Two Histories From Imperial Austria

Since I’ve been having a bit of a stress-induced reading slump these last months, I’m trying to motivate by picking up books that I’ve really wanted to read but never seem to get around to. Which brought me to a favorite topic: Empress Elisabeth.

I’ve mentioned before that if you don’t know Sisi already and you’re even slightly interested in weird history, you need to get to know her. I’m not particularly into royal biographies, but trust me, she is a splendidly odd duck and every aspect of her life’s story is so compelling, from her strange personality quirks to the soap operatic drama of her life and close family.

Originally Elisabeth of Bavaria, eventually Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Sisi was the penultimate Hapsburg Empress, consort (and first cousin) of long-ruling Emperor Franz Josef. She grew up on the shores of Lake Starnberg in Bavaria in a very unconventional youth for someone of her station — she was allowed to run wild, ride horses, and even busk, playing music at Bavarian beer gardens with her father.

This freedom did not bode well for her compliance with extremely strict and rigid Viennese court life. Neither did her mental illness: Sisi was almost certainly depressed, anorexic, and plagued by mental problems potentially stemming from her family’s long history of inbreeding.

She died tragically, murdered by an anarchist on the shores of Lake Geneva, cementing her status as a doomed romantic figure.

And this is really just tip-of-the-iceberg. I hadn’t heard of her before living in Vienna and that is a shame. I’ll never understand why she isn’t better known outside Austria (although apparently she’s better recognized in Canada, where the historically very inaccurate Romy Schneider movies are inexplicably popular).

So her story really has it all: the most beautiful woman in the world, afflicted by wanderlust and set amidst the drama of a glittering but crumbling empire, a romantic love story (at least in the beginning), wild eccentricities, pissing off the entire Hapsburg family and Viennese royal court (ironically she’s now emblematic of the city she shunned), wrote poetry (including diss poetry, I kid you not), disguised herself to go to balls and flirt with the regulars, didn’t understand the value of money so you can imagine what she did with it, tied herself to ship’s masts during storms, and sadly suffered from mental torments and erratic behavior, although to be honest even the sadder details make for compelling stories.

Sisi is instantly recognizable for her long hair, said to have reached her feet. In perhaps her most famous portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, her hair is strewn Titania-like with a set of stunning diamond-and-pearl, custom-made stars. Only one of the gems has survived over time, and is displayed at Schönbrunn Palace, the former Hapsburg summer residence, now a museum and park in Vienna.

It rests on a weight-sensitive pillow in a secured case in a locked room covered by cameras and patrolled by security guards. Yet in 1998, Canadian master thief Gerald Blanchard managed to steal the only remaining Sisi star, in a spontaneous heist that involved parachuting onto the palace roof at night in a jump that even master parachutists would’ve hesitated at, replacing it with a gift shop replica.

Mirroring Sisi’s life story, the theft tale itself gets more bizarre at every turn. Historian Jennifer Bowers Bahney alternates chapters of Stealing Sisi’s Star: How a Master Thief Nearly Got Away with Austria’s Most Famous Jewel with biographical scenes of significance from Sisi’s life and Blanchard’s wild background, from his beginnings in crime through his special talents for subterfuge, cons and fakeries, and bank robbery, to his truly astonishing theft of the star.

It’s kind of a highlight reel for both of them; for Sisi probably in the interest of page space, and for Blanchard because despite the audacity of the theft and the staggering extent of his other financial crimes — even the police, when arresting him, were impressed — there’s just not a whole lot to tell beyond the basics.

It did feel like a few details were left out that could’ve enhanced Blanchard’s story, especially since he cooperated with the author, but I enjoyed it for what it was. It’s nonstop entertaining enough: this story really and truly has everything: macabre Hapsburg burial vaults, adult diapers, skydiving, exotic cats, Mark Twain – full of surprises!

Having read two biographies of Sisi, none of the biographical content was new to me but I still found it enjoyable to read and be reminded of. Bahney has a clear, succinct writing style that was perfect for this reading-slump time: informative but well structured and amusing. Especially if unfamiliar with Sisi’s story, this is a great starting place. published 2015 by McFarland & Company

I haven’t even mentioned one of the more shocking elements of Sisi’s bio: the murder-suicide of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, with his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera at Mayerling, his hunting lodge outside of Vienna.

It’s remained shrouded in mystery thanks to the hurried official coverup, including sowing rumors and obfuscations. These were bumbling and clunky but achieved their goal, because even a century later, questions of what actually happened and how still remain.

Historians Greg King and Penny Wilson, using the most up-to-date sources and documents, some of which are surprisingly recent, divide Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs (Macmillan, 2017) into three parts: background of the main players leading up to that pivotal day in January 1889; a clear, chronological accounting of what’s known of the events themselves; and finally, what they believe is the closest approximation of the truth.

This story is so morbidly fascinating in every detail. The tortured Rudolf was known for his amorous liaisons, but I didn’t grasp the extent of it. Did I want to? No, but now I do. An especially wretched recurring case of gonorrhea plagued him and he was almost certainly mentally ill, again perhaps work of the Hapsburg bloodline. His harsh upbringing haunted him too: separated from his mother, traumatized by a tutor, and ignored or overshadowed by his father.

Sisi does not come off looking good. It’s clear from other biographical material that she was a difficult, selfish person, but she usually doesn’t strike me as purposely cruel. Her treatment of her son is portrayed as fairly awful here. Some of that can probably be blamed on her not being allowed to bond with any but her last child, Marie Valerie, as the others were taken from her immediately and raised by her overbearing mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie. But Sisi’s coldness and disregard is obviously a culprit in Rudolf’s depression, among other things.

