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Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Art

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National Book Award Finalist 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 National Book Award Finalist 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.


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National Book Award Finalist 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 National Book Award Finalist 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.

30 review for Holy Skirts: A Novel of a Flamboyant Woman Who Risked All for Art

  1. 4 out of 5

    Scot

    I happened upon this book by chance. I had half an hour to kill while waiting for a bus and noticed the unusual cover, which seemed ugly to me. The title suggested a chick lit book, but when I quickly perused the back cover, I discovered it was historical fiction about one of the most colorful characters in the avant garde artistic circles of Greenwich Village's bohemian counterculture just before and during World War I. That intrigued me. Although the author takes a lot of literary license, the I happened upon this book by chance. I had half an hour to kill while waiting for a bus and noticed the unusual cover, which seemed ugly to me. The title suggested a chick lit book, but when I quickly perused the back cover, I discovered it was historical fiction about one of the most colorful characters in the avant garde artistic circles of Greenwich Village's bohemian counterculture just before and during World War I. That intrigued me. Although the author takes a lot of literary license, the main character, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhaven, truly existed, as did most of the supporting characters around her. During this novel she sleeps with Marchel Duchamp, poses for Man Ray, writes poetry for the acclaimed Little Review, and shocks conventional society with her revolutionary clothes-as-art. The poetry presented here is either her actual work or closely modeled on it--and I have to say, it's quite good. Sort of Emily Dickinson mixed with advertising jingles, with sensuality and the Modernist cult of the artist overlay. I think the author catches the spirit of bohemia quite well. (Anyone know the musical number performed by the group around the Stammtisch in the musical Rent, "La Vie Boheme"? It conveys the same sense of bravura, celebration of artistic vision, and deviant independence.) The baroness is a tragic figure, plagued by slowly debilitating illnesses, mental and physical, inherited from (and due to the sins of?) her parents. Nevertheless, she is courageous in her determination to celebrate art for art's sake, the rights of women, the joy of sex, the energy of Dada. She starts out as an exotic model in Berlin, works her way through three unusual husbands (getting the title from the last one), and finds her niche pulling pranks and creating art in Greenwich Village. She lives life on the edge--in poverty, with thieves, whores, addicts, homosexuals, anarchists, longshoremen, and artistes. Fans of Dada should enjoy this book. It made me curious to know more about the real woman, and I discovered that the University of Maryland has a digital library of her work online that's easy to browse.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kiki von Cougar

    This is my new favorite novel. Rene Steinke's prose is lush and decadent, and perfectly matched for her subject, one of the most interesting (and overlooked) artistic personalities of the 20th century. I may review in more detail at a later date, but now let me summarize by saying that this book made me want to be the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven when I grow up. (Minus the syphilis, I suppose.) This is my new favorite novel. Rene Steinke's prose is lush and decadent, and perfectly matched for her subject, one of the most interesting (and overlooked) artistic personalities of the 20th century. I may review in more detail at a later date, but now let me summarize by saying that this book made me want to be the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven when I grow up. (Minus the syphilis, I suppose.)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    I read about half this book then decided not to waste any more time on it. For one thing, in the appendix, Steinke credits Irene Gammell with "a recent, excellent biography of VonFreytag-Lovinghoven." Then why in the world is the book club reading this fictional bio? Having read some excellent biographies lately I think these fictional ones are really not my cup of tea. So I am also finally consigning Vidal's fictional bio of Aaron Burr to the scrap heap and will read Fallen Founder instead. I read about half this book then decided not to waste any more time on it. For one thing, in the appendix, Steinke credits Irene Gammell with "a recent, excellent biography of VonFreytag-Lovinghoven." Then why in the world is the book club reading this fictional bio? Having read some excellent biographies lately I think these fictional ones are really not my cup of tea. So I am also finally consigning Vidal's fictional bio of Aaron Burr to the scrap heap and will read Fallen Founder instead.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bess

    Occasionally embellished, very well-written narrative biography of a really interesting, gutsy young woman with a tragic past who came to NYC from Germany and started over from scratch as an artist/writer/bohemian. Every single gal trying to "get back to herself" should read it. Occasionally embellished, very well-written narrative biography of a really interesting, gutsy young woman with a tragic past who came to NYC from Germany and started over from scratch as an artist/writer/bohemian. Every single gal trying to "get back to herself" should read it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    It’s been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as I did this one. It is colorful and sad and sexy and feminist and dramatic and beautifully written. I actually wrote lines from this book down to remember them. I love Elsa and I love this book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    karen melander

