Empress Elisabeth:
A Brief Bio

Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie von Wittelsbach was born on December 24, 1837 in Munich, second daughter of Duke Max in Bavaria and his wife Ludovika (whose siblings included King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Queen Marie of Saxony, Queen Amalie of Saxony, Queen Elise of Prussia, and Sophie, mother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria.) She grew up in Munich and at Possenhofen, on Starnbergersee (Lake Starnberg), which she loved. As a child, Sisi was never considered "special"--not particularly bright or pretty--and was very shy among strangers. She shared her father's love of the circus, the "lower classes", Elisabeth during her engagement long walks, horseback riding, and the zither. In 1853, her mother Ludovika and aunt Sophie decided that Sisi's elder sister Helene would marry Emperor Franz Joseph; Ludovika, Helene, and Sisi joined Sophie and her sons in Bad Ischl in order for the two cousins to get acquainted. Franz Joseph, however, fell in love at first sight with fifteen-year-old Sisi instead, and two days later (on August 18, his 23rd birthday) had his mother ask if Elisabeth would marry him. Less than a year afterwards, on 24 April 1854, at the age of sixteen and a quarter, Elisabeth became Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, etc, etc, etc.

Sophie never cared for Elisabeth, and her attempts to train Sisi to become a proper Empress did not take into account the girl's own wishes and needs. Franz Joseph was deeply devoted to his mother, and only rarely supported his wife against her. The couple's first two children, Sophie (born in 1855, and named by her grandmother without Sisi's being consulted) and Gisela (born in 1856), were installed in a nursery near Sophie's apartments, and raised by attendants chosen by--and loyal to--their grandmother (as were those who had been chosen to attend Elisabeth upon her arrival in Vienna); Sisi had little power over their upbringing, and little contact with the girls at all. She did insist that the children accompany her and Franz Joseph on a state visit to Hungary in 1857, during which they became ill and little Sophie died--a misfortune which became used as proof that the young Empress was unfit to be a mother.

The eagerly-awaited heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, was born on 21 August 1858, and, like the first two children, was given over to the care of Sophie. Over the next few years, Elisabeth's health began to decline, and she started spending a great deal of time away from Vienna, "for the sake of her health". (The first such trip may have been prompted in part by the discovery that Franz Joseph was unfaithful to her.) These trips grew longer and more frequent as time went on, and for the most part reports indicate that she looked perfectly healthy--until she returned to Vienna, where she always grew worse, leading to another escape from the court she detested. In 1865, however, shortly after a still-tentative reconciliation with Franz Joseph, she was forced to take action. One of the men responsible for Rudolf's education came to her begging for her assistance; he feared that the sadistic military training of the precocious but delicate boy--at the Emperor's orders--was endangering his life. On August 27, the Empress presented her husband with a written ultimatum: either she would be in charge of everything concerning the children until their majority, as well as anything touching on her own personal life--or she would leave him. The Emperor gave in.

By this time Elisabeth was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women in Europe--a distinction which she took great pains to maintain. Much of her time and attention was taken up with preserving and improving her looks; it took three hours each morning just to dress her hair (which fell to somewhere between her knees and her ankles), and she was compulsive about physical exercise. Periodically she would bathe in olive oil, and an entire day was consumed every three weeks for washing her hair (with brandy and raw eggs). In her efforts to keep her waistline as small as possible, she frequently subjected herself to starvation diets, and often would eat nothing more than eggs, milk, and broth. When travelling, she would bring along some of her cows to ensure a supply of "acceptable" milk, and she was constantly buying new ones to be sent back to Vienna. The one aspect of her appearance Elisabeth was unable to control was her teeth, which remained yellow despite the efforts of the best dentists in Europe. To disguise this fact, she took to opening her mouth as little as possible when speaking and holding a handkerchief in front of it; when added to the low speaking voice which was a result of her shyness, these mannerisms made understanding the Empress nearly impossible at times.

Her one real political contribution in 45 years as Empress occurred in 1867, when she helped pressure Franz Joseph into the Hungarian Compromise, which reestablished the Hungarian Constitution and turned the Austrian Empire into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The couple's coronation as King and Queen of Hungary took place on June 8. As a reward for complying with her wishes in this affair, Elisabeth's letters to her husband during this time show a marked increase in tenderness; their third daughter Marie Valerie was born in Hungary in 1868. Unlike with the first three children, Elisabeth insisted on raising the fourth herself, and throughout her life showed considerably more affection for and interest in Marie Valerie than she ever had for Gisela or Rudolf.

Rudolf, like his mother, was liberal, anti-aristocratic, republican, and a supporter of Hungary. Despite the startling similarity in their views on politics, literature, religion, etc, Elisabeth and Rudolf were far from close; indeed, after the ultimatum insisting on her being in charge of his upbringing, the Empress showed no interest whatsoever in her only son. His relationship with his father was no better. In addition to refusing to allow him to attend university--the Habsburg heir was to be a soldier, not a scientist--Franz Joseph continued to deny his heir any responsibilities in the running of the Empire even as Rudolf approached thirty, and his forced idleness made the Crown Prince Franz Joseph's favourite portrait of his wife increasingly frustrated. In time he, like Elisabeth, came to view the future of the Austrian Empire after Franz Joseph's death as hopeless, and he became more and more disgusted at the country's growing anti-Semitism. His health had never been very good, nor was his marriage a happy one. On 30 January 1889 Rudolf and his 17-year-old mistress Mary Vetsera committed suicide in his hunting lodge at Mayerling. (It is still unknown what prompted him to finally do what he had been contemplating for years.) Elisabeth was the first member of the Imperial family to be told of the Crown Prince's death, and at first she bore up well, breaking the news herself to the Emperor, Mary's mother, and others. After the first few days, however, her grief exploded in rage at her daughter-in-law (whom she accused of being responsible for Rudolf's death, because she hadn't loved him) and a great deal of self-accusation. She blamed herself not because she had shown her son no more (and perhaps even less) affection than his wife had, but because Rudolf, as a suicide, had had to be declared insane in order to be given a church funeral; the Empress believed that it was the Wittelsbach inclination towards mental illnesses that Rudolf had inherited from her which was ultimately at fault, and she began to fear even more than before the manifestation of such a family history within herself. She wore mourning for the rest of her life.

Following her youngest daughter's wedding in 1890, Elisabeth's travels grew even more restless. She rarely stayed long in any given place and spent no more than a few weeks each year in Vienna. During an overnight stop in Geneva in 1898, her presence in the city was revealed in a newspaper, although she had been travelling under an assumed name for privacy. On September 10, as she was walking from her hotel to the ship on which she was to leave for Montreux, Elisabeth was stabbed with a sharpened file by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni. Lucheni had come to Geneva planning to assassinate the Prince of Orléans; when he failed to arrive, Lucheni had chosen the Empress of Austria, whose presence in the city he'd learned about in the newspaper, as the next best victim available to him, unaware--and uncaring--that in fact she shared his opinions on aristocracy. The file poked a tiny hole in Elisabeth's heart; blood leaked out so slowly that at first no one was aware that she had been injured. She made it to the ship, but shortly afterwards collapsed. Her companion at first assumed the Empress had merely fainted, and when loosening her bodice noticed a spot of blood and a hole in her camisole. She was rushed back to the hotel, but it was too late for the doctors to do anything. Lucheni, sentenced to life in prison, hanged himself in 1910.

The information in this section was taken primarily from The Reluctant Empress, by Brigitte Hamann, and The Eagles Die, by George R. Marek.

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