Why you should care

This Prussian baroness wrote erotic poetry and mainlined morphine until Nazis took exception to her flair for decadence. 

Baron Heinrich von Puttkamer was dying of pneumonia. As the Prussian noble and high-ranking army officer struggled to draw his last, ragged breaths in the late summer of 1914, the attending physician injected him with morphine to ease his pain. His wife became so hysterical at seeing her beloved husband of 18 years slip away that the doctor gave her a shot of morphine as well. It was far from the first experience with the drug for Baroness von Puttkamer — and it wasn’t the only secret she had kept from her dearly departed spouse.

The baroness was born Gertrud Gunther in Eydtkuhnen, East Prussia, in 1881. Her father was a merchant and her mother a homemaker in the rural village’s small Jewish community. But she rose above her middle-class beginnings in 1900, when she married von Puttkamer, who was 35 years her senior.

Her work was particularly appreciated during the decadent, dissolute years of the Weimar Republic.

Stephen J. Gertz, writer

The aristocratic and wealthy von Puttkamers dated back to 13th-century Pomerania. As baroness, the former Gertrud Gunther dressed in the trendiest fashions from Paris and sashayed through life in the halls of the rich and powerful upper class. From her villa in Grunewald, Germany, she traveled to Paris, Nice and Monte Carlo, where she socialized with European royalty, Hollywood icons, artists and literary stars.

But the baroness had a secret literary and sexual side, which most scholars believe went undetected by her starchy husband. In the same year that Gertrud married the baron, she published her first book of poetry, Auf Kypros. The collection of lesbian-themed erotic verse became a best-seller in Imperial Germany and vaulted her to literary fame — under the pen name Marie-Madeleine, who was a hero to those without a voice, especially in a male-dominated era.

“Her life and work ran contrary to accepted moral and social standards,” says Stephen J. Gertz, who wrote the foreword to Priestess of Morphine: The Lost Writings of Marie-Madeline in the Time of Nazis (edited by Ronald K. Siegel). Contemporary critics derided her poetry as perverse and even brazenly pornographic, but by 1910, Auf Kypros had gone through 52 printings.

In the following 14 years, the baroness published another 28 books, including novels. Just as lesbian love dominated her works at first, morphine started appearing in her writing beginning in 1910. It became the dominant theme after the baron’s death and for the rest of her literary career. “Her work was particularly appreciated during the decadent, dissolute years of the Weimar Republic when alternative sexual behavior and drug use were tolerated — and often celebrated,” says Gertz.

If anything, her writing became even more ecstatic and rapturous after her husband’s death. “She traveled around Europe with a male companion and fellow morphine enthusiast, living in villas in Germany and France,” says Gertz, “completely unknown as the notorious Marie-Madeleine.”

The baroness had maintained her secret identity for more than three decades, but Hitler’s Nazis eventually ferreted her out. The Third Reich wasn’t too keen on Jewish lesbian poets addicted to morphine, and despite her nobility, they wanted to erase her from history. When the Nazis starting burning books, Marie-Madeleine’s were among the first to go into the flames. Her books sold more than 1 million copies during her career, but it’s extremely hard to come by a copy of one today.

It was only because of her respected German family by marriage that the baroness was able to avoid the death camps. (Some von Puttkamers became members of the Nazi Party, including the baroness’ son, in 1932.) The Nazis had her committed to Katzenelnbogen Sanatorium in 1943 under the pretext of curing her morphine addiction. She was kept drugged and oblivious as the Nazis systematically stripped her of wealth and property. She died in her sleep in 1944.

He son, who had been captured by the Allies, returned to Germany in 1951, after his release. He came home to find his mother dead and his inheritance gone. He accused the Nazi doctors of using her addiction as an excuse to confiscate the remainder of her wealth. If not for Siegel’s RKS Library, which seeks to save forgotten tomes of drug literature, the legend of Marie-Madeleine would have faded from history.

“Foiled Sleep,” Marie-Madeleine (1900)

Ah me! I cannot sleep at night;

And when I shut my eyes, forsooth,

I cannot banish from my sight

The vision of her slender youth.

She stands before me lover-wise,

Her naked beauty fair and slim,

She smiles upon me, and her eyes

With over-fierce desire grow dim.

Slowly she leans to me. I meet

The passion of her gaze anew,

And then her laughter, clear and sweet,

Thrills all the hollow silence through.

O, siren, with the mocking tongue!

O, beauty, lily-sweet and white!

I see her, slim and fair and young,

And ah! I cannot sleep at night.

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