Daily Review-Atlas (Monmouth, IL)8--98

by William Urban

 The Princess Diana craze may have peaked, but it is far from gone. The tunnel in Paris where her car crashed is a tourist attraction, her burial place an expensive day trip. Newspapers still have the regular Diana articles, though the emphasis has shifted to her family.

A hundred years ago there was another Diana-like princess, one whose reputation is benefitting today from the current royal-watching mania. She was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, better known as Sisi (Sissi). Her story was more dramatic and less sordid.

Sisi was born a Wittelsbach, a member of the Bavarian royal house, which itself was sufficiently ancient to snub most of the crowned heads of Europe as new-comers, including Victoria's family which came from the insignificant province of Hannover. But Sisi had too much class to do that. She was one of nature's noblewomen, meaning that she had the kind of breeding that takes generations to achieve--politeness, friendliness, confidence. She also benefitted from education--an emphasis on manners, fluency in languages, and a memory for names and titles. Also art and literature, though she could not have had much time for reading--she spent three hours each day putting up her hair.

What separated Sisi from countless other princesses, duchesses and countesses was her beauty. Then as now, thinness was helped by the proper genes, but diet and exercise really made the difference. Sisi was the first exercise freak of modern times: she had a gym set up in her palace bedroom so that she could work off the first ounce of fat that dared appear. She loved long walks, horseback riding, and yachting. Presumably, if the immense dresses and whalebone girdles of her era had not hampered her, she would have been a jogger.

The first king to fall in love with her was her cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. The second was the Hapsburg emperor, the handsome young Franz Joseph of Austria. When Elizabeth chose to become empress, Ludwig was heart-broken. Over the years he withdrew ever more from society, losing himself in Wagnerian opera, building magnificent castles where he could live in complete isolation (Neuschwanstein has been visited by many people from Monmouth, who have seen this huge castle with only a dozen finished rooms), and even more secretly to indulge his taste for rugged guardsmen. He later went insane and was either murdered or killed himself. He said his life would have been different if Sisi had married him. They just remained good friends.

Franz Joseph, too, was desperately in love with Sisi. But she did not reciprocate with him, either. Franz Joseph was a very average man who took his duties as emperor in a very unaverage manner. He worked from morning till evening, supervising a failing empire, participating in the arduous formal events without complaint, and enduring constant criticisms for having lost wars, being unable to curb the nationalist movements, and helpless to stop the decline Austria's military and political status. No one even referred to him as FJ or by nicknames. Honest, unimaginative and probably somewhat dull, his only pleasure seemed to be the quiet breakfast with Sisi, when he could persuade her to come down the hall to join him.

Sisi hated the formal dinners, the balls, the "Spanish etiquette" which regulated who could speak to whom and what could be said. She absented herself from ceremonies, she began to travel. What could Franz Joseph do? He assented. He slept alone, on a simple bed, in a workroom where he could do the business of government from morning till night. Except for breakfast, which late in life he would take at the home of a lady friend not far from Schonbrunn Castle. Sisi apparently introduced them.

The Hofburg Palace is today a memorial to Sisi. She is pictured as young, beautiful, and splendidly dressed. Franz Joseph is portrayed in his extreme old age, in his Eighties. The contrast is unmistakable. It is also a deliberate lie, one calculated to forgive the beautiful princess for abandoning her husband for a life of restless travel, public causes, exercise, and a search for privacy.

Their son Rudolf killed himself at Mayerling, creating one of the great scandals of the era. He had followed Sisi=s lead in learning Hungarian and becoming a spokesman of the Hungarian half of the Austrian empire. Not a popular position. But not a scandal until he talked a young woman into dying with her, took her up to the hunting lodge, shot her, then himself. Franz Joseph's ministers soon learned how difficult a coverup was. The daughter was not eligible to inherit the crown--the last female to become empress was Maria Theresa, a great ruler, but that had resulted terrible wars. The next in line was Franz Ferdinand, unloved and not even respected. He made the further error of marrying for love: his children, being tainted by the less blue blood of a Czech countess, could not become emperor after him. For June 28 of 1914 he decided to give his wife a special treat, a visit to Sarajevo.

Sisi was at least spared that. She was murdered 100 years ago in Switzerland, stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist, Lucini. A photographer took his picture moments later, smiling broadly with the knowledge that he had done his part to bring down capitalism, feudalism and traditional society. He later said that he had killed her Abecause she wanted it.@ Actually, it was less insight into her personality than because his intended victim had not taken his daily walk. Lucini was given life imprisonment, there being no death penalty in Franz Joseph's empire or Switzerland. The public outpouring of grief rivaled Diana=s this year.

Sisi was a Bavarian, so it is no surprise that there is an excellent Sisi museum in Munich at the ZAM, which also has quite a display of Chamberpots. That helps us remember that Sisi lived before flush toilets were common. Even fairy tale princesses did not have the comforts we all enjoy today.

Sisi didn't even have the happy ending. Maybe that is what makes her and Diana so popular. Compared to them, we do not live so spectacularly, but we wouldn't want to change places, either.