The Empress Elizabeth of the Austro–Hungarian Empire is affectionately known as “Sisi”, as she grew up in a large family in Bavaria, and her siblings couldn’t get their tongue around “Elizabeth” which became “Sisi”, and she has been known by this ever since.
Sisi became the most famous lady in the world and she has fascinated people ever since her tragic death in 1898. It is difficult now, for us to understand all the pressures on her back then – pressures that changed her character. I have been coming across Sisi places and things during many trips to the Continent, and also fell under her spell. She was incredibly beautiful and charmed all those who came into contact with her. She had abundant, thick, ankle length hair all her life. Three hours a day were spent preparing the hair, during which time she took lessons in Hungarian, Greek, or French, wrote letters, and read.
The Empire was huge, with around 53 million people, covering Austria, Hungary, Czech and Slovak Republics, parts of Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Herzegovina, parts of Poland and Romania. The court in Vienna was full of titled people who were always watching that they maintained their positions, and their wealth, and had developed a system of protocols that Sisi couldn’t stand. For example, she had over 1,300 pairs of shoes, but they could only be worn once, according to the protocol, and then given away. As she could have to change her outfits several times a day, this meant discarding many pairs of shoes per day! She disliked this waste, but had to give in. She was not allowed to make contact with just anyone, only those of sufficient standing could kiss her hand, again all against her ideas. She was born on the 24th of December 1837, and had been brought up in a lesser castle in Bavaria, the wonderfully named Possenhoffen. Here there was no stuffiness; she had many brothers and sisters, dogs, horses, pets and informality.
At that time it was not just normal, but required, that marriages were arranged according to status, and brides were usually 15 or 16 years old. The young Emperor, Franz Josef, came to visit Sisi’s elder sister, but instantly fell in love with Sisi, and he loved her all his life. At just 16 years old, she was married and transported into the highly charged rigid society of Vienna, where she was not allowed to be natural. After all, she was now the Empress, and a great deal was expected of her, especially to produce an heir. In the next 4 years she had three children, the last one being male, Rudolph.
Meanwhile, seismic events were going on, during her life there was the Crimean War, wars against France, Italy which was unifying, Germany, which Bismark was unifying, Denmark, the Franco Prussian war, and all the time unrest in all parts of the Empire, particularly after the 1848 uprisings across Europe. It was the period when the ultra rich nobility, Monarchy and Empire were about to tumble.
I have come across Sisi in so many places, the first was in Jerusalem! On the Via Dolorosa, there is the Austrian Hospice. This is a great place to stop for a break. It was opened in 1863. I don’t know whether Sisi stayed here, but she could have done. As she became embittered against the snobbish, catty, rigid Vienna court life, she travelled almost constantly. She went to Egypt, where she continued with her punishing daily exercise routine, including walking at high speed for up to 8 hours – and she did this is the heat of Egypt! It certainly floored her companions. In the Hospice there are great portraits of Sisi and Franz Josef. The Hospice is built in the style of the palaces erected along the Ringstrasse in Vienna. This was created during Sisi’s time by demolishing the old city walls and creating a wide boulevard. The wealthy and nobility built their palaces along it, still there today. The poor people who had shacks and hovels against the walls were simply sent away, no provision was made to re-house them.
In Mayerling, Austria, is a convent. This was bought by Crown Prince Rudolph and converted into a hunting lodge. Rudolph was a troubled young man, he agreed with his mother’s liberal ideas, and couldn’t see that the incredibly wealthy life style of the court and the Monarchy could continue. He was married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, another arranged marriage. They had a daughter, Elizabeth, which was a disappointment as they needed a son of course. They drifted apart, and he fell in love with the young Baroness Mary Vetsera. They went to the hunting lodge and died in what is believed to have been a suicide pact, he shot her, then himself, on the 30th of January 1889. Sisi never recovered from this tragedy. From then on, she only ever wore black. Emperor Franz Josef had the bedroom where it happened pulled down, the lodge altered, and turned into a Carmelite convent, paying for nuns to pray for Rudolph every day – and this still happens today.
In Vienna you cannot escape Sisi. In the Technical Museum is one of her railway carriages. Two were built in 1873 by Ringhoffer of Prague. There was a day saloon, which has not survived, and this is the sleeping carriage that was attached for longer journeys. In true Sisi style, it is plain on the outside, and elegant but understated on the inside. In 1895 it gained steam heating and electric light – after her death it was not used again, and given to the museum. As she became increasingly anti-court life, she travelled constantly, and as railways were spreading, she used them extensively. She would have up to 60 people in her entourage, several carriages and horses to pull them, pets, and when she went on the royal yacht took two cows and a goat so that she would always have fresh milk. There would be as much as 40 tons of luggage too – so often there were two special trains needed.In the Schonbrunn Palace, with its 1440+ rooms, you will be stunned by the grandeur of their way of life. All the rooms are magnificent. Sisi, when she was making an infrequent visit, had her apartments at one side, Franz Josef away at the other. Her carriages are preserved there too. There were 600 or so royal carriages, of all sorts. The “Milan Coronation Coach” of 1790 was transferred to Vienna in 1816 and used by Archduchess Sophie (Franz Josef’s mother) in 1825, when she had it completely covered in gold! When Sisi entered Vienna on the 23rd of April 1854, it was in this coach. Another of Sisi’s coaches is a “Landaulet”. This was taken by train with her, and was the last one she used in Geneva before she died.
