*as posted on June 1, 2021
The beauty of Empress Elizabeth of Austria was such that it is redundant to speak of her but inevitable. Paintings, poems, books, ballet, operas, and films were made in his honor. Sissi, as she was nicknamed, seems to have been born straight into the popular imagination. In the 1950s, the trilogy about her youth made Romy Schneider a star. Netflix is working on a new series about her for 2022. Do you know who Sissi the Empress was? Quite different from the films that popularized it in cinema.
Raised from an early age with the freedom and a love for nature, Sissi did not – in theory – have a big role to play in history. That’s why she grew up in the countryside, without dedicating herself to the customs of the nobility.
Her sister Helena was chosen to marry the future Emperor of Austria, her cousin Franz Joseph. His mother, the very tough and ambitious Empress Sophia of Bavaria, was called “the only man at Court”, had grandiose plans for her firstborn and personally chose the bride, one she thought she would (also) control. But fate wanted to create adaptations: Sissi, who was just accompanying her sister, caught the attention of the young emperor, who fell in love with her and refused to obey his mother. Thus, at just 16 years old, the young duchess found herself not only married in eight months but also leading the most powerful European empire at the time. She wasn’t up to the challenge and her health paid hard for it. (Part of this narrative is true in the original series, just made more romantic than it actually was)
In less than a year, Sissi found herself not only far from the countryside, but isolated in the Austrian court. Her shyness and introverted nature did not help her adapt to a formal universe of the rigid protocol. She started having anxiety attacks, migraines, and coughing. Upon discovering herself pregnant, she became attached to her daughter, Sofia (whom her mother-in-law decided would have her own name), but happiness was short-lived. Little Sofia was soon taken from her arms to be educated for the monarchy. The same thing happened the following year, with her other daughter, Gisela.
The clash between Sissi and Sofia included questions about power over Franz Joseph. Sissi was liberal, influencing her husband to make more humanistic decisions, much to Sofia’s severe irritation. Sissi was particularly comfortable in Hungary, where she was far from her mother-in-law’s control. She ended up getting involved with politics and being adored by the people. Unfortunately, it was in this country that her daughters became ill, with little Sofia dying of typhus.
The death of her firstborn triggered a deep depression in the young empress and, in parallel, she developed an eating disorder – bulimia – that caused immense thinness (in times when the standard of beauty was not that). With more than 1m70 of height and only 50 kilos, with logos of hair below the waist, Sissi never gained more weight and did prolonged fasting, with daily exercises, to maintain a slim figure. She weighed herself three times a day to maintain control and also became a vegetarian.
In addition to her weight, Sissi was obsessed with her skin and hair. It reportedly took up to 3 hours to comb. The hairstyles, with braids and buns, were made by the hairdresser of the Vienna Opera, Franziska Feifalik. It was Franziska who washed the empress’s locks fortnightly with eggs and brandy, a process that took all day. In these periods of beautification, Sissi studied languages and history. At night, on a metal mattress to adjust her posture, without a pillow, she would put raw meat or mashed strawberries on her face. Towels soaked in vinegar were placed around her waist. The day started with an ice bath and ended with an oil bath to sleep. Seriously… odors aside only her beauty procedures would make material for a feature film.
To preserve his youthful image, she banned any painting or photography after the age of 32.
Franz Joseph was in love with his wife, but historians consider that she never loved him to the same extent. Both had many lovers, among her, there was the would-be Count Gyula Andrássy, who would have contributed to Sissi’s involvement with the Hungarian cause, and the British George “Bay” Middleton (no relation to Kate!), father of the future wife of Winston Churchill, Clementine.
After her son Rudolf’s birth, Sissi became estranged from her husband. She found him boring and bossed around by his mother. Her increasingly serious and noticeable health problems were used as a reason for Sissi to leave Austria for over a year while she recovered.
As an adult, she gained a voice and fought openly with her husband and mother-in-law when it came to the upbringing of the sensitive and introverted Rudolf. But it was her youngest, Marie Valerie, that Sissi devoted herself to the point of obsession.
Decades passed and when all seemed to be going well, the tragic – and still suspected – de in Mayerling) shook Sissi. The incident became known by the name of the palace where the bodies were found, Mayerling and the empress sank back into a deep depression at the news. She began to lose the people she was closest to her father, her son, her sisters, her mother, and Count Andrássy, all practically year after year. She started to wear only mourning clothes (black) and hide to avoid being seen in public.
At the end of her life, she became closer to her husband again. Despite having been warned of possible attacks, at age 60, Sissi ignored the danger. She was already traveling in hiding, but she was recognized in accommodation in Switzerland. As she was walking through Geneva, the young Italian and anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached, appearing to have stumbled but actually took advantage of the gesture to stab the empress. She wasn’t his initial target, but he didn’t miss the opportunity. The cut was not deep, but fatal. Within hours Sissi was officially dead.
Her killer was located, arrested, and convicted. He killed himself in prison. Franz Joseph kept his wife’s memory alive with numerous tributes, statues, and paintings. He died 18 years later. Sissi’s granddaughter, Rudolf’s daughter, inherited all of her grandmother’s jewelry and has a fascinating history as well. But that’s for another post.
Netflix‘s The Empress is set to tell Sissi’s story in just 6 episodes, focusing on Sissi’s first few months at the Austrian court and when, for a period, the couple becomes bored. The young woman’s more relaxed posture will be shown as an attempt to modernize the monarchy and which will meet with resistance from her mother-in-law.
Following in the footsteps of Romy Schneider, German actress Devrim Lingnau is set to play Elizabeth and actor Philip Froissant, Franz Joseph. Filming is ongoing and the release date is April 2022.
There is also the German TVNow series Sissi and the film Corsage with Vicky Krieps.