    Loved this outrageous book. It gives a feeling for the Dada world of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century. Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp make appearances.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Mo

    I found this book while browsing at my local library. It was on the “recommended” shelf, I thought the cover looked interesting, and I decided to give it a try. The book jacket describes the book this way: In a beautifully written novel, Rene 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 crea I found this book while browsing at my local library. It was on the “recommended” shelf, I thought the cover looked interesting, and I decided to give it a try. The book jacket describes the book this way: In a beautifully written novel, Rene 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 an exploration of the world in which the modern woman was born, and a testament to the lost bohemia. I think the writing on the book jacket may have been better than that found in the book. I also think the blurb here on GoodReads is a more accurate depiction. I read this passage on page 54, and decided the book was not for me. ”I would like to hit you with this.” In the lamplight he held a switch of branches. “You’ve embarrassed me.” Elsa turned on her stomach, thinking that the little cake would never have the sex sense to indulge Mello in all the ways she had. “Yes, but don’t hurt me.” “You would like me to, wouldn’t you?” he said. This was one practice that she’d heard about but had not experienced, “the delights of the birch.” The pain, she thought, would enliven the nerves to ecstasy. The branch came crashing down, and she lost her breath. Actually, this book might be of interest to fans of the movie “Cabaret” (it has that "vibe"), but holds none for me.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven: a fierce femme before her time: "She wanted to wear something witty, something extravagant to this Arensberg salon. But she was exhausted with mere prettiness, weighed down by knowing that it would only become more and more difficult to achieve, and she hated feeling the effort in herself. Besides, prettiness at these salons was trite, and she wanted to put her femaleness to more potent ends. She wanted to inspire questions, to entertain, challenge. She spen Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven: a fierce femme before her time: "She wanted to wear something witty, something extravagant to this Arensberg salon. But she was exhausted with mere prettiness, weighed down by knowing that it would only become more and more difficult to achieve, and she hated feeling the effort in herself. Besides, prettiness at these salons was trite, and she wanted to put her femaleness to more potent ends. She wanted to inspire questions, to entertain, challenge. She spent a few days creating the ensemble. Out of the black silk evening dress she had ripped that night last year in the elevator with Josef, she has sewn a skirt, but she needed something electrical. She found the taillight on the curb, and it took her only a few hours to figure out the mechanics of it- she had learned something from Josef's doomed inventions. At the top of the high bustle, she attached the taillight, which flashed when she squeezed the lever in her pocket -like visual insight. On the night of the party she wore the skirt with a petticoat underneath made from pieces of old lampshades. She tied the wide red ribbon over her breasts, midriff, and shoulders, winding them into a tight mummy bodice. Around her neck she wore a silver tea capsule filled with pieces of [her dog's] shed fur, which peeked elegantly through the silver holes. By the time Sara arrived to pick her up, she had stuck a postage-stamp beauty mark on her cheek for extra spunk."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Baroness Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven was a flamboyant poet and performance artist who openly flaunted conventional norms and did so when that type of behavior caused scandals. This is a fictionalized account of her life, based on the scant source material that exists. A little bit crazy and a little bit genius converged in this woman who lived on the edge of poverty in Greenwich Village in the early years of the twentieth century. A companion of Marcel Duchamp and a model for various artists, inclu Baroness Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven was a flamboyant poet and performance artist who openly flaunted conventional norms and did so when that type of behavior caused scandals. This is a fictionalized account of her life, based on the scant source material that exists. A little bit crazy and a little bit genius converged in this woman who lived on the edge of poverty in Greenwich Village in the early years of the twentieth century. A companion of Marcel Duchamp and a model for various artists, including Man Ray, the Baroness wrote outlandish poetry that foreshadowed the beat poets and those who came afterword. The author took some liberties, changing names and compressing the timeline, while remaining somewhat true to the spirit of this larger than life character. One had to feel some sympathy for this thrice married and thrice abandoned woman who eventually died in a hotel room in Paris where she retreated when living in New York became too painful. She was a rare creature who lived for her art and lived her art. This book was well written and kept the reader fully engaged. I find myself wishing her performances had been captured for posterity. Very little of her art, and some of her poetry, has fortunately survived her.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    A fictional retelling of the life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Holy Skirts does an admirable job of presenting a woman ahead of her time. Elsa leaves her home in rural Germany in the 1890s for Berlin, where she becomes a chorus girl or sorts, a disreputable occupation at the time, and meets many artists. Eventually she winds up in New York City, living in the same building as Marcel DuChamp, writing poetry, designing her own outlandish outfits, and becoming part of the Dada circle. A fictional retelling of the life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Holy Skirts does an admirable job of presenting a woman ahead of her time. Elsa leaves her home in rural Germany in the 1890s for Berlin, where she becomes a chorus girl or sorts, a disreputable occupation at the time, and meets many artists. Eventually she winds up in New York City, living in the same building as Marcel DuChamp, writing poetry, designing her own outlandish outfits, and becoming part of the Dada circle. The book drags a bit in some of the earlier sections, but once Elsa hits Greenwich Village the pages will turn rapidly.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

