Empress Elisabeth of Austria – better known by her nickname “Sissi” – has captured the hearts of the public ever since she was immortalized by actress Romy Schneider in a trilogy of 1950s romantic costume dramas. One of Austria’s most recognizable exports, many are familiar with the classic beauty under a mane of star-sprinkled curls smiling from a thousand postcards. Still, the historical person is far more intriguing. In this second and final installment, you find five more things you may not have known about Austria’s penultimate empress, looking at her later life, political influence and her handling of a life haunted by tragedy.
6. She was instrumental in the Hungarian compromise
The Ausgleich (compromise) which put Hungary on equal footing with Austria and established the so-called dual monarchy was the culmination of numerous efforts to ease tensions within the empire, but few worked harder for it than the Empress. While Elisabeth was never comfortable in Austria, she felt a strong affinity to Hungary, learning the language, surrounding herself with Hungarian ladies-in-waiting and lobbying tirelessly for what became her pet cause – one of the few times she actively involved herself in politics. Her opposition was formidable: Most of the court rejected rapprochement with Hungary – which had been under effective military rule after a barely-suppressed uprising in 1848 – fearing it would set a precedent for other territories to demand more freedom.
Ultimately, Sissi got her way: To seal the deal, Franz Josef and Elisabeth were formally crowned King and Queen of Hungary in Budapest on June 8, 1867. Her favorite and confidante Gyula Andrássy became Prime Minister of the newly autonomous Kingdom and the royal couple was gifted Gödöllő palace, which became one of Sissi’s favorite retreats.
7. She was distant towards her elder children but pampered her youngest
A mother at the age of 17, Elisabeth was distant toward her first three children, Sophie, Gisela and Rudolf – though not entirely by choice. Sidelined by her powerful mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie (who expected Sissi to continue her ceremonial duties), she had little say in raising the imperial heirs, and after illness took the two-year-old Sophie, was heartbroken and lost interest. She did intercede on her son’s Rudolf’s behalf, who was a sensitive child who did not take well to the strict military upbringing Franz Josef and the Archduchess insisted on – which included dressing in uniform from the age of two, waking him with pistol shots and deliberately abandoning him in the Lainzer Tiergarten woods to toughen him up.
Initially, Elisabeth’s objections fell on deaf ears, but after seeing her 7-year-old reduced to a physical and nervous wreck, she issued an ultimatum to her husband: either she gets to decide her son’s education, or she would leave the court (and him) forever. Franz Josef relented, and from then on, Rudolf enjoyed a scholarly upbringing which suited him far better – though his relationship with his mother would remain distant.
Sissi did make an exception for her youngest, Marie Valerie. Born in Budapest 10 months after her coronation, the Empress raised her herself and lavished attention on this “Hungarian child,” occasionally to the point of spoiling her. Seen at court as an attempt to make amends for her indifference toward Gisela and Rudolf, behind closed doors Marie Valerie was nicknamed “die Einzige,” (“the one and only”); she frequently accompanied her mother on her travels and was her only child permitted to marry for love.
8. She despised life at court and traveled incessantly
Shy and introverted, Sissi never took to court life, and her free-spirited upbringing left her ill-equipped for rigorous Habsburg protocol. Her extensive morning hairdressing routine, her long hikes and riding excursions were as much a pretext to avoid ceremonial duties as they were a fitness and beauty program. In addition, the court’s high expectations often led to (possibly psychosomatic) health complications: In 1860, she suffered from severe respiratory problems that kept her away from court for two years, staying first on Madeira and later on Corfu. These were the first of numerous travels, as the empress increasingly avoided the court for long periods, often citing her health. Among her preferred destinations were the British Isles, Hungary, and the entire Mediterranean region from Morocco to the Levant. She especially loved Cap Martin on the French Riviera, her brother-in-law Maximilian’s Miramar castle near Trieste and Corfu, where she built a personal refuge, the Achilleion. Another sanctuary was the Hermesvilla in Vienna’s Lainzer Tiergarten, built by Franz Josef in an attempt to entice his wife back to the capital by giving her a hideaway. Calling it the “Schloß der Träume” (“palace of dreams”), he spared no expense – the interior features murals by Hans Makart and Gustav Klimt and it was among the first buildings in the empire to have a phone line as well as electric lighting on the road leading up to it. While Sissi never stay there long, the imperial couple did spend a few days there every spring.
9. In her last years, she only wore black
Sissi’s tendency to avoid her official duties worsened considerably after the Mayerling incident of 1889, the tragic double suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his mistress Mary Vetsera. Deeply shaken and wracked with guilt, she remained in mourning for the rest of her life, only wearing black and shunning the court entirely. Instead, she traveled incessantly, using her private rail car (now at Vienna’s Technical Museum) for overland journeys and taking extended sea cruises along the Mediterranean on the imperial yachts Greif and Miramar. Enamored with the sea, she even had an anchor tattooed on her shoulder blade. But she never stayed anywhere for long, travelling incognito with only a minimal entourage. She made no more official visits or public appearances, but filled her days with long hikes, writing poetry in the style of her literary hero Heinrich Heine, and learning languages – particularly French and English as well as ancient and modern Greek, translating much of Shakespeare into modern Greek. Her frequent companion, reader and language teacher, Constantin Cristomanos, claimed the Empress considered Greece her “spiritual home.”
To ease her husband’s loneliness during her extended absences, she actively encouraged him to spend time with Burgtheater actress Katharina Schratt, a devoted relationship persisting until the Emperor’s death in 1916. Nevertheless, Franz Josef remained cordial, frequently sending letters and telegrams – usually fretting about her safety and health. At times, he would even sneak away to meet his wife, usually on the French Riviera or Trieste.
10. She was murdered with a file
A wraithlike, slender figure dressed all in black and hidden behind veils, the unhappy Empress’s restless travels came to an abrupt and violent end on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1898. Accompanied by a sole attendant, the Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, Sissi was waylaid by anarchist Luigi Lucheni on her way to catch the ferry to Montreaux. Lucheni stabbed her with a sharpened needle file (essentially a homemade stiletto). It was all so fast that no one – even the empress herself – initially realized what had happened. She calmly boarded the ship only to collapse a few minutes after it left the pier. The captain immediately turned back and she was carried to her hotel where every effort was made to revive her, to no avail. She died shortly after; she was 60 years old. The tiny wound had, in fact, punctured her heart directly, a doctor reported, and her corset was laced so tight that it constricted her blood circulation, allowing her to move normally for several minutes, oblivious to the damage. It was only after her corset was loosened that her fate was sealed.
Perhaps most tragically, her death was largely a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: Lucheni’s original target had been the Duc d’Orleans, but he missed him when the Duke changed his travel plans. A firm believer in the “propaganda of the deed,” Lucheni wasn’t particular about his target and on reading in the local paper that Elisabeth was in town under a fake name, switched gears.
News of the Empress’ death produced a huge outpouring of national grief: Despite her reclusiveness, her legendary beauty, her affinity toward commoners, her disdain for protocol and the many charities she supported (albeit in absentia) had brought her enduring popularity. For Franz Josef, it was yet another personal tragedy: He had lost his son to suicide and his brother Maximillian to misadventure, when an ill-advised foray as emperor of Mexico ended before a firing squad (but that’s another story).
On hearing of his wife’s death, Franz Josef was in agony: “Mir bleibt auch nichts erspart!” (“I am spared nothing!”) – a remark that has endured among Austrians to this day, both literally and sardonically, as a measure of hard times.