Empress Elisabeth of Austria, widely known as Sisi, led a life full of eccentricities. She detested court life and was obsessed with beauty and exercise.
Elisabeth of Austria, widely known as Sisi, was born on 24 December 1837 in Munich. Her parents were Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. Despite her family’s royal linage, Sisi and her siblings were raised in an unrestricted and carefree manner.
She especially enjoyed staying at the family’s Possenhofen castle located at Lake Starnberg. At Possi, Sisi could go swimming and fishing, practice mountain climbing and ride and hunt with her father and older brothers. In The Royal Diaries (2003), the princess wrote about Possi: “I always feel so happy and carefree when I am here.” Her unregulated and spirited lifestyle, however, changed in 1853 when she met her future husband, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria.
Empress of Austria
Elisabeth was not even supposed to marry the emperor. Her mother and her “Aunt Sophie”, