Holy Skirts
Rene Steinke
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Holy Skirts
Rene Steinke
Harper Perennial
384 pages
December 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Holy Skirts is a monumental achievement, author Rene Steinke balancing historical fact and fiction to portray the life of Baroness Elsa von Fretag-Loringhoven, the preeminent example of the Dada movement in the New York art scene.

Elsa Ploetz runs away to Berlin from her home in Swinemunde, Germany, after her mother dies in an asylum and the girl is unable to endure a new stepmother. Elsa seeks her fortune in the city, around 1907, where she finds employment on the stage of the Wintergarten Cabaret. Eccentric since childhood, Elsa revels in her sexuality, a favorite of the men who see her onstage and entertain her after hours.

Elsa revels in the blush of youthful sensuality, her body tingling with expectations after each new amorous adventure: "I can never bow before men. I can only fling myself." Indiscriminately drawn to an assortment of males, Elsa believes their false promises and suffers the consequences, unable to control her romantic fancies even in the face of reality. This open-hearted acceptance is simply Elsa's nature and the brilliant Steinke captures this unique womanís personality perfectly.

Elsa is a virago to her first husband, architect August Lydell; he is afraid of what she might absorb of his creative spirit and is finally unable to consummate the marriage. When Elsa marries poet Franz Trove, Lydellís best friend, the pair tours Europe as Trove follows his muse. But when World War I threatens, the couple moves to New York. Living with a dissatisfied husband who eventually abandons her, Elsa continues to pen her own bizarre, eclectic poetry.

By chance, Elsa meets the Baron Joseph von Freytag-Loringhoven, her soul mate. An inveterate gambler, the Baron hopes to redeem his fortune in Germany, and Elsa waits for him in New York. It is there that she makes her mark on the Greenwich Village society of artists and sycophants. Elsa fashions garments from the oddities she discovers when wandering the city streets, assembling outrageous outfits and proclaiming herself an artist/poet. Unafraid to shock the pretentiousness of the Greenwich Village avant-garde, Elsa appears wearing gentlemenís suits or a bustle with a blinking taillight. A friend and confidant of Marcel Duchamp, Elsa is filmed nude by his friend Man Ray.

Inhabiting Elsa to the marrow of her bones, Steinke intuits the thoughts, dreams and motivations of her extraordinary protagonist. In a time of inventions and a rapidly changing society, the Baroness chases fame but instead finds notoriety, a fringe-dweller of dubious repute. From the early years in Germany to the mean streets of New York, Elsa wanders in a poetic fugue in this disturbing portrait of an eccentric and a visionary, a new woman in a new century.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2005

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