    It was great. A fun fictionalization of the life of a minor figure in art history & the literary avant garde. I have a friend who loves this book so much she dragged out finishing it. I'm ok with endings, though hers was pretty strange and unfortunate. Luckily time has been kind and there are plenty of other books I can read of her work and about her now, as well good biographies of Duchamp and Man Ray and the other crosscurrents of the European and American avant garde in the early 20th century It was great. A fun fictionalization of the life of a minor figure in art history & the literary avant garde. I have a friend who loves this book so much she dragged out finishing it. I'm ok with endings, though hers was pretty strange and unfortunate. Luckily time has been kind and there are plenty of other books I can read of her work and about her now, as well good biographies of Duchamp and Man Ray and the other crosscurrents of the European and American avant garde in the early 20th century in New York City if I like. If only the art world were still as exciting. I guess it's something that only really exists in certain historical moments and makes sense only in hindsight.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Julia Van

    Loved reading about this crazy lady who at one point wears a birdcage on her head! Rene Steinke is such a fine writer. It is only fair to disclose that she was my mentor in FDU's fabulous MFA Creative Writing program. This book is truly an adventure through the life of one very gutsy and eccentric character Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (how's that for a name?)who is not made up but actually existed and who was way ahead of her time. (think Lady GaGa) Entertaining, moving,funny and ripe Loved reading about this crazy lady who at one point wears a birdcage on her head! Rene Steinke is such a fine writer. It is only fair to disclose that she was my mentor in FDU's fabulous MFA Creative Writing program. This book is truly an adventure through the life of one very gutsy and eccentric character Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (how's that for a name?)who is not made up but actually existed and who was way ahead of her time. (think Lady GaGa) Entertaining, moving,funny and ripe with exquisite imagery. A must read!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    This book was beyond poorly written, but I was compelled to finish it in like 2 days because the subject is so fascinating! The Baroness Elsa Von Fragtag-Loringhoven wore bras made of soup cans and was friends with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. She was a sexual libertine, a proto-punk, and a gutter poet. There is another book about her called "Baroness Elsa" which seems much better, so it will soon be on the to-read list. This book was beyond poorly written, but I was compelled to finish it in like 2 days because the subject is so fascinating! The Baroness Elsa Von Fragtag-Loringhoven wore bras made of soup cans and was friends with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. She was a sexual libertine, a proto-punk, and a gutter poet. There is another book about her called "Baroness Elsa" which seems much better, so it will soon be on the to-read list.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Shari

    A fictional rendering of the life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven who was a poet, artist, sexual libertine, model, artist and a truly colorful character. Originally from Germany, she travelled to new York in the early 1900s (WWI era) and lived in Greenwich village. Very interesting book a bout a truly unique and larger than life character – all about sexual, intellectual and personal freedom.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Taylor

    I admire Steinke's effort in how she weaves creative interpretation and historical truth into this fictional bio of the unusual life of the baroness. It's entertaining and well-written, but in the end I say just skip it and go directly to the Irene Gammel biography, "Baroness Elsa." The story of von Freytag-Loringhoven's life is unconventional, tragic, inspiring, flamboyant, etc... all on its own. I admire Steinke's effort in how she weaves creative interpretation and historical truth into this fictional bio of the unusual life of the baroness. It's entertaining and well-written, but in the end I say just skip it and go directly to the Irene Gammel biography, "Baroness Elsa." The story of von Freytag-Loringhoven's life is unconventional, tragic, inspiring, flamboyant, etc... all on its own.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jest

    This is a novel based on the life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag -Loringhoven. The entire time I was reading it I was cringing and thinking: she would hate this. People with an interest in Baroness Elsa or New York Dada would be better off checking out the biography: Baroness Elsa by Irene Gammel. This is a novel based on the life of Baroness Elsa von Freytag -Loringhoven. The entire time I was reading it I was cringing and thinking: she would hate this. People with an interest in Baroness Elsa or New York Dada would be better off checking out the biography: Baroness Elsa by Irene Gammel.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Gabrielle Nowicki

