau near Munich and meeting her first husband August Endell there, their contacts with Karl Wolfskehl, their moving to Berlin in 1901, her “womb-squeeze excursion” to a North Sea sanatorium on the island Föhr where she was treated for hysterical tantrums occasioned by Endell’s impotence, her epistolary romance with dashing dandy Greve which became an openly flaunted affair at Christmas 1902, and the affair’s devastating effect on the doubly betrayed Endell during the trio’s communal boat trip to Palermo: all are described in the Baroness’s narrative without distortions or cosmetic touches.
In the Baroness’s largely unpublished German poems, many are remembered in rather cryptic dedications, like “Tse” (Endell), “Erni” (Hardt), “Marcus” (Behmer), “Jorkan” (R. Schmitz) or “FPG” (Greve). Accordingly, they were filed in folders marked “Unidentified German” until Dr. Beth Alvarez, curator of Literary Manuscripts, instigated a major reorganization in 2001. At that point, they and related snippets of correspondence could be attached to persons from the Baroness’s past, ranging from Behmer to “Dr. Phil” (Wolfskehl). As in her autobiography, Greve takes the lion’s share in the Baroness’s poems. In a note on her poem “Wolkzug,” she evokes Palermo, Greve’s 1903 arrest, and his 1911 abandonment in Kentucky within a year after being reunited. All references to Sparta, Kentucky, or Ohio in her poetry are more or less explicitly linked to this traumatic event, and memories of it appear almost obsessively in her writings.
In her autobiography, the Baroness describes how she composed her first poem “Kornblumen” (Cornflowers) at the tender age of twelve (30). It was so good that her teacher and her own mother accused her of plagiarizing Goethe. The next mention of poetry is related to Greve, who, after some blissful Palermo weeks, had left her involuntarily for the first time: his lavish lifestyle was financed by his student friend Herman Kilian, who lured Greve back to Bonn and had him arrested and sentenced for fraud. During Greve’s year in prison, the Baroness turned to poetry to alleviate her longing for him (92). Seven beautifully crafted poems published by “Fanny Essler” in the journal Die Freistatt in 1904–05 were the result of these lonesome labors.
When the Baroness picked up Greve upon his release in June 1904, he quickly whisked her away first to Wollerau in Switzerland, then in mid-1905 to Paris-Plage, France. This is significant, since these foreign locations are invariably close to, but at a safe distance from, larger cities like Zürich, Paris, or later Cincinnati, where the “wilderness” of Sparta, Kentucky, provided the rural isolation Greve continued to impose on her in 1910–11. In other words, he liked to keep her under lock and key. Even in Berlin, where they lived from 1906 to 1909, he made sure that their social contacts were reduced to a minimum.
In late July 1909, Greve left the Baroness for a second time, this time rather more deliberately. He had just double-sold his latest literary translation, and was facing repeat criminal charges. Greve preferred a hasty retreat to America, leaving a suicide note to make a clean break. More than six weeks passed before the Baroness wrote a hysterical note to Insel publisher Anton Kippenberg. His immediate reply reveals that she held him responsible for her husband’s demise, since he had been overworked, underpaid, and unfairly criticized by the publisher. Though the Baroness initially may have believed that Greve had perished, she eventually must have received word that he was alive and well in New York. Perhaps on his advice, she then made the rounds of Greve’s publishers to extract enough sympathy money to rejoin him in Pittsburgh in June 1910. There she was soon arrested for cross-dressing and smoking in public. According to the New York Times, both she and the “deceased” Greve threatened to complain at the German embassy.
Else Greve is listed as a writer in various German literary dictionaries, yet she seems not to have published anything under her own names Ploetz (maiden name), Endell (as divorcée), or Greve. This last name was however used for two of her lover’s Flaubert translations well before they were married. Her only known contribution is therefore camouflaged under the couple’s joint pseudonym “Fanny Essler” used for the 1904–1905 poetry cycle. Greve had only three other poems published in Germany, as documented in D. O. Spettigue’s seminal 1973 book FPG: The European Years, which documents his capital findings that the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove was in fact the Baroness’s Felix Paul Greve. Greve’s known penchant for pseudonyms — Karl Wolfskehl wittily called him a “pseudologist” — makes it likely that the scandalous pair, singly or combined, marketed further creative products still awaiting discovery. Greve may have published poems called “Lieder eines Irren” (Songs of a Madman, echoing his model Flaubert’s “Mémoires d’un fou”), Grove offered pornography to Canadian publishers under assumed names, and in 1918, the Baroness wished her first poems for The Little Review to appear under the pseudonym Tara Osrik.