The authors give beautiful, evocative descriptions that really capture the atmosphere of Vienna itself (especially its gray, gloomy, oppressive winters!) and create a rich portrait of the city in imperial times, including the general uneasiness afoot around the time of the deaths. It’s highly readable, even page-turning, and still feels scandalous after so much time.

Not to make a tragedy into spooky-season material, but it’s also quite chilling and eerie: the saga of what Mary Vetsera’s corpse went through alone is the stuff of horror movies meets Weekend at Bernie’s. If you’re looking for a scary true read, look no further.

The authors avoid speculation as far as possible, relying instead on a wealth of verifiable information to piece this puzzle together and myth-bust previously-held theories, which is why one thing bothered me: their postulation that a final argument between Franz Josef and Rudolf may have been due to (spoiler alert!) Mary possibly being Rudolf’s half-sister.

This would rely on Franz Josef having an affair with Mary’s social-climbing mother, Helene Vetsera. Helene was a calculating manipulator who likely did have an affair with Rudolf and threw her daughter at him — and others — for the social and financial benefits it would bring her, but there was zero evidence, as far as I understood it, for an affair with FJ. I couldn’t believe this was even put forward, unless I really missed something. It sounded to me more like the kind of salacious rumors that have long swirled around this story, and didn’t fit with the authors’ levelheaded analysis and thorough debunking of anything beyond verifiable evidence or logical deduction.

Otherwise, it’s excellently written, spooky, riveting history.

Some photos from my visit to Mayerling years ago (not sure what you can see there now). Franz Josef built a chapel on the site of the former hunting lodge, with the altar morbidly standing over the exact spot where the bed with Rudolf and Mary’s bodies once was.

The woodsy, countryside setting of Mayerling is beautiful, although quiet and eerie.
One of Mary’s coffins (she got moved a lot) showing the damage made by pillaging Soviet soldiers when they robbed the graves of Heiligenkreuz Cemetery looking for valuables at the end of World War II.
They have a blown-up copy of Rudolf’s suicide letter to his wife, Princess Stephanie (bit of a morbid display item, if you ask me), reading: Dear Stephanie, You are now freed from my presence and nuisance; be happy in your own way. Take care of the poor little one, she is all that remains of me.

Any good Hapsburg-era histories you can recommend?

15 thoughts on “Two Histories From Imperial Austria

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  1. As soon as read “Sisi” I thought Romy Schneider and Alain Delon! That’s the extent of my knowledge. And have never actually seen the film, just know it’s where Schneider and Delon met.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow, is it really popular in the UK too? I’ve never seen it although Romy is beloved in Austria. Some Canadian friends who once visited Vienna were completely starstruck because they’d grown up with it, and were really excited to see her dresses in real life.

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    1. Yes, I remember your fantastic review of it! I had heard of it when it came out and I think I was just a bit burnt out on Austria topics at that time, but I’m glad I finally read it. It was an outstanding history! What did you think of that bit about Mary potentially being Rudolf’s sister? That bugged me, it just seemed so unlikely, but I wondered if it was just me!

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  2. Thank you for the excellent and interesting reviews. Sisi’s life is really something to write about. Difficult to match even as a fictional account. I have had two books about the Habsburgs on my shelves for many years. Finally got around to read them now. I am married to an Austrian and spend time in Innsbruck. Here in the Hofburg you can see a copy of the Winterhalter portrait. It is magnificent. In one of the rooms you can also see Sisi’s ‘gym’ equipment. It seems she had these installed wherever she was living.
    I must admit I was a little bit shocked when I finally read a biography about her. It is not the usual romantic stories going around. She always had this princess-like aura attached to her person. Probably because she was so beautiful. I can recommend these two books: The Lonely Empress by Joan Haslip (review here: https://thecontentreader.blogspot.com/2021/02/the-lonely-princess-by-joan-haslip.html) and The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft (review here: https://thecontentreader.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-habsburgs-by-andrew-wheatcroft.html). The last one is more about the reigning Habsburgs, but Franz Joseph is of course part of the story. It is an excellent biography with all the good and bad sides of the Habsburgs. You also find part of the sad story of Rudolf and Mayerling.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations!! I’ve read The Lonely Empress and really enjoyed it, also The Reluctant Empress is great as well, if you haven’t read that one. Like you I was also quite shocked when I read what her life and behavior were really like, as that’s certainly not the impression the almost Disney-like advertising of her in Vienna gives. My husband isn’t Austrian but grew up in Vienna after immigrating there as a child, and I lived in Vienna for many years. I’ve only been to Innsbruck once but it was absolutely lovely! How wonderful that you can spend time there!

      I hadn’t come across The Habsburgs but that does sound like a good one, and I’d be interested in learning more about the monarchy as a whole.

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      1. Thank you for the tips. Vienna is wonderful and so full of culture. I have not been there since the mid 80s, but we have it on our travel list for sure. The Habsburgs are an interesting lot, considering their impact over almost all of Europe for so many years.
        We just visited an exhibition here in Innsbruck the other day, about Maximilian I and the city. He spent some time here since he did not like Vienna, or it was too close to the enemy at the time. It was very interesting, and gave a good view of Europe at the time, mirroring the connection to Maximilian. I find the Austrians are sometimes a little bit ambivalent towards the Habsburgs when it comes to re-telling their story.

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