In the Hofburg Palace there is the Sisi museum. You will spend many hours here admiring the enormous dinner services, thousands of pieces, and many of them so that any official function would be suitably catered for. You can see some of her elaborate dresses, and wonder at her 19.5 inch waistline. She became obsessed with her beauty, understandable when beauty and style were necessary to gain acceptance at court, and she was expected to be always beautiful, always dressed elegantly, always to charm everyone. She dieted constantly, frequently making herself ill, and exercised frantically. As well as being the best horsewoman in Europe, and that while sitting side saddle on a three horned saddle made in England, she exercised on rings and bars built into one of her rooms. She loved the mountains and was a great climber, and would walk for hours in the mountains completely wearing out the security people and her ladies in waiting. She came to England to ride to hounds, as this was the most dangerous and hard riding, and succeeded. She had a stables and mansion, and bred horses. When this became unacceptable, she went to Ireland and did the same there.
Near Montreux, Switzerland, is the small town of Territet, on the lake. Above it was the Grand Hotel de Territet, where Sisi frequently stayed, with all her entourage. There is a funicular down to the railway station and the landing stage. Here there is a small garden with a hauntingly beautiful life sized statue of Sisi, in her later years. She always carried a fan and often an umbrella, to put up to hide her form the curious public. She often registered in hotels under an alias, but of course she was always recognised, but the alias some times gave her anonymity, which she wanted so much. On September the 9th, 1898, she and an appropriate entourage set out to visit Baroness Julie Rothschild at nearby Pregny. After three hours, Sisi and her lady in waiting Countess Irma Sztaray, carried on alone to Geneva.
She bought some pastries from her favourite shop, and some toys for her grandchildren, and then the 2 ladies would stay overnight in the Hotel Beau Rivage. She registered under the name of Countess von Hohenembs, although the hotel knew who she was, as she had stayed there several times before. Unfortunately, the next day’s newspaper carried the story that Empress Elizabeth of Austro-Hungary was staying at the hotel, it has never been established who provided the information. This proved fatal.
An Italian anarchist, Luccheni, was in Geneva and wanted to kill someone famous, someone from the nobility. He had intended to kill Prince Henri of Orleans, of the French royal family, but he never actually came to Geneva. He really wanted to kill the King of Italy but had no money to go there. Luccheni had prepared well, he had bought a long thin triangular file, ground it to a cutting edge, and carried it around. He read the ‘paper and decided that killing Sisi would be as good as anyone else. He hung around outside the hotel, waiting his chance. Sisi planned to catch the 13.40 sailing of the lake steamer to go back to Territet. Her servant had gone ahead with the luggage, and she and Irma crossed the few hundred yards from the hotel to the landing stage.
Luccheni flung himself at her, stabbing her through the heart. He ran off but was captured by passers by and handed over to the police. Sisi had fallen backwards; her thick hair coiled around her head had cushioned the fall. She was helped up and carried on to the boat. The boat departed, and Sisi collapsed – the narrow blade had caused bleeding, but nothing much escaped due to the small diameter of the hole. The boat turned round and Sisi was carried off into the hotel Beau Rivage, where she died.
On a recent visit I went into the hotel and asked about Sisi. The concierge kindly directed me upstairs to the first floor landing, where they have a display case with several of Sisi’s things, including the blood stained part of her clothing which the knife pierced. While studying the relics, and taking photos, a well dressed man appeared and started talking to me. He is the owner of the hotel, which has always been in his family. He is very much a gentleman, professional, multi language speaking, and knowledgeable. His grandmother had attended Sisi when she was brought into the hotel and was there when Sisi passed away. He also took me into his “museum” office where he has graffiti signatures of many rich and famous people who have stayed there over the centuries. It was a privilege to meet him.
In Geneva today a small scruffy metal plaque, about two feet by one foot, is welded to the railings along the lake where she was assassinated. It seems so little to mark the spot where this beautiful, charismatic lady was murdered. Nearby, a modern (1998) statue has been erected. It shows a black wistful figure, holding her fan to hide her face, thin, emaciated, curving her back and looking elegant. The boat, the “Genève” is still there. Today she is looking forlorn, tied up across the lake and used as a restaurant, with a great many flowers in pots cluttering her decks, and bunting and lights – a sad spectacle for a venerable elegant steam boat.
In so many places around Europe you will come across traces of Sisi. She built an extravagant palace on Corfu for example. One thing is for sure – she will never be forgotten. I hope that this article has given you some insight into this tragic lady’s’ life – and all set against such dramatic events that changed the face of Europe and its society for ever.