Both Grove’s and Spettigue’s papers are held at the University of Manitoba, and until Spettigue could link the Baroness’s autobiography to Greve in the late 1980s, the best proof of FPG’s identity was Greve’s poem “Erster Sturm” (Schaubühne, 1907), which matches the text of Grove’s “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” (The Dying Year, in his own translation). As we shall see, the Baroness had intimate knowledge of her husband’s pet poem with its Nietzschean Fall/Storm/Genius overtones. She artfully incorporated parts of it in poems about their 1910–11 Kentucky experience, which she explicitly dedicated “To FPG.”
From Grove’s autobiographical A Search for America (1927), in which he describes the three years he roamed the United States before coming to Canada in 1912, his year with the Baroness, and indeed the Baroness herself, are conspicuously missing. Both do, however, dominate his first Canadian novel, Settlers of the Marsh (1925). The entire book is a therapeutic exercise in coming to terms with the author’s third and final abandonment of her in 1911, barely a year after the couple had resumed their strained relations on a Kentucky farm. As in the novel, the Baroness reveals that Greve had reverted to his old virgin ideal in her absence, and that he practiced sexual abstinence while absorbed in his Rousseau-like struggle with the soil (“Autobiography,” 92). Their union having always been very physical, this change spelled trouble. She gives a spirited account of her blond and blue-eyed rivals of the “Gretchen” type cast in Goethe’s Faust (“Autobiography” 75). That Grove adhered to that type after he relocated to Canada is amply proved by his choice of a second wife, and by the women he idealized in his autobiographies and the allegorical epic “Konrad, the Builder.” As in the 1925 novel, Greve may very well have longed to kill the Baroness in Sparta, but instead he just meekly left her (“Autobiography,” 72). In her “Wolkzug” note, the Baroness bitterly states that Greve left her destitute in Kentucky, where she hardly spoke English and was considered insane.
This dismal post-Greve condition drove the Baroness to Cincinnati, where her priorities were perforce not of the creative kind. In order to survive, she was posing at the local Art Academy, where most of the faculty were of German-American origin. Frank Duveneck (1848–1919) taught there from 1900 to 1919, and had trained in Munich with Leibl and Diez. He even established a summer school there for “Duveneck boys” like Robert Henri (1865–1929), who was later influential in Philadelphia and New York. The Baroness may have modeled in the nude for both artists in all three American locations. She also appears to have worked as some kind of chorus girl in Cincinnati’s German entertainment district. Her comic poems “Herr peu-à-peu” and “Vernunft” suggest surroundings similar both to her early days in Berlin, when she was on display in DeVry’s famous “living sculptures,” and to her New York posing career after 1914–15.
The Baroness and Leo were married in New York in November 1913, but they could have met in “Cinci, the City of Pork” in 1911–12, where, as an intriguing note by Freytag-Loringhoven’s biographer Djuna Barnes suggests, the Baron may have been “selling beef.” This would account for travels to Mississippi, or to Akron, Ohio, where, according to a letter by Hart Crane, local photographer Harvey Minns claimed to have known the Baroness long before she moved to New York. The Baroness’s poems about domestic life with her third husband may thus reflect a setting in the Midwest rather than in New York’s Ritz hotel.
After Baron Leo went to fight in World War I, the Baroness soon became a notorious model, and again seems to have taken part in theatrical productions. Two Library of Congress photos show her in exotic garb and pose. In one she leans on the Jamaican poet Claude McKay, also in oriental costume. A 1915 article in the New York Times mentions that she posed as “Semiramide, the turbulent queen of the East [in a] painting recently shown here.” A related stage production with an oriental theme (perhaps Rossini’s Semiramis?) could have brought the two together as early as 1915. Their well-documented collaboration on the left-wing journal The Liberator in 1922, when the Baroness published two poems under McKay’s editorship, may therefore have had roots in a longstanding rather than a recent affiliation.
The Baroness’s creative writing career took off in 1918 with The Little Review. Some thirty poems, several of them in German, appeared there over the next seven years. Publications in other journals like The Liberator, Broom, Transition, and Transatlantic are scant, but attest to the Baroness’s association with Peggy Guggenheim, her cousin Harold Loeb, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and other literary notables.
