The Real-Life Sisi
Saturday night at the Raimund Theatre in Vienna. The house is packed, ticket touts are charging three times the cover price for a show that has been running for ten years. At the end there is a standing ovation that lasts for ten minutes. Coach parties of ladies of all ages arrive with diamante stars in their hair and leave in tears. The musical is called Elizabeth, and it’s based on the life story of the Empress of Austria. It is the most successful German language musical ever, playing to packed houses from Seoul to Japan. The musical itself is reasonably tuneful, but its appeal lies not in the sub-Lloyd Webber music but in the star power of its subject Elizabeth, or Sisi as she was known to her family. She is, in the German-speaking world, the equivalent of Princess Diana, Cinderella and Dorian Grey. Vienna is stuffed with Sisi memorabilia, from the snow globes, key rings and chocolates on sale at the Sisi Museum shop, to the ruffled shirts and button boots available at the ‘Empress-style’ boutique, where you can bring a little imperial glamour into your life. The only other Austrian to score as highly in the memorial kitsch stakes is Mozart.
The pulling power of Sisi is all the more remarkable considering that when she died, in 1898, she had been a virtual recluse for ten years and was much criticised in Vienna for her failure to fulfil her imperial duties. But the circumstances of her death turned her overnight from errant royal into beloved martyr. The sixty-one-year-old Empress was about to board a steamer on Lake Lucerne when she was stabbed in the chest by an Italian anarchist called Lucheni. Part of a gang called the International Regicides, he had originally planned to kill a member of the French royal family, but Lucheni got his dates wrong. Sisi was a last minute substitute. The blade the Italian used was so sharp that he was able to drive it in almost without the Empress noticing. After being stabbed she walked up the gangplank onto the deck of the steamer before collapsing. At first the crowd thought she had fainted. It was only when they loosened her corset that the truth was revealed. The stiletto itself, stained with the Empress’s blood, is on display in the Sisi Museum in the Hofburg, the imperial palace in the centre of Vienna. The glass case around it is smeary with fingerprints and what look like kisses. It is the ultimate relic of her unhappy life.
It had all started so well. Like another teenage girl of good family one hundred and thirty years later, Sisi was not the first choice to marry her first cousin, Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria. The families thought that Helena, her older sister, would make a more suitable match. But in true Cinderella style, when the young Emperor came to meet the older sister he couldn’t help falling in love with her naive younger sister. Helena withdrew to the side lines and, at fifteen, Sisi was engaged to the ruler of Europe’s biggest country. But, like Diana, Sisi found that she was marrying not a man but an institution. The Hapsburg Court was, even by nineteenth century standards, mired in protocol. No one could hold a court post unless they could show that their great grandparents on both sides were aristocrats. Although Sisi was a member of a cadet branch of the Bavarian royal family (Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein fame was her cousin) she had not been raised in the imperial tradition and one of her grandmothers was not quite royal enough. Her mother-in-law Sophie, who was also her aunt, was horrified by her niece’s lack of poise: ‘She shows her teeth when she smiles’. The public cheered for the beautiful young Empress with her nineteen-inch waist and ankle-length hair, but inside the palace she was considered a liability: too young, too liberal and too shy. The descriptions of Sisi aimlessly wandering through the corridors of the Hofburg Palace, too scared to talk to anyone, bring to mind the image of the young Diana roller-skating through the corridors of Buckingham Palace listening to Wham on her Sony Walkman.
Quite early in her marriage Sisi appears to have had a nervous breakdown. She withdrew from public life completely for a year to recuperate on the island of Madeira. Queen Victoria was so touched by the plight of the young Empress that she sent the royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, to take her there. There has been some speculation that the event that caused her breakdown was being infected with a venereal disease by her husband, but that seems unlikely given Franz Joseph’s dutiful nature and devotion to his wife. It is more likely that Sisi was in revolt against her life. It is pretty clear from reading contemporary accounts that she had anorexic and bulimic tendencies – the outfit she was wearing when she died still had a nineteen-inch waist.
