While Sisi was pregnant, the royal court expected her to go out in public, something that she detested, especially while pregnant. After her first two children were born, in the year 1857, Emperor Franz Josef decided to go on a state trip to Hungary to help strengthen relations between Hungary and the Austrian Empire. Sisi went with him, thrilled at the opportunity to gain some respite from her stifling life and possibly charm the nobility of Hungary. Archduchess Sophie wanted the two young princesses to stay with her, but Sisi insisted that they accompany them on the trip to Hungary.
Sisi thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Hungary; however, her joy quickly turned to horror when both of her daughters fell ill, possibly with typhus. Princess Sophie, the oldest one, was only two years old, and Princess Gisela was not yet a year old. Gisela recovered, but sadly, Sophie died. The tragedy was one from which Elisabeth would never recover and made her increasingly impossible life even more difficult. The depression that set in after her daughter’s death never lifted for the rest of her life. Her mother-in-law, who was already tormenting her, used the princess’s death as evidence that Sisi was an unfit mother.
Elisabeth was hesitant to have any more children following the death of her daughter. However, the next year, she fulfilled the primary role expected of an empress: she gave birth to a male heir, Prince Rudolf, named after the first Hapsburg ruler. Sisi immediately became more popular in the royal court; combined with her popularity among the Hungarian people, her fortunes in life seemed to be turning. However, despite her protests, Archduchess Sophie also took Rudolf away and raised him herself, apart from his mother. Despite her efforts, Rudolf, like his mother, found the rigid lifestyle of the Hapsburg court to be intolerable.
He married a Belgian princess in his early twenties, but when he grew tired of married life and the strict rules of the Hapsburg court, he left his wife and daughter and took to drinking heavily. Like his father, he had affairs with other women; in 1888, he had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl named Mary Vetsera. On January 30, 1889, the pair were found dead of gunshot wounds at his hunting lodge. Though the story surrounding their deaths remains mysterious, the circumstances suggest a murder-suicide. Elisabeth wore black in mourning for her only son for the rest of her life.
Many of the royals of Europe, even those from different countries, were connected to each other either through blood or marriage. Queen Victoria of England was known as the grandmother of Europe because so many of her children married into royal families throughout the continent. Today, many historians point at the alliances created through royal marriages as a leading cause for World War I. Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914 in Sarajevo, and his death triggered the complex web of alliances to fall into World War I, the bloodiest war that the world had yet seen.
Without the suicide of Prince Rudolf, however, the whole war might not have happened. If Emperor Franz Josef had abdicated the throne in favor of his son, the progressive Rudolf would likely have ended the alliance with Germany, which was at the center of the web of partnerships that plunged the world into war. However, Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef’s nephew, became the heir apparent to the throne, and a disgruntled Bosnian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed him in 1914. Germany’s alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire proved to be the undoing of an entire continent and led to the deaths of millions of people.
Adored for her beauty and for populist policies that championed the people rather than the monarchy, Sisi became possibly the first celebrity monarch. Still, her personal life was challenging at best, fueled by depression, a domineering mother-in-law, and homesickness for Bavaria and her carefree youth. In a sense, Sisi spent much of her adult life trying to relive or somehow recapture her youth. Her hairdresser had to tweeze out any gray hairs meticulously, and the empress had a beauty regimen that would make today’s most eccentric Hollywood stars’ quirks appear to look normal.
As a celebrity, people frequently tried to catch her when she was outdoors and take pictures of her. However, by the time she was only 32 years old, she refused to allow anyone to take photos of her, possibly because of her fading youth. She loved riding on horseback or going for long walks; when she did, she usually carried a parasol or brought something to cover her face to prevent people from being able to photograph her face. Still, she insisted on wearing a corset to preserve her tiny waist and doing absurd things like sleeping with meat on her face to retain her peaches-and-cream skin color.
In 1898, Empress Elisabeth made a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, although there were reports that someone might try to assassinate her. Indeed, the Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni was in Geneva, having arrived there determined to kill a monarch. His original intent was to murder the Duke of Orleans, who was a pretender to the extant French throne and also in Geneva. However, the duke departed to Valais before Lucheni could carry out his assassination attempt. Elisabeth had traveled to Geneva under a pseudonym, but someone at the Hotel Beau-Rivage informed someone that their guest was none other than Sisi.
Lucheni decided that he would kill her instead of the duke. In his words, “I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.” He stabbed her as she was leaving the hotel on September 10, 1898. She collapsed and was taken to a ship, the people with her not realizing the extent of her injuries. Only after she lost consciousness did the medical staff recognize that she had been stabbed.
After stabbing the empress, Lucheni fled but was caught by two cab drivers, a sailor, and a soldier in the gendarme. A concierge found the knife that he had used to stab her the next morning while doing his daily cleaning. Initially, people questioned his sanity because the people had so loved Elisabeth for her charitable works and populist leadership. Lucheni even requested that he be tried under the Canton of Lucerne as a dangerous anarchist because Geneva had recently abolished the death penalty. However, the court found him to be sane.
To Lucheni’s chagrin, he was tried as a murder, not a political criminal; this act denied him the notoriety in history that he had craved. He committed suicide ten years later by hanging himself with his belt inside his prison cell, supposedly because a prison guard had confiscated his yet-to-be-completed memoirs. He was denied an opportunity to turn his crime into a political statement. Meanwhile, Italians in Vienna feared reprisals from the Austrian people because an Italian had murdered their beloved Sisi. Her estate was endowed to various religious and charitable projects; what could not be invested was given to her granddaughter, Archduchess Elisabeth, the daughter of Prince Rudolf.
1. Elisabeth is an Inspiration for Fashion Designers Today
Empress Elisabeth left behind a stunning legacy. She was a deeply troubled and tormented woman who experienced numerous tragedies. Some of them may have been self-inflicted, but some could have been avoided with modern mental healthcare and hygiene. Still, her people adored her for how she championed popular causes, particularly among the Hungarians, often at the expense of the Hapsburg court that she loathed. After her assassination, her husband created the Order of Elisabeth to honor women. Today, she is remembered as a stunningly beautiful yet strong, brave female monarch who loved her people at great personal cost.
Her legacy goes beyond her charitable acts, in any case. In 2014, fashion designer Karl Lagerfield created a line that celebrated the fairy-tale grandeur of Vienna. It was the home of the great composer Mozart, the birthplace of the Rococo art movement, and especially the place from which Elisabeth reigned. He designed some of the pieces in the collection to look as he imagined Sisi’s clothes would look today. They were full of lace, ribbons, elegant sleeves, embroidered cloth, evening capes, and boots. One might say that Sisi is being reinvented for a modern audience. Indeed, her appeal is being reinvigorated as she gains more fans outside of Austria and Hungary.
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