Death of an Empress–Birth of a Celebrity

When we started this blog, we thought it would be a fun way of sharing some of our European adventures along with some day-to-day observations of what it’s like to sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. I mean, really? The Dutch people swallow raw pickled herring whole! When we started our Vienna post, it was all about coffee, Strauss waltzes playing in public restrooms, and heavenly chocolate cake. Now we find ourselves caught up in the larger-than-life story of a woman who to this day is a rock star of royalty over here and we had never really heard of her. Her tale is almost finished and we will be returning shortly to our regularly-scheduled program of travel stories and photos. But for now, it’s time to finish up with the fate of the Empress and hope it makes us all realize that maybe some of our problems are not all that bad.

Finally more or less reconciled to the suicide of her son, Sisi decided it was time to resume her role as a “proper” wife to her husband. As a result, she bore her fourth and last child, Marie Valerie in 1864. Sisi was determined this time to play an active role in the raising and nurturing of the child. In the past, she had given up that task to her domineering mother-in-law. Poor Marie was nearly smothered by all the bottled-up mother love that Sisi had withheld from her older children. But before long the erratic and

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Katharina Schratt in 1880

compulsive empress felt hemmed in again. She was probably feeling guilty for the marital exile she had enforced on Franz-Joseph. She had actually encouraged a relationship to blossom between her husband and the Austrian actress Katharina Schratt.    That bond with the Emperor lasted for 34 years, but most reliable sources say the relationship was platonic. Sisi traveled constantly, never feeling contented and always searching for something she could never find. Once again, depression became her constant companion.


Even with all the scandals, suicides, and unhappiness, the public really knew very little about the empress except what they learned from the occasional article about her equestrian skills or her fashion sense. She was not much of an icon or legend. But this would all change in September 1898 in Geneva, Switzerland. At the age of sixty, Sisi, along with Countess Sztáray, her lady-in-waiting, was walking along the promenade to board the steamship Genève for Montreux when she was attacked. Her assailant was Luigi Lucheni, a 25-year old Italian anarchist who had originally planned to kill the Duke of Orléans. But the Duke had already left town.

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The Assassin

Unfortunately, a Geneva newspaper had printed an article the same day revealing that a woman traveling in Geneva under the assumed name and title of the Countess of Hohenembs was in reality, Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Lucheni quickly shifted his focus and went after this much more enticing target. He feigned a stumble as he approached the Empress, and seemed to reach out to steady himself. In reality, he stabbed her in the chest with a four-inch long sharpened needle file. Sisi collapsed but appeared to be uninjured. Countess Sztáray rushed her aboard the steamer, where she collapsed again. When she didn’t regain consciousness, the Countess told the Captain and Sisi was carried back to her hotel, where she died after a few final breaths.

Kärntner Straße, Vienna's most famous shopping street
Kärntner Straße, Vienna’s most famous shopping street

This is the point in our story where Sisi starts to become larger than life. Memorials, death masks, engraved prints of the assassination, portraits, and life-sized sculptures appeared everywhere. Suddenly, the unhappy empress who shied away from the public eye and just wished to be left alone, was front and center. With her name on everyone’s lips, a somewhat romanticized memoir was hastily created to satisfy public demand. Sisi was much better known after her death than throughout her 44-year reign as the Empress of Austria.

Evening in Vienna 4
Evening in Vienna


The legend of Sisi still shimmers today. Back in the 1950s, a trilogy of films starring cheek-pinchingly cute Romy Schneider as our ill-fated heroine was released to an adoring public. The films are pretty standard fare for their time. They pulled out all the stops with saturated color, gorgeous costumes, beautiful locations, soaring music, and scripts that were so far from the truth as to be almost comical. They have become classics in Europe along the lines of Gone With The Wind or The Wizard of Oz in America. The films get pulled out of the archives for an annual airing on German and Austrian television at Christmastime. They have actually generated a great deal of tourism for Austria. And Austria and Vienna are well worth visiting. During our stay, we spent a lot of quality time touring the royal apartments at the Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces. Also at the Hofburg palace complex, we took in the Sisi Museum, the imperial silver collection, and several world-class art and history museums. Even though all that money didn’t buy happiness for the Empress of Austria, it certainly bought at least some for us. For me, Vienna is in the same class as London or Paris as a destination, and that’s pretty rarified company.

Travels and Tragedy with the Empress

Well I promised you more on the sad fate of Sisi and her beloved son Rudolf. So without further ado, let’s pull back those tapestry drapes and find out what happened!

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Sisi in mourning

After the death of her daughter, Sisi was overcome with depression and felt her life spiraling out of control. She vowed to remedy this the only way she knew how. She had always paid attention to her appearance in the past but she soon became so obsessed with diet and exercise that it became the main driving force in her life. She was so consumed with her appearance that she would fast for days or she would eat only miniscule meals of milk and eggs. She had a gymnasium installed in the palace as well as mats and balance beams in her bedroom so she could exercise when she woke up each morning. She rode her horse for hours every day and took up fencing. But none of this could ease her sadness. Her sorrow was not only due to the loss of her child, but also the rigors of living within the confines of the royal family. In particular, her dictatorial mother-in-law looked at Sisi as more of a brood mare than an empress worthy of her exalted son.

On 21 August 1858, Sisi finally gave birth to a son. After the birth, her mother-in-law took over the job of raising the boy, much to Sisi’s dismay. Rudolf was very much like his mother in sensitivity and temperament. When his father Franz Joseph wished the boy to enter military training, Sisi forbade it, knowing it to be unsuitable to her vulnerable son’s personality. But even with all of Sisi’s arguments on Rudolf’s behalf, she spent very little time with the boy or his older sister Gisela. She was prone to chronic illnesses. There is speculation today that her symptoms could have been psychosomatic or a result of venereal disease, since she had been withholding affection from her husband for quite some time. However, this seems unlikely. It was rumored that Franz Joseph was having an affair with an actress named Frau Roll. Sisi began using her illnesses as an excuse to escape from her husband and children. Her doctors would advise her to go away on a rest cure, sometimes for months or years at a time. Her health would improve but the symptoms would come back with a vengeance once she returned home.

Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

As for Rudolf, in May of 1881, at the age of 23 he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium. They had one child, a daughter named Elisabeth, born two years after the marriage. The husband and wife soon grew apart and Rudolf began drowning his sorrows with alcohol and multiple affairs. He even wrote to the Pope in hopes of annulling his marriage, but his father put a stop to that.

In 1887, Rudolf bought Mayerling, a hunting lodge in the woods of Vienna. In late 1888, the 30-year-old Crown Prince met the 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera and the two began an affair. The union was destined to end tragically. Emperor Franz Joseph demanded that his son end the affair once and for all. The relationship was indeed ended, but in a suicide pact. The Crown Prince shot his mistress in the head and then turned the gun on himself and ended his misery. Cover-ups ensued and the press was told that Rudolf had succumbed to a heart attack. But inquisitive members of the press soon found out about the involvement of the Baroness. Deeper investigations revealed that it was actually a lovers’ suicide.

Die Baronesse im Abendkleid mit Cul de Paris.
The Baroness

Sisi once again retreated into severe depression and never fully recovered from the loss of her only son. To make matters worse, over the course of just a few years she lost her father, mother, and sister. The Empress dressed only in black for the rest of her life. Due to the scandal that seemed to follow her, the press and the public began to hound her and turn her into a public celebrity and icon. She took to carrying a parasol and a fan to hide her face from prying eyes when out in public.

Okay, I think that’s enough misery for one post. We still have one more installment to go before Sisi has her final rendezvous with fate. And I’ll delve into the creation of a legend based on myths and half-truths that has lasted for more than a century. But to lighten the mood a bit for now, I’ve included a couple of Vienna street scenes from our vist.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral
A surprise view in a side street

Royalty, Romance, and Whiskers

This is a post about grandeur, love (and loss of love), escape, suicide, assassination, and mutton chops. It sounds rather ominous, but all this and more was in the mix when we visited the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna. The Hofburg was the home of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife the Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi to Germans and Austrians. A tour of this huge and stately palace included—among other things—their opulent private apartments, the Sisi museum, and the incredible imperial silver collection.

The façade of one part of the Hofburg palace

Unfortunately, Sisi was rather ill-suited to the role of Empress. To us, she came across as a 19th century Princess Diana. In 1853, she was living the carefree life of a child in Bavaria. Then one day, the 23-year old Emperor Franz-Joseph arrived with his domineering mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria. Their mission: to find a suitable, wife of course. The young emperor, who sported a spectacular pair of mutton chop sideburns, was immediately smitten with the shy Sisi, even though mama really wanted him to marry Sisi’s older sister Helene. Only five days after they met, Sisi found herself engaged at the tender age of 15. They married 8 months later, and she gave birth to the first of four children 10 months after the wedding.

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Those are some impressive whiskers!

Their union was not a very happy one. Although Franz-Joseph adored his beautiful bride, Sisi found life as an Empress to be isolated and confining. She was obsessed with her appearance, making sure that her 5’ 8” frame never went over 110 lbs. She was rather proud of her 16” waist which she achieved by having herself laced each day into leather corsets. This procedure could often take as much as an hour. She also spent hours taking care of her long locks of hair which reportedly cascaded to her ankles. When she wasn’t dealing with her arduous beauty regime, she could be seen riding one of her many horses, which she loved dearly. She was known by many contemporaries as one of the finest horsewomen in Europe.

As her life progressed, she became quite sickly and prone to melancholy. But her bouts of depression became almost clinical when she lost her first-born child at 2 years of age, most likely from typhus. At about the


same time she had a second child, a daughter who also became ill, but recovered quickly. But due to the heavy burden of Sisi’s despair, this child was basically ignored and the damage to their relationship over the years was irreparable. She did finally give birth to her only son, Rudolf who would grow up to have many of the same traits as his mother; he came to quite a sad end as we will see.

Part of the imperial silver (and gold!) collection

In my next post, you’ll learn about what happened to Rudolf and Sisi. And we’ll see how she became a larger-than-life icon to the Austrian people after her death (though her legend was mostly fabricated). More on that in the next post.