Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven was born Else Hildegard Ploetz on July 12, 1874, in Swinemunde on the Baltic Sea, in Pommerania (now within Poland's border, but then a part of Germany). She described her father Adolf Julius Wilhelm as a "thick-brained Teuton - but vivacious - quick (even quick-tempered - dangerously)." She identified more with her mother Ida-Marie Ploetz, whom she felt had a "sweetness and intensity - passionate temperament - only softer as I - kept subdued - regulated by custom-convention." She saw her younger sister Charlotte Louise as the practical one in the family: "my sister - was a year younger than I - but a 'sensible nice every-day little person'" (undated letter to Djuna Barnes, ca. 1924). When von Freytag-Loringhoven was eighteen, her mother died of cancer of the uterus. For the rest of her life she would blame her father for her mother's death, convinced that the cancer was caused by untreated syphilis Ida-Marie had contracted from Adolf.
Adolf remarried three months after Ida-Marie's death. Von Freytag-Loringhoven detested her stepmother, and when asked by her father why she declined referring to her new stepmother as "mamma" she told him, "My mamma lay dead in the graveyard by his fault" (Hjartarson and Spettigue, eds., Baroness Elsa, 43). In 1892 she ran away from home and moved to Berlin, where she lived with her mother's sister, "an old maid devoted to my mother, hence to me," and frequented Bohemian theatre circles (43). She knew several members of the exclusive group surrounding the influential poet Stefan George and had a three-year affair (1896-1898) with the German Bohemia's favorite artist, Melchior Lechter. She also had a passionate and rocky relationship with Ernst Hardt, which ended when she found out that Hardt was engaged to a diplomat's daughter in Athens. During her six years in Berlin, she also toured a variety of other cities with the famous "Living Marble Figures" revue of H. de Vries. Following the end of her relationship with Hardt, von Freytag-Loringhoven traveled for almost two years through Italy with the artist Richard Schmitz, with whom she had a platonic relationship.
With a small inheritance, she was able to settle in Dachau, near Munich, and to take art lessons at the flourishing artists' colony there. This was where she met architect August Endell, who was already renowned for several Jugendstil buildings, such as the photo atelier Elvira in Munich and Dr. Gmelin's Sanatorium near Wyk on the Frisian island Föhr. The two were married in Munich in April 1901 and soon after moved to Berlin, where Endell designed Wolzogen's cabaret theater, the Überbrettl. In January 1903, von Freytag-Loringhoven left Endell for his friend Felix Paul Greve. When the three embarked from Hamburg on a trip to Italy, the new couple abandoned Endell in Naples and went on to Palermo, Sicily.
In May 1903 Greve was arrested in Bonn for defrauding Herman Kilian (an acquaintance from Bonn University) of 10,000 marks. While in prison, he built the foundation for a career in literary translation. He had already translated much of Oscar Wilde and other "decadent" authors but now translated living authors like André Gide and H. G. Wells. Von Freytag-Loringhoven later wrote in her autobiography that she started writing poetry while waiting for Greve's release from prison. When Greve was released from prison in June 1904, the couple spent several months in Wollerau, near Zürich. Greve continued to translate literary works and started to write his own material. His first novel, Fanny Essler (1905), was a thinly veiled account of von Freytag-Loringhoven's Bohemian days in Berlin. His second novel, The Master Mason's House (1906), was another thinly veiled account of her life based in part on a piece she had written entitled Story of My Childhood. In her autobiography, von Freytag-Loringhoven describes her involvement in Greve's novels: "They were dictated by me as far as material was concerned - it was my life and persons out of my life - he did the executive part of the business - giving the thing a conventional shape and dress" (Baroness Elsa, 65).
From Wollerau the couple moved on to Paris-Plage, near Étaples on the French Channel Coast, and, by early 1906, they lived in Berlin again. In July 1909, Greve disappeared from Germany after staging his own suicide. Von Freytag-Loringhoven played a part in the faked suicide. On September 17, 1909, she sent a letter to his publishers accusing them of working her late husband to death. He sailed second-class on the brand-new White Star Liner The Megantic from Liverpool to Montreal, where he renamed himself Frederick Phillip Grove. Later, as the Canadian author Frederick Philip Grove, he described staging his death and reinventing himself in his first autobiography, A Search for America (1927). Von Freytag-Loringhoven is not mentioned in this book, but in Grove's first novel of 1925, Settlers of the Marsh, she is the main character in guise of the "bad woman" Clara Vogel.
One year after Greve's disappearance, von Freytag-Loringhoven followed him to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he had relocated. The couple moved from there to Sparta, Kentucky, and operated a small farm. In her autobiography, she attributes the end of their relationship to Greve's fixation on the ideal of virginal womanhood. She later mocked this fixation in the poem "Kinship." He declined to resume sexual relations and left her within a year of their reunion. She was left alone in rural Kentucky with an extremely limited knowledge of English: "I became separated by him - by his suddenly leaving me alone and helpless without even knowing much English then - in the midst of the county of Kentucky in the small farmcountry" (Baroness Elsa, 66). She traveled from Sparta to Cincinnati, where she modeled for artists.
