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.
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, New York.
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Elsa had never been like the other girls she knew, modest and squeamish about their bodies. Men seemed to sense this. When she was twelve, the doctor, while examining her, had winked and pinched her breasts, and she had been stunned at the sweet stars of pain there, the moist heat between her legs. She had been infatuated with him for weeks, inventing fevers and asking him about his ornithology prints on the examining-room wall. Then there had been the fisherman's son who met her twice at a certain spot in the woods and, laying her down in the leaves, had let her touch his penis, the little eye with its crumpled pink hood. It amused her the way it stiffened and grew in her hand as if she had commanded it with a spell, and when the semen spilled on her arm, it felt like tears. There was the shy milk boy, whom she took behind the house to a little shed where the shovels and gardening tools were kept, and when she put his hand under her skirt, on her thighs above her stockings, he pushed her up against the tines of a rake, but she did not mind. She had a theory that she simply had more heat in her limbs, more blood than most girls, and sensitive skin (she was also prone to hives and blushes), and so her body's chemistry gave her these pleasures other girls were not so lucky to feel.
At home she had been warned about the sailors who roamed the streets near the marina, that they were dangerous and wily. And so at night she would put on her red chemise and imagine them climbing through her bedroom window, one by one. They would admire her, touch her pale skin, slip a thumb beneath the strap on her shoulder, keeping their voices low so that no one would hear. She fantasized about being kidnapped by a sailor with green eyes and sunburned skin. As he was taking her off to China or India, he would tell her about volcanoes, zebras, and pygmies, about the monkey's brains and grasshoppers he had eaten. The ocean would spread ahead of them in its dark infinity, the moon winking, as he slipped his hand inside the secret spot where her bodice met the chemise. She finally lost her virginity one night on a rowboat with a boy who smelled of salt and grunted into her hair. The boat rocked, and water splashed over them. Afterward she put her hand in the cool sea and, opening her fingers, imagined her virginity floating away like a lock of hair in the waves.
When she stepped off the hot train, after the five-hour ride from Swinemünde to Berlin, she realized she had no idea where to go. It was a gray day in January, the air cold and still. As Elsa wandered the streets, her duffel bag slung over her shoulder, she kept an eye out for landmarks from her earlier visits -- that giant pockmarked door that opened onto a courtyard of discarded wheels, the candy shop with the bonbons like tiny breasts. She looked for the dark cathedral with its low, despairing bells but found herself on a strange street of vegetable carts and stores selling pots and pans.
She was nineteen years old, tall and long-limbed. In a hat that fell low on her brow, she walked with a gangly abruptness that made her skirt appear to stop and then start again suddenly, sweeping the pavement in odd bursts of movement. People rushed past her, their faces pressed into mufflers and coat lapels, and on the street smoky plumes rose up from the horses' nostrils. She had not thought it would be so difficult to find a place to stay the night, having imagined she would stay at the Bristol Hotel, where she had always stayed before with her mother, but now she couldn't find it.
When her fingers turned numb and her nose was running, she hurried into a café, the door's bells clattering after her. Green and red bottles behind the bar gleamed, and the air smelled of licorice. "I need a boardinghouse," she said to the woman.
"Down that way," the woman said, pointing toward the church. "Is Frau Hoffman's. She might have a room."
Elsa went to the address and knocked on the door of a tall, narrow house with pointed eaves.
Elsa had assumed she could survive for a year or more on the money she had brought. She also had her notebook, three books of poetry, an extra dress, her favorite yellow shoes, and that last gift from her mother, which she didn't have a name for yet -- all that she could fit in the bag when she climbed out the window of her bedroom and ran for the train.
She was shocked when Frau Hoffman asked for almost all the money remaining in her purse.
"For the first month's rent." Her loose cheeks flapped like dog ears around her mouth, but her face turned hard when she spoke of money. "And after this, always on the first Friday."
She showed Elsa to a small room with a bed, a dresser, and a chipped washstand. The bedspread was gray with city ash. "You'll share the toilet and bath with the two others on this floor -- they're nice girls, seamstresses."
In the parlor, crowded with dark furniture and black-faced china dolls, Frau Hoffman sat in a chair with a high back like a throne. She took Elsa's money and put it in an envelope that she sealed. "Now, don't tell me where you go at night. If someone comes looking for you, I don't want to have to lie."
Elsa's throat clenched. She had never known a woman as old as Frau Hoffman who did not watch girls, waiting for them to make a mistake. "No one will be looking for me." She tried not to think of her father's threats ...Holy Skirts. Copyright © by Rene Steinke. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.