    This fascinating book is very loosely based on the life of rebel, Dadaist poet, artist's model and friend of Marcel Duchamp, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Elsa's life was cutting edge art and as the story evolves, the reader becomes more uncertain where creativity ends and insanity begins. Her life was as tragic as it was colourful. This fascinating book is very loosely based on the life of rebel, Dadaist poet, artist's model and friend of Marcel Duchamp, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Elsa's life was cutting edge art and as the story evolves, the reader becomes more uncertain where creativity ends and insanity begins. Her life was as tragic as it was colourful.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    The narrative structure is extremely conventional for a novel about Dadaism. The only vaguely interesting ideas start happening around the "barber scene"...if you are going to read this, I would start on page 250...or read the first 249 pages as quickly as you can, preferably with a bird cage strapped to your head. The narrative structure is extremely conventional for a novel about Dadaism. The only vaguely interesting ideas start happening around the "barber scene"...if you are going to read this, I would start on page 250...or read the first 249 pages as quickly as you can, preferably with a bird cage strapped to your head.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Kaity

    The Baroness was quite a saucy dame, to say the least. And this was a book I had trouble putting down, what with all the syphillus and drug use and art-making. It was like being in college agian, but with more perspective. I think this was the perfect book for me to kick off summer reading, and hopefully, to inspire me to be a little more passionate about art.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Celia Montgomery

    Loved it. This is a visceral read. Sexy, harrowing. I felt certain scenes physically - the cold weather in Greenwich Village, the dirtiness of a Berlin cabaret. The Baroness is such a captivating sympathetic character. Her outrageous adventures are described so vividly that I felt I was almost living her life.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jeff

    The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is brought to vivid life in Steinke's well-researched, well-written biographical novel. The Baroness was a vibrantly eccentric women who was, herself, a living piece of art & truly ahead of her time. The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is brought to vivid life in Steinke's well-researched, well-written biographical novel. The Baroness was a vibrantly eccentric women who was, herself, a living piece of art & truly ahead of her time.

  22. 5 out of 5

    terry

    i stopped reading 20 pages before i wouldve finished the book... it starts off wonderfully, but as the character begins to unravel, so does the book... overall a good read. love at first sight, and then i lost interest...

  23. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Febos

    I liked this; Steinke is a good writer, but something about the character was difficult to get attached to; I identified somewhat and was interested in, but didn't like her, and, more importantly, couldn't muster up much sympathy for her. I liked this; Steinke is a good writer, but something about the character was difficult to get attached to; I identified somewhat and was interested in, but didn't like her, and, more importantly, couldn't muster up much sympathy for her.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Allison

    Well, I got about 200 pages in before I decided to put this one aside. I think I would prefer a less first-person take on the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. I found it less on the eccentric side - more on the long-winded side.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Queen Reese

    A beautiful story of a passionate and eccentric woman, right up my alley! I loved that the writing was colorful enough for me to picture it vividly, but not so much that it distracted from the the pace and plot.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Laura Obscura

    I loved this tale of a woman truly ahead of her time. The artist who snuck into the sex museum in Europe that was forbidden for women to see, and model for Man Ray, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven risked everything for the sake of art. This story has been deeply inspiring for me for years.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Gail

    Didn't love it, but I guess I"m glad I read it. Loved the descriptions of early 20th century Berlin and NY. Made me think in a new way about artists and the artistic temperament. Also made me want to read more about this period of time in history. Didn't love it, but I guess I"m glad I read it. Loved the descriptions of early 20th century Berlin and NY. Made me think in a new way about artists and the artistic temperament. Also made me want to read more about this period of time in history.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Roztheoz

    Fascinating book - funny and sad in the same breath. Great read! Rene Steinke says that this "s a fictional reimaging of the life of Baroness Elsa von Feytag-loringhoven" Refer to http://renownedart.com/artist.php?a=E... for some facts about the Baroness Fascinating book - funny and sad in the same breath. Great read! Rene Steinke says that this "s a fictional reimaging of the life of Baroness Elsa von Feytag-loringhoven" Refer to http://renownedart.com/artist.php?a=E... for some facts about the Baroness

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bonnie

    Actually, I liked the writing in this book. However, I found the central character so unappealing that I eventually gave up the book without finishing it. I hope I like other books by this author better.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tamara

    Sexy and provacative time piece. Well written.

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