Von Freytag-Loringhoven seems to have moved east through Virginia, and she is known to have posed for artists George Biddle and Charles Sheeler in Philadelphia. There is also evidence that she passed through Akron and/or Cleveland, Ohio. Hart Crane mentions the Akron photographer Herbert Minns, who apparently knew her there long before she was "discovered" by the New York Dada crowd. As her autobiographical account ends around 1904, it is unclear how she made her way to New York. However, it was there she met and married Baron Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven, the black sheep of his illustrious family, in November 1913. Through her marriage to Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven she became a Baroness, but little is known about their relationship. In My Thirty Years' War, Margaret Anderson summarizes von Freytag-Loringhoven's marriage to Leo: "She had come to New York to the Ritz with the late Baron von Loringhoven, who hurried back to Germany at the outbreak of the war and then, not liking war, shot himself - an act which his wife characterized as the bravest of his life" (179).
After Leo's death, von Freytag-Loringhoven resumed modeling at the Ferrer School in Manhattan, where she met several influential artists, including Theresa Bernstein, Sarah Friedman-McPherson, and Man Ray. From 1917 on, she published a fair amount of her mostly Expressionist and sometimes Dada-style poetry in the Little Review, Broom, the Liberator, and transition. She also created "ready made" sculptures and collages from random items she stole or salvaged from the trash. Her most famous "ready made" is the plumbing pipe irreverently called "God" (c. 1917). For a long time "God" was attributed to Morton Schamberg, but in New York Dada 1915-1923, Francis M. Naumann writes, "The use of found objects without alteration, however, and the assembly's sacrilegious title are both qualities more easily associated with the unusual and outlandish penchants of the Baroness than with the sleek machinist aesthetic of Schamberg (who is probably responsible only for taking the photograph)" (171).
By the early 1920s, von Freytag-Loringhoven had become a living legend in Greenwich Village. Often arrested for her revealing costumes and ongoing habit of stealing anything that caught her eye, she "leaped from patrol wagons with such agility that policemen let her go in admiration" (Anderson, 179). She continued to pose for artists, and appeared in a short film made by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp descriptively titled The Baroness Shaves Her Pubic Hair. Her obsessive love for Duchamp resulted in a number of poems (including "Love - Chemical Relationship," which was published in the Little Review in 1918) and two portraits. Her first portrait of Duchamp was a stylized pastel and collage completed in 1919. A second portrait, completed in 1920, was a "ready made" of feathers and other random items loosely arranged on top of a wine glass. Jane Heap described her as "the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada" ("Dada," Little Review, Spring 1922: 46).
When many of her American and French expatriate friends moved to Paris after the First World War, von Freytag-Loringhoven tried desperately to rejoin them. Eventually she returned to Berlin in April 1923 through the help of William Carlos Williams and other acquaintances from her Dada circle - a time when inflation of the German currency was at its worst. Almost immediately she tried to leave Germany for France, which was not an easy thing to accomplish at the time. She was reduced to selling newspapers on a street corner of the Kurfüstendamm in the winter of 1923-1924 and was a more or less permanent inmate of several insane asylums. Her outrageous blackmail attempts and demanding propositions to André Gide, George Bernard Shaw, and perhaps other celebrities for living expenses (and a one-way ticket to Paris) did little to keep her out of trouble. Her notoriously elaborate costumes were not of much help either. In an undated letter to Djuna Barnes, von Freytag-Loringhoven describes an ensemble she wore to the French Embassy in Germany:
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?
Some of the letters she sent to past friends, lovers, and acquaintances were written in the form of poems. "Pity Me" was sent to George Biddle, excerpts of "Purgatory Lilt" translated into German were sent to sculptor Georg Kolbe and former lover Ernst Hardt, and "Tod Eines Schwernöters - Hamlet in America" (a poetic account of Leo von Freytag-Loringhoven's life in America) might have been sent to Leo's father. She also wrote "Puckellonder's sonderbare Geschichte," a scathing poem about the life of August Endell that she most likely sent to him in another attempt to get money.
Three years later, von Freytag-Loringhoven inherited enough money to travel to Paris in May of 1926. Djuna Barnes (who had been her confidante while she was trapped in Berlin) paid the rental fees for her apartment, and she resumed modeling for artists and trying to sell her poetry. But she was severely hampered by her lack of French, and publishing options for English poetry were limited to a few exile journals like transition or Transatlantic. She eked out a meager existence posing at the Montparnasse studios at the Grande Chaumière between 1926 and 1927. In the spring, she came up with a grand plan for her own modeling school to open by August 1927. Requests for financing the school abound in her correspondence from this time, and she frequently described it as her "last dream." Unfortunately, her crucial plan failed, and the majority of poems and aphorisms she had submitted to transition were returned in October 1927.
The true circumstances of von Freytag-Loringhoven's death are still unclear. On December 14, 1927, she died of asphyxiation when the gas in her room at the Rue Barrault was left on overnight. Friends Djuna Barnes and Peggy Guggenheim were not convinced that her death was a suicide. Barnes later referred to her death as "a stupid joke." However, her poems and letters written around this time often mentioned suicide. After her death, von Freytag-Loringhoven's papers fell into Barnes's possession. Beginning in 1932, Barnes attempted to write a biography of von Freytag-Loringhoven (based on a draft of an autobiography and miscellaneous notes and letters she had sent to Barnes), but the project was dropped after a series of false starts. Oberon Press finally published her autobiography in 1992, edited by Paul I. Hjartarson and Douglas O. Spettigue, under the title Baroness Elsa (the same working title Barnes had used for her biography).