But on her return to Vienna Sisi, who was now in her late twenties, began to use her beauty as a weapon in her battle for self determination. She sat for a series of portraits by the German painter Franz Xaver Winterhalter, who was the Patrick Demarchelier of his day, capable of making even the most dumpy German princess look desirable. He managed to paint a boudoir portrait of Queen Victoria which makes her look almost sexy. In Sisi though, he had a subject worthy of his talents. The most famous portrait, the one that is reproduced endlessly all over Vienna on everything from watch faces to schnapps bottles, is of the Empress wearing a white, net ball gown covered in spangles by the French couturier Worth, with twenty eight diamond stars sparkling in her chestnut hair. She could be an illustration in a fairy tale. Tall, slender, with a half-smile playing on her lips, she is the epitome of royal glamour. By comparison, Queen Victoria, even with Winterhalter’s help, looks like a truculent dwarf. The diamond stars are potent signifiers of her enormous wealth, but they are also there to show off Sisi’s most famous attribute – her hair. At a time when most women struggled to achieve the fashionable hairstyles of the day with the aid of hair pieces, Sisi is displaying her natural superiority – only Rapunzel can rival her. In another Winterhalter portrait, Sisi is wearing a white negligée and her hair is tied across her chest in an enormous fluttering knot. To the modern eye there is more than a hint of bondage about this picture – is she the dominatrix who is wearing the tools of her trade or are those tresses actually her chains? It says something about the state of the royal marriage that Franz Joseph hung this picture over the desk where he spent hours every day signing royal decrees; in Sisi’s bedroom there was not a single picture of her husband.
One of the things that makes Sisi seem so modern is her obsession with her own appearance; she was as focussed on staying in shape and looking her best as any Hollywood star preparing for an Oscar-winning role. Like today’s stars, she travelled with an entourage whose job it was to keep her looking her best at all times. The Imperial Hairdresser Fanny Feifalik was made a Baroness for her services to the royal tresses. Every day began with a two-hour hairdressing session: Sisi liked to wear her hair in a coronet of braids (she is saying, I can make my own crown, with my hair!).The process was so tedious that Sisi used to learn languages while she was having it done – first Hungarian and then Greek. Washing the hair took a whole day and involved a bottle of cognac and half a dozen eggs. Every night Sisi would put on a special muslin and lace cape and the Imperial Hairdresser would brush her hair. If any hairs fell out they were collected up in a silver bowl and shown to the Empress – ‘there was much unhappiness if the bowl was full’. Sisi’s hair was so heavy that sometimes she would sleep with it hanging in two long ropes from the ceiling to relieve the pressure on her scalp. At night she also liked to cover her face with raw veal because she believed that it kept her skin smooth and dewy. Over the veal she wore a leather mask, a necessary precaution as the Empress slept surrounded by her beloved Irish Wolfhounds. Her other beauty rituals included bathing in hot oil to keep her skin supple and wrapping her waist with hot cloths in an attempt to make it shrink.
Her fitness routine was equally time consuming. Every morning at five am she would exercise on the gymnastic equipment she had installed in her bedroom in the royal palace. Visitors to her apartments were disconcerted by the sight of the parallel rings hanging from the doorway separating the Empress’s sitting room from her bedroom. She was phenomenally fit, at a time when aristocratic women were ornamental rather than active. She loved to ride, and caused a scandal in Vienna when she hired a famous circus artiste to teach her how to stand in the saddle, and to jump through hoops of fire.
In 1879 Franz Joseph and Sisi celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Not a marriage but a manege, joked the Viennese wags. But the Emperor and Empress were leading semi-detached lives. Sisi was forty two, a grandmother already, and still beautiful. But she was obsessed with losing her looks, and after the age of thirty two she refused to sit for any more portraits or photographs. All the other royal families in Europe understood the propaganda power of the royal portrait, but Sisi refused to age on camera. She took care to avoid the nineteenth century equivalent of the paparazzi by always carrying a leather fan with her, which she used rather as a modern celebrity uses a baseball cap or sunglasses. There is a remarkable picture of the Empress on horseback shielding her face from the photographer with the fan. Although there are pictures of Sisi after the age of thirty two, they are all doctored images, taken when she was in her twenties.
In 1875 Sisi came to England to hunt. Foxhunting in the golden triangle of the Quorn, the Pytchley and the Melton meets was the ultimate extreme sport. It was fast, dangerous and exciting and the Empress, desperate to escape the ennui of the Viennese court, became obsessed – hunting every single day except Sunday. Women who rode to hounds in England were called ‘Dianas’. Some of them were aristocratic, but hunting was also very popular with the demimonde. The famous Victorian courtesan, Skittles, who slept with everyone from the Prince of Wales downwards, was a keen follower of the Quorn. She took full advantage of the opportunity that a riding habit gave her to show off her figure. Sisi and Skittles had something else in common, they both refused to wear petticoats under their habits. Instead they wore skin-tight breeches made out of chamois leather. In a society that flourished on suggestion, the notion of an empress in suede leggings was irresistible. Although Sisi was always ambivalent about the public gaze, she was aware of the effect she had.
Sisi had come to England at the invitation of Earl Spencer, the ‘Red Earl’, who is the Great Great Grandfather of Diana Spencer, and there is a painting of Sisi on horseback in the library at Althorp. Spencer introduced her to Captain Bay Middleton. He was reluctant to take the job, protesting that he was ‘not a royal nursemaid’, but his attitude changed when he saw the Empress ride. She was, by all accounts, one of the greatest horsewomen of her generation. Their relationship, which is at the heart of The Fortune Hunter, became the talk of the European courts. Middleton was a famous ladies’ man, with a penchant for married women (he was rumoured to be the true father of Clementine Hozier, the future wife of Winston Churchill). Middleton and the Empress became extremely close, in the hunting field they were inseparable. The gossip at the time was that they were lovers. Sisi’s biographers cannot prove it either way but, even if there was no physical relationship between them, Sisi clearly was more emotionally ensnared by Middleton than she had ever been with her husband. For five years she came to England and Ireland during the hunting season and Middleton was always at her side. Her son Rudolph clearly believed the rumours. When he came to England he refused to be introduced, calling Middleton ‘my mother’s groom’. The relationship appeared to come to an end in 1882 when Middleton married Charlotte Baird, an heiress who had been his fiancé for five years. Middleton broke his neck in a hunting accident five years later. The medal the Empress had given him at their last meeting was in his pocket when he died.
After Middleton’s marriage, Sisi gave up hunting in favour of long walks, covering up to ten miles a day – her poor ladies in waiting struggling to keep up with her. Her relationship with her family was distant aside from that with her youngest daughter, Valerie, to whom she was very close (there was much speculation at court that she was not in fact Franz Joseph’s child). She became increasingly estranged from Rudolph, even though he was the only one of her children to resemble her. He in turn disapproved of her lifestyle, ‘It is a pity that a very intelligent woman should be so fundamentally idle’. The pity was that they were both politically liberal and had a great deal in common, including a shared passion for the poet Heinrich Heine. Sisi tried to build a statue for Heine in Vienna but was rebuffed by the town burghers because Heine was Jewish. Mother and son became increasingly isolated in the 1880s, both trying to escape the stifling confines of their royal destinies. In 1888 Rudolph killed his lover Maria Vetsera and then himself at his shooting lodge in Mayerling. Elizabeth never recovered from this tragedy and she wore mourning for the rest of her life. When she too met her violent end, she was travelling incognito trying to find some peace. Her youngest daughter Valerie said, when she heard the news, ‘this is the way she would have wanted to go’.
Even though she had not been seen in public for years, the cult of Sisi began in earnest at her funeral, when the streets of Vienna were lined with mourners. It didn’t hurt her metamorphosis from spoilt royal to martyr that the only images of her were thirty years old. Sisi never aged in public. Statues to her were put up across the Empire, all featuring the same lean silhouette, and the mass of hair.
The Hapsburg dynasty ended in 1918 when Franz Joseph’s nephew, Otto, abdicated and Austria became a Republic. But after the Second World War when Romy Schneider portrayed Sisi in three films, Austria fell in love with her. The films are Technicolor crinoline fests, where the young Sisi does an awful lot of running through flower-filled meadows. As one young Viennese put it, ‘Those films were our Sound of Music’. Of course Austrians didn’t see The Sound of Music until relatively recently, as the tale of the Von Trapp family escaping the Nazis wasn’t quite as appealing to them. The story of Sisi, the adorable young Bavarian girl who won the heart of an Emperor, was much more to their taste as it referred to a less tainted part of Austrian history. The Sisi films were wildly successful all over Europe; they are still shown every year on Christmas Eve in many European countries and even in China. They are responsible for making Sisi Vienna’s top tourist attraction after Mozart (Freud doesn’t get a look in).
Sisi would have been astonished by this. She saw herself not as a romantic heroine, but as a free thinker and poet. She left a vast collection of poems and papers to the president of Switzerland – a country she admired for being a Republic – to be opened fifty years after her death. The poems are heavily inspired by her hero Heinrich Heine and are not great works of literature, but they are astonishingly candid about her feeling of alienation from court life and her ambivalence about the institution of monarchy itself.
The eerie parallels between the lives of Sisi and Diana are striking: both young women from emotionally unstable backgrounds who were catapulted into global fame by their marriages. Both women found power through their beauty, without a ‘voice’ their influence was in the glittering image they presented to the world. Although the media frenzy surrounding Diana was unparalleled, it is clear that Sisi felt many of the same pressures: to be slim, to be beautiful, to be loved. It is interesting that both women found real fulfilment in visiting the sick; Diana broke taboos when she held the hands of AIDS patients; Sisi spent a great deal of time trying to improve the conditions of patients in mental hospitals. She once asked her husband for a ‘fully equipped lunatic asylum’ as a birthday present.
Sisi is now a brand in Vienna, as much a part of the Austrian twinkly confection as waltzes and cream cakes, but her commodification glosses over the unhappiness that accompanied her fame and beauty. The poetry, the relentless quest for physical perfection and the disastrous love affairs have all faded away, leaving only the endlessly potent image of the smiling woman in her crown of stars.