As she had previously done when abandoned by Greve, the Baroness likely resorted to writing her many Kentucky poems about him in Cincinnati, while she was still close in time and space to the scene of his crimes. What matters is that she drew on their old “Fanny Essler” poems to create more powerful, negative “portraits” of Greve. Here is where the Baroness’s clever skills in combining the old and the new come into play. In May 1990, following a lead about Greve’s astounding 1904 “Fanny Essler” plans in Claude Martin’s masterly edition of Gide’s 1904 encounter with Greve, “Conversation with a German,” I found the seven impressive “Fanny Essler” poems. Greve selfishly laid claim to what was in fact a collaboration with the Baroness along the lines of form (his) and content (hers). At least, he gave the Baroness indirect credit by adopting a female pseudonym. This is more than he did with the two novels about her, where his name sits squarely as the author’s on the title page. The Baroness sums up Greve’s exploitation in this way: “It was my life and persons out of my life. He did the executive part of the business, giving the thing the conventional shape and dress” (“Autobiography,” 34).
The new “Fanny Essler” poetry treasure was eagerly incorporated into my then-budding Greve/Grove poetry edition, increasing its German poetry component from six to fourteen poems. Then, in April 1991, during my first visit to the University of Maryland with Gisi von Freytag-Loringhoven, I could identify two directly related poems by the Baroness: “Schalk” draws on “Fanny Essler’s” sonnets, which paint an unflattering “portrait” of Greve in 1904. “Du” (You) is clearly based on “Fanny Essler’s” last two poems inspired by her 1902 “womb-squeeze” excursion. They describe the moody landscape on the North Sea shores, where the lonely “Fanny” laments her lover’s absence (“Husum, Herbst 1902” and “Snow Poem”). “Du” exists in many variants with titles like “Natur,” “Naturbild,” “Natürlich,” or “Freude.” They illustrate nicely how the Baroness usually starts out with a conventionally formed poem, which she reduces in several rounds until she arrives at barebone lists of nouns and adjectives. These she then translates and presents as Dada products. As a side-by-side display shows, “Du” (You) is an early version of the Baroness’s “snow” poems, and corresponds closely to its 1905 equivalent.
Freytag-Loringhoven’s poem “Schalk” is intricately linked to the Baroness’s abandonment in Kentucky. It bears the unique reference “An FPG, Sparta, Kentucky, am Eagle Creek” (To FPG, Sparta, Kentucky, on the Eagle Creek). It exists in even more variants than “Du,” with versions entitled “Herbst,” “Gläsern,” “Verrat,” “October,” “Don Quixote,” or “Ruf.” More variants may have escaped my awareness, especially, if English versions were separated from their German counterparts. For example, the poem “In the Midst” on the University of Maryland’s Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Digital Library site is related to the “Schalk”/”Herbst” cluster, since it concludes with the words “in Sparta, Kentucky.” It also confirms once more that the Baroness, in ever progressively reductive manner, arrives at word lists, which she then offers as modern English expressionist (longer versions) or Dadaist poems (shorter ones). The end results are barely recognizable when compared with the original texts.
The composition history of “Schalk” is far more complex than for “Du.” “Schalk” not only draws on the three central “Fanny Essler” sonnets, but also on Greve’s favorite “Fall”/Herbst poem of 1907. In Grove’s archives it exists both as the manuscript poem “Die Dünen …,” but also as “The Dying Year” in Grove’s own translation.
On the University of Manitoba’s website, the Baroness’s version “Herbst”/Fall has been chosen to illustrate her artful adaptation techniques. In the static and timeless centerpiece of the “Fanny Essler” triptych, three Petrarchan sonnets about his eyes, hands, and mouth presented a mere half-bust of Greve. The Baroness now adds to Greve’s Eye (steely-blue, stanza 2), Mouth (poppy-leaf-shrill, stanza 3), and Hand (chalk-white, murderous, stanza 5) his Thighs (alabaster-dead, stanza 4), his chiseled, Cain-like Face (stanza 6), his Forehead (stanza 7), and his metallic golden Hair (stanza 8), thus transforming with imagery of cold metals, stones, and marbles the “portrait” into a full-length statue. At the pivotal juncture stands his “rigid Heart” (“sein Sonnenherz ist starr,” stanza 8), placing Greve/Fall’s moral inadequacy and essential coldness at eye level with the more superficial physical characteristics. The second half of the poem continues to focus on the destructive effects of his actions, and culminate in “Es ist der Trüger Herbst — der Tod — der Sturm” (It is Crook Fall — Death — Storm, stanza 11).
