Off The Shelf: Holy Skirts by Renee Steinke
Off The Shelf reviews works of literary fiction pulled from the shelves of Jericha’s local libraries, chosen on the basis of title, cover picture, random page sampling, dim recognition of the author’s name, current planetary alignments, whim, degree of boredom, and interest in the subject matter. If the books so chosen turn out to be any good, or interestingly bad, you may encounter them here.
Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven would have approved of the way I discovered her.
Born in 1874, this fabulous mama of Dadaism lived the kind of mad, wild, glorious life that seems essentially impossible today. She was photographed by Man Ray; she was supported by Peggy Guggenheim; her poems appeared alongside the first chapters of Ulysses to be published in the States. There’s a strong chance that she was the one who gave Duchamp the iconic urinal. And yet, in all likelihood you’ve never heard of her – or if you have, only in passing, as a sort of crazy-lady footnote to the Important Artists of the twenties.
Fortunately, in the fall of 2014 I was invited into a strange and seductive (and now-defunct) secret called the Latitude Society, essentially a clandestine art cult hidden in a San Francisco basement. If the Baroness had still been around, she would undoubtedly have been an early member. As it was, although she died in 1927, it was another society member (a woman with red hair down to her knees who shared my passion for Remedios Varo) who first mentioned her to me, and shared with us some of the fabulous, madcap photos the Baroness left behind.
And thank goodness she did, for it was Elsa’s portrait on the cover of René Steinke’s Holy Skirts that first caught my eye. If the library copy hadn’t been displayed on a stand, I might have walked right past it. But there she was: face lit with regal glee, arms flung back like wings, the feather in her leather cap the size of a small scimitar. Who could resist?
Not me, and lucky for us, not René Steinke, who turns out to have crafted a truly imaginative fictionalization of the Baroness’s life and art. (Not that the Baroness made much distinction between the two.) Although Irene Gammel’s biography of the Baroness, Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity: A Cultural Biography, has been very well-received – it’s better-rated on Goodreads than Holy Skirts, and the New York Times was complimentary – there’s something especially alive in the way Steinke imagines Elsa’s inner life. She takes plenty of liberties with the story and the characters, and yet, in her hands Elsa feels complete, not just a curiosity from the past but a full person with her own peculiar and magical patterns of feeling. Even if they’re not really hers, they’re mapped onto the page with a nuance that you just can’t get from a traditional biography.
And this is important, because Elsa is a parade of eccentricities, and by all accounts was not the easiest human in the world to spend time with. Steinke gives you a rich and colorful sense of what it might have been like to be her, and this seems vital: whether she’s strapping a birdcage to her head and marching into the censor’s office to protest a book-burning or inventing wild lies about her family history, you believe in her, in the essential logic that strings her fabulous ideas together like some odd piece of her own found-art jewelry. She springs off the page, as if Steinke had found her hidden in a trunk, a bit dried out but none the worse for wear, and simply breathed some wind back into her.
There are plenty of faults one could find, of course; the major one, for me, is that Steinke focuses so much on Elsa’s husbands (whose names, for reasons still obscure to me, Steinke has changed, though everyone else has kept their actual names) that she never gets around to exploring her later relationships with really interesting women like Djuna Barnes or Peggy Guggenheim. (You can read Elsa’s letters to Peggy Guggenheim online! They are full of poems and wonderfully weird.) Barnes, in particular, who was close enough to the Baroness to be the one to preserve her papers after her death and attempted her first biography, appears only in the background; if I hadn’t researched the Baroness myself I would never have known from the book how vital a role she played in Elsa’s life. I can only assume that Steinke wanted to stay away from Elsa’s later life, where it seems she grew more difficult; as it is, she keeps the question of Elsa’s possibly decaying sanity somewhat open-ended, managing to stay sympathetic without becoming sentimental.
Despite these missed opportunities, however, and despite her emphasis on Elsa’s myriad and mostly hetero lusts, Steinke’s book presents a woman whose stable relationships are all with other women. Some of the figures she depicts, including Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, and Mina Loy, are absolutely real; Sara Albright, a friend of Elsa’s who I’m fairly sure is fictional, is both a well-drawn and sympathetic friend and a chance for Steinke to explore, through Elsa, the theme of female artists undervaluing their work. The character of Mary Dryar might be Katherine Dreier, who eventually become Duchamp’s partner and patron, and who was indeed present at the gatherings held by the Arensbergs where Elsa entertains herself in Holy Skirts.
There’s something particularly marvelous in reading a book about an actual time and an actual art movement – in this case Dadaism – in which the female figures, usually relegated to a background role, come naturally to the fore. The friendships Steinke depicts flesh out the Dadaist scene, usually presented as heavily masculine, with the presence of the women who were actually there. In fact, they felt to me in some ways more present than they actually are – perhaps because I would stop reading to google, say, Jane Heap, and find myself an hour later still buried in Wikipedia articles on women I’d never heard of. All of which penetrated my reading in some way, so that by the end of the book I felt like a whole face of Modernist and Dadaist art had appeared to me that I’d never seen before.
More than anything, however, I felt like I could see Elsa. With biography, often enough you’re looking at someone; to see, really witness someone, you have to be able to imagine what the world looks like from inside them. The NYT article on Gammel’s biography of Elsa concludes, “When Barnes was struggling in the 1930’s to write her biography of the Baroness — she never finished it — a friend [note: it was Emily Coleman] advised her to think of Elsa ”in as detached a way as you possibly can — not as a saint or a madwoman, but as a woman of genius, alone in the world, frantic.” Gammel has taken that advice to heart.” But Steinke has not – if anything, she’s done the opposite, and climbed right into Elsa’s head. There is some saint in there, some madwoman, also, certainly some woman of genius, plenty of frenzy. But there is also a warm and wholly unique delight in the world, longing, desire. It makes me want to put a birdcage on my head and go show up at the censor’s office in a tin-can brassiere. And what better legacy could the Baroness ask than that?