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Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Art (P.S.)by Rene Steinke
My coworker Adrienne recommended this book to me, and I just gobbled it up whole. It's based on the life of the Baroness Elsa, a mess of a woman who did everything unthinkable, including unabashedly eating the heart out of the American art world. She's not in any art book, yet she lived her life completely as Dada. Typical of all the really juicy female cultural figures, there's not much published about her, so René Steinke's account of her life is a gem of a story. Steinke presents Elsa in a very complicated, human way, not just idolizing and romanticizing her. We experience all the wrong romance choices and paddywagon escapades, and relish in crashing New York art parties and embarassing the fine-art patrons.
Synopses & Reviews
In 1917 no one had ever seen a woman like the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She regally stalked the streets of Greenwich Village wearing a bustle with a flashing taillight, a brassiere made from tomato cans, or a birdcage necklace; declaimed her poems to sailors in beer halls; and enthusiastically modeled in the nude for artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, setting the city ablaze with her antics. Before today's outsized celebrities, there was the Baroness — poet and artist, proto-punk rocker, sexual libertine, fashion avatar, and troublemaker. At the center of the Dadaist circle, the Baroness transformed herself into a living, breathing work of art.
Holy Skirts is a vivid imagining of the Baroness's story. Beginning in 1904, with Elsa's burlesque performance onstage in Berlin's Wintergarten cabaret, the adventures continue across Europe, through turbulent marriages and love affairs, until the Baroness finally lands in New York City, just before America enters the war. As she befriends Greenwich Village artists and writers, she defines herself as a poet, even as she breaks the bonds of female propriety.
In a beautifully written novel, René Steinke paints an exquisite portrait of this woman and her time — an era of cataclysmic change that witnessed brutal war, technological innovation, the rise of urban living, and an irrevocable shift in the lives of women, who, like Elsa, struggled to create their own destinies. Holy Skirts is a celebration of resilience and imagination, anexploration of the world in which the modern woman was born, and a testament to the lost bohemia.
"Literary Review editor Steinke's second novel (after The Fires) is a lively, sympathetic fictionalized account of the true adventures of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a poet, artist's model and friend of Marcel Duchamp whose irrepressible life bordered on the fashionably sordid. Fleeing her burgher home in Swinemnde, Germany, at age 19 for the liberation — and poverty — of Berlin circa 1904, Elsa learns early to lie about her past and dress outrageously (often in male clothing), attracting numerous men who provide entre to high society. Three husbands determine the direction of her life: the first, August, is an effete, hashish-smoking architect; the second, his best friend, Franz, is a charming, tortured poet and con man who brings Elsa to New York only to desert her; and the last is a German baron who gambles away his fortune and abandons her as well. Yet Elsa is an intrepid heroine who continually rises from her own ashes, muscling her way into artists' parties with bon mots and conversation-stopping 'self-apparel pieces.' Reading an account of an interior life that is not entirely fictional and not entirely factual can be disorienting, but Steinke shows palpable admiration and respect for her proto-feminist protagonist. This is an intelligent, spirited work that stimulates interest in the baroness's work and times. Agent, Ira Silverberg at Donadio & Olson. 5-city author tour. (Mar. 15) Forecast: Blurbs from sources as diverse as J.T. Leroy and Phillip Lopate suggest Steinke's range — she deals as confidently with cross-dressing as she does with modernist art history." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Although Skirts' chronological structure is oddly conventional considering its flamboyant protagonist, Steinke's graceful prose adds intimate texture to a woman so cutting-edge that Duchamp called her 'the future.'" Entertainment Weekly
"Steinke has drawn a fully realized character whose Dadaist impulses, even though the filter of time and fiction, still startle." Chicago Tribune
"By evoking both the tactile details of her protagonist's precarious existence and her churning psyche, Steinke is able to embrace and transmute biographical fact, creating a fascinating character within a world-altering milieu, and exploring the dark side of creativity." Booklist
From the talented author of The Fires comes a fascinating novel of art, passion, modernity, and war set in the early years of the 20th century that provides a portrait of the real-life Baroness Elsa of Greenwich Village.
No one in 1917 New York had ever encountered a woman like the Bar-oness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — poet, artist, proto-punk rocker, sexual libertine, fashion avatar, and unrepentant troublemaker. When she wasn't stalking the streets of Greenwich Village wearing a brassiere made from tomato cans, she was enthusiastically declaiming her poems to sailors in beer halls or posing nude for Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp. In an era of brutal war, technological innovation, and cataclysmic change, the Baroness had resolved to create her own destiny — taking the center of the Dadaist circle, breaking every bond of female propriety . . . and transforming herself into a living, breathing work of art.
About the Author
René Steinke is the author of The Fires. She is the editor in chief of The Literary Review and teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in Brooklyn.
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