On the “Schalk” version, the Baroness specifies in a marginal note that the “Herbst is a portrait of FPG,” then goes on with these hyperbolic abstractions: he is “Annihilation” and “Rage” (Vernichtung and Wut, stanza 12), the “Pain of Icy Cold,” an “Executioner” (der Kälte eisig Weh, Henker, stanza 13), and again “Death/Decay” in the seductive guise of a colorful, tropical bird (Tod, stanza 14). With this devastating full-length “portrait” the Baroness triumphs over Grove’s feeble attempts in Settlers to come to grips with his cowardly flight from Sparta, Kentucky. She weaves several layers of biographical details and old poems into entirely new creations. Thus she, who readily admits to an amateurish quality in her early poetry (“Autobiography,” 30), shows that she has achieved full formal mastery in her own right. Moreover, her poems, endowed with amazing powers of expression and supported by pleasing visual configurations, multicolored ink, and a lavish use of hyphens, surpass by far Grove’s entire conventional poetic output.
Greve’s and the Baroness’s 1904–05 “Fanny Essler” poems clearly have an intensity much more akin to her expressive poetry than to his. Her judgment of FPG’s talents hits the mark when she declares that the main characteristics of his 1902 Wanderungen are “utter artificiality,” and then links them to Stefan George’s circle, which Greve tried to emulate at the time: “His poems were as well cut gems of language juggling without blood-call — but the call of an ambitious, industrious spirit […]. The most impressive part about this kind of poetry is paper, print and numbered privacy. It stood for the top-notch of culture” (“Autobiography,” 165 ff.). She also denies Greve the “genius” status he craved, rightly cutting him down to size. He was largely an imitator, and, unbeknownst to her, he would remain one for the rest of his life. As Grove, he never budged from the ossified poetics he had embraced around 1900, and persisted in applying Stefan George’s precious rules, albeit in slightly less pretentious tones. He likewise kept imitating the sober prose style of Flaubert’s symbolic realism he had used as Greve in his first two novels about the Baroness. Already then the Baroness had judged the Fanny Essler novel “abrupt […], dry and artificial, having no carrying power or convincing quality of its own,” and, though she credits FPG with “business genius,” she questions his creative talent: “that was the first time, I think, when the seed of doubt about his genius — at least as artist — was sewn in me” (“Autobiography,” 35). Her later judgment is firmer: “He made, in spite of his intelligence, the mistake of thinking himself an artist. How that is possible I don’t know! He was just the opposite […]. [It] shows an amazing lack of observation, self-analysis and intellect” (34).
The Baroness remembered the 1904/5 “Fanny Essler” complex in poetry and prose for decades. In the 1922–23 issue of Broom, the Baroness’s poem “Circle” appeared alongside a Mexican fresco-like illustration on page 128, while the frontispiece on page 2, completely out of character with this modernist journal published in New York, Rome, and Berlin by Peggy Guggenheim’s cousin Harold Loeb, shows an 1840 lithograph of the romantic dancer Fanny Elssler by G. Leybold. The juxtaposition of the old and the new has a comic effect. This impact is even stronger when, in a 1922 issue of The Little Review, Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp” sculpture, a combination of feathers and metal parts, follows immediately upon Joseph Stella’s traditional sketch with the same title.
In April 1923, when most her friends had either returned or emigrated to Europe, the Baroness came to postwar Berlin at the worst possible inflationary time. Soon, she was reduced to selling newspapers on the Kurfürstendamm, and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Her hilarious narrative poems about former lover Ernst Hardt and former husband Endell stem from this troubled period. Though excellent satires, they are far from a mere squaring of old accounts. When the addressees’ biographies are probed, the poems take on a decidedly sinister shade as blatant blackmail tools. For Hardt, who had been married to the Greek diplomat’s daughter Pollyxena von Hoesslin since 1899, the Baroness’s poem may have occasioned a sudden separation in 1923. For Endell, who married Anna Meyn in 1909 and held a reputable position at the Breslau Art Academy, the toll of her “fun poem” (Spottgedicht) had perhaps even more dire consequences: the very timing of his rapid decline in 1923–24 and a premature death in April 1925 permits this speculation. In a strange letter draft to “Tse” (Endell), the Baroness refers to this very poem, and evokes happier times around 1900, as if she had completely forgotten about her adultery with Greve in late 1902.
Many of the Baroness’s German poems in the University of Maryland Freytag-Loringhoven Collection stem from the Cincinnati and New York days; many more were written in Berlin and Paris in the 1920s. The most Dada-like word columns were likely composed in her European years. At all times, however, she drew on autobiographically inspired and traditionally crafted materials. With her artful adaptations, she met the highest avant-garde standards of the times. Her open-mindedness, her adaptability, and her flexibility make even an aging Baroness truly “modern.” This is more than can be said for most German poets of her generation, who tended to adhere, like FPG/Grove, closely to turn-of-the-century aesthetic lines.
Anderson, Margaret. My Thirty Years’ War. London: Knopf, 1930.
Cohen, George M. A History of American Art. New York: Dell, 1971.
Crane, Hart. Letters of Hart Crane, 1906–1932. New York: Hermitage, 1952.
---. “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp.” Sculpture. Photo in TLR 9, no. 2 (1922): 2. See also F. Naumann’s April 2002 Freytag-Loringhoven Exhibit Catalog, Back Cover. 2002–2003.
Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity—a Cultural Biography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
Gide, André. “Conversation avec un allemand.” Bulletin des amis d’André Gide, edited by Claude Martin, 32 (October 1976): 23–41. See also the bilingual e-edition at the University of Manitoba.
Greve, Felix Paul. “Erster Sturm.” 1907. [Side-by-side with F. P. Grove, “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” Ca. 1928.]
---. Fanny Essler: ein Berliner Roman. Stuttgart: A. Juncker, .
Grove, Frederick Philip. “Die Dünen fliegen auf …” Ca. 1928. [Side-by-side with F. P. Greve, “Erster Sturm,” 1907.]
---. The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove. Edited by D. Pacey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.---. Poems/Gedichte. By/von F. P. Grove, F. P. Greve, and/und “Fanny Essler.” Edited by Gaby Divay. Winnipeg: Wolf-Verlag, 1993.
Hjartarson, Paul. “Of Greve, Grove, and Other Strangers: The Autobiography of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In A Stranger to My Time, by Grove, 269–284. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1986.
---. “The Self, Its Discourse, and the Others: The Autobiographies of Frederick Philip Grove and Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In Reflections: Autobiography and Canadian Literature, edited by K. P. Stich, 115–129. Ottowa: University of Ottowa Press, 1988.
Kippenberg, Anton. Letter to Else Greve, September 21, 1909. In The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove, 550–552. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.
Naumann, Francis M. Conversion to Modernism: The Early Work of Man Ray. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
---. New York Dada, 1915–23. New York: Abrams, 1994.
Reichel, Klaus. Vom Jugendstil zur Sachlichkeit: August Endell, 1871–1925. Dissertation. Bochum, 1974.
Reiss, Robert. “My Baroness: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.” In New York Dada, edited by Naumann, 81–101.
Schüssler, Susanne. Ernst Hardt: eine monographische Studie. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 1994.
Spettigue, D. O. FPG: The European Years. Ottawa: Oberon, 1973.
1. All references to Freytag-Loringhoven’s “Autobiography” are to the 205-page typescript prepared by Djuna Barnes from various manuscript sources. All poems or correspondence addressed also stem from the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven Papers, Literary Manuscripts, University of Maryland, College Park.
8. Much of what is said here about the “Fanny Essler” complex is explored in my Arachne article “Fanny Essler’s Poems: Felix Paul Greve’s or Else von Freytag-Loringhoven’s?”; much about the Baroness’s blackmail poems is covered in my “Abrechnung und Aufarbeitung im Gedicht: Else von Freytag-Loringhoven über drei Männer (E. Hardt, A. Endell, F. P. Greve).”
9. There is yet another biographical layer here: Endell’s only known published poem “Schneetag,” published in Pan 2, no. 3 (1896): 215, is similar to, though more somber than, Else’s “snow poem”: see part 5 of “Fanny Essler’s Poems.”