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About the Baroness

The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven wrote her autobiography in the last years of her life, probably in Germany between 1923 and her death in 1927. It mainly focuses on her years before moving to New York in the nineteen-teens. The autobiography affords a fascinating prespective on an artist who not only crosses the Atlantic (multiple times) but crosses perceived boundaries of gender, ethnicity, class, and artistic genre. She was a poet, a performer, a painter, a sculptor, and a critic. During her life, her long-time lover Felix Paul Greve (1879-1948) (better known by the pseudonym he adopted as a Canadian writer and translator, Frederick Philip Grove) wrote two novels based on Freytag-Loringhoven's life: Fanny Essler (1905) and Maurermeister Ihles Haus [The Master Mason's House] (1906). A handful of critical studies have written about the extent to which Grove drew from Freytag-Loringhoven’s life to write his own German and Canadian life writings Fanny Essler (1905), Settlers of the Marsh (1925) and In Search of Myself (1946) (Gammel 1994; Hjartarson 1986; Spettigue 1973; Divay 2005), but the materials underlying these assertions are difficult to access.

Djuna Barnes, who inherited the bulk of the Baroness’s literary papers, always maintained that the Baroness’s life story was significant to an understanding of her art. Consequently, in the letters that the Baroness writes to Djuna from Germany during the years 1923-1927, the Baroness clearly believes that a collection of her poetry, under Barnes’s hand, is imminent and that it depends on her writing the autobiography. Sending Barnes her autobiography written as long letters, however, the Baroness found the task onerous even though, ultimately, necessary: “You desire dates and facts out of my life to place before the public to secure their Sympathy,” the Baroness affirms in an undated letter, “‘in a few words’ – mercifull [sic] heaven and hells bells as well – how that is to be done – with my life – that is about half a dozen lifes [sic] in one [. . .] it will be a heroic deed by me ¬- should I succeed -.” [UMCP] Hank O’Neal details Barnes’s subsequent aborted attempt to produce both the Baroness’s autobiography and a collection of her poetry in the introduction to his “Facsimiles of Barnes’ typed and annotated writings about the life of Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven,” in which he compiles and tries to make sense of Barnes’s writings about the Baroness. Here, O’Neal reveals Barnes’s great desire to meet her promise to the Baroness, to see her friend’s poetry published, and Barnes’s ultimate failure due to do so because of what O’Neal calls Barnes’s “noncommittal” work habits (Barnes 4). O’Neal tried himself to see a collection of the Baroness’s poetry in publication for Barnes, going so far as to finish typing what remained untyped and finding a publisher, but Barnes never wrote the introduction she said she would give him and he subsequently lost track of the project. O’Neal calls the fruitless efforts the result of “Elsa’s curse” (7).

Paul I. Hjartarson and Douglas O. Spettigue, edited the autobiography and titled it Baroness Elsa (Oberon 1992), which was the same title Barnes used for her holograph.