Elisa von der Recke, née von Medem, was born to a prosperous Baltic German family with estates in Kurland (now Lithuania and Latvia). She was the older half-sister of Duchess Anna Dorothea of Courland. Following the death of her mother, Elisa's early childhood was marked by discipline from a stern and pious grandmother and abuse by a cousin and aunt. At 17, she was married to Georg Peter Magnus von der Recke, an aristocrat 13 years her senior. The marriage was unhappy from the start, and the couple separated five years later and then divorced in 1781. She became part of a circle of European theologians, philosophers, and authors that included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant, and Moses Mendelssohn. Like her sister, she had access to royal courts in Berlin and Warsaw. Her first published work, an exposé of the spiritualist Alessandro Cagliostro, entitled Nachricht von des berühmten Cagliostro Aufenthalt in Mitau im Jahre 1779 und dessen magischen Operationen (Message from the Famous Cagliostro Stay in Jelgava in 1779 and its Magical Operations) was published in 1787 and attracted much attention. She traveled widely and was received as a distinguished writer by many, including Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Elisa von der Recke's other published works included poetry, two plays, travel writing, songs, diaries, an autobiographical essay, and biographical sketches. She lived with Christoph August Tiedge, a fellow writer, and presided over a salon at their home in Dresden.