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.
Any good Hapsburg-era histories you can recommend?