Austria,  ER,  Germany,  Western Europe

Princess Elisabeth of Austria- Sisi of the Sorrows

The Wittelsbachs had a history of crazy.  Both Ludwig I and Ludwig II had their foibles (See posts on both of them here: and here: ) However, Ludwig II’s cousin, Elisabeth or Sisi as she was known, had a life more tragic than crazy.  On the surface, Sisi had it all-  beauty, wealth, a good marriage- but it was all a sham.  The lady had a life full of sorrow.

Born Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie on Christmas Eve 1837, Sisi as she was called by the family was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria.  As was customary with royal marriages, her parents were second cousins.  Not a great idea when you have a family like the Wittelsbachs, but they were obsessed with keeping the bloodline pure.  What they did was heighten the crazy, but I digress.  Her childhood was peaceful and free, and she and her siblings were raised at Possenhofen Castle.  There Sisi developed a love of horseback riding and nature.  They were happy far from the intrigues of court.  At the age of 16, she was broken out of this idyllic world.

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was looking for a wife, or more correctly his mother was looking for a wife for him.  The formidable Princess Sophie of Bavaria decided on Helene, Sisi’s elder sister.  Princess Sophie was not a person to be crossed and was described as “the only man in the Hofburg” for her authoritarian ways.  She orchestrated everything in her son’s life, including his first sexual experience.  When Franz Joseph was 18, she found a healthy peasant girl and promised her a good marriage to a court official if she would take the Prince’s virginity.  She even had it set up son Franz Joseph thought it was a natural relationship and she really liked him.  No one knows if he ever found out about what his mother did, but he did see the girl again at a court function and was not allowed to speak to her.  So this is the kind of woman we’re dealing with.

Again, this was a cousin’s marriage, which was asking for trouble, but no one seemed to mind.  Helene, Sisi and their mother traveled to Bad Ischl to formalize the betrothal.  Slight problem.  When Franz Joseph got there he barely looked at Helene, his bride to be.  Instead, he was smitten with the bride’s younger sister, Sisi.  This was no surprise as Sisi was stunning- tall and slim with beautiful long hair.  Franz Joseph stood up to his dominating mama and told her he’d marry Sisi or no one.  If there was going to be a betrothal, then she’d better get on board.  It was no big deal to Sisi’s family, they got an empress out of the deal no matter what.  No one asked the jilted Helene how she felt.  At any rate, five days later the betrothal of Sisi and Franz Joseph was announced.  

Eight months later the two were married, and no one had prepared the poor girl for court or married life.  Sisi hated crowds and had a panic attack at her wedding reception.  After the wedding night, poor Sisi locked herself in her room for three days.  One can only imagine what sex would be like for a sheltered sixteen year old.  After the freedom of her childhood at Possenhofen, Sisi could never adapt to the rigidity and formality of court life.  A series of maudlin bad poetry bewailed the fetters of her new cage.

Soon she fell ill, and it was discovered she was pregnant, but even this happy event turned to tragedy.  As soon as the little princess was born, Sophie took charge of her grandchild and cut Sisi completely out of the loop.  She even named the child… after herself.  Well, that’s modest.  The same thing happened when Franz Joseph and Sisi’s second daughter, Gisela, was born.  Sophie was angry that Sisi was only producing daughters instead of the needed male heir, and began to treat her daughter-in-law worse.  Sophie actually left a pamphlet on her daughter-in-law’s desk with the following underlined:

“…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire..”

Well, isn’t that sweet.  

Sisi got a respite from the stress of court on a visit to Hungary, but that visit soon turned tragic as her two daughters contracted an illness.  Gisela recovered, but two year old Sophie died.  This sent Sisi into a terrible depression from which she never really recovered.  She was unable to care for Gisela, and as a result their relationship never recovered.  Sophie blamed Sisi for allowing her namesake to get sick and die.  Nice.  She gave birth to the longed for male heir, Rudolf, in 1788 and he was whisked away by Sophie.  It was not until the birth of her fourth child that Sisi was allowed to be a mother.  She was reported to have said to a lady in waiting,

“Only now do I understand what bliss a child means. Now I have finally had the courage to love the baby and keep it with me. My other children were taken away from me at once. I was permitted to see the children only when Archduchess Sophie gave permission. She was always present when I visited the children. Finally I gave up the struggle and went upstairs only rarely.”

The only thing she could control was her physical appearance and she had a ruthless beauty regimen.  In fact, she did not look a day over thirty her entire life.  She bathed in warm olive oil and distilled water.  One night a week, she reportedly slept in sheets lined with beefsteak to keep her skin taut.  She was also probably anorexic as she would not eat to be laced as tightly as possible.  She was famous for her wasp waist, which infuriated her mother-in-law as she expected Sisi to be perpetually pregnant.  Her waist remained at 19.5 inches for most of her life.  Almost a Scarlett O’Hara waist.  Whenever she traveled, she would bring her own cows and would live on a diet of meat juice, fresh milk and egg whites mixed with salt.  She was also the first woman to do gymnastics, lift weights and work at the barre like a ballerina as a regular exercise to help with her figure.  Someone once told her it would help her complexion to sleep without pillows, so pillows were banished from her bed.

Her most recognizable feature was her glorious chestnut hair, which reached all the way to her feet.  She was obsessive about how it was dressed, and her Greek tutor Konstantin Christomanos described the ritual, “Behind the Empress’s armchair stood the hairdresser…With her white hands she burrowed in the waves of hair, raised them and ran her fingertips over them as she might over velvet and silk, twisted them around her arms like rivers she wanted to capture because they did not want to run but to fly.”  Any hair that came out during the braiding was required to be put in a silver bowl for Sisi’s inspection.  It was so bad that the hairdresser put a piece of tape under her apron to hide the hair so she wouldn’t have to have it undergo inspection.  Her glorious hair was washed every three weeks and that was a nightmare in itself.  It was rinsed with raw eggs and brandy then air dried as Sisi paced her chamber in a waterproof dressing gown.  However, her hairdresser was well compensated being paid a yearly salary of 2,000 guldens, which corresponded to a university professor.

A rare picture with Sisi’s hair unbound

By this time, Sisi and Franz Joseph were living separate lives.  Franz Joseph was having affairs and after a brief reconciliation which resulted in their fourth child, the bloom was definitely off the rose.  Sisi for her part was coming into her own.  She had balls for young people and didn’t invite their stodgy mothers.  She had a companion from England and snuck off to Ireland for incognito hunting trips.  Things settled into a an amicable separation.  However, Sisi’s world plunged into to tragedy again in 1898 when her son was found dead.  He was found with his mistress Mary Vetsera at his hunting lodge in a suspected suicide pact.  (For more on this, please see this post: )  She and Rudolf were not close, but his death still devastated her.  She was convinced there was some madness in the Wittelsbachs and the Habsburgs that contributed to her son’s death.  She isn’t far off there.  Look at her family.   Sisi began drifting from spa to spa trying to find some meaning.

It was on one of these spa trips, she was killed.  Sisi had stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva, supposedly incognito.  However, someone must have found out as word leaked.  Sisi was hurrying to board the lake steamer “Genève”.  She had been advised against travelling as there were assassination attempts everywhere, but she didn’t pay them any mind.  As she rushed down the street to the pier without her entourage, Luigi Lucheni ran towards her and stabbed her in the heart with a makeshift weapon.   An Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, had intended to kill the French Duke d’Orleans, but went to Geneva instead on a whim and found out Sisi was there.  Neither Sisi or Countess Irma Sztáray, her lady in waiting, realized what happened.  They thought it had been a robbery attempt, and went on to the ship.  It is suspected that Sisi was able to walk the hundred yards to the ship without noticing anything was amiss because of her tight corset.  A few minutes later, Sisi passed out and Countess Sztáray noticed blood on her dress.  Sisi was carried to back to the Hotel Beau-Rivage on an improvised stretcher and was pronounced dead shortly after.  So ends a tragic life.