Helene, Freifrau (Baroness) von Heldburg, was born Ellen Franz, the daughter of a trade school principal. She grew up in Berlin, where it's believed she took piano lessons with composer Hans von Bülow. She became a lifelong friend of his wife Cosima von Bülow, later Cosima Wagner. She also studied acting and made her stage debut in 1867 at the Prussian court theater in Meiningen. As early as 1868, she became the mistress of Duke Georg II of Saxe-Meiningen, who was artistic director of the theater. In 1873, she married the duke as his third wife. She could not share his rank due to her less-than-patrician origins, so he ennobled her as Baroness von Heldburg, the name by which she is known to history. Duke Georg and Helene together made the Meiningen theatre world-famous. Her relationship with Cosima Wagner brought the theater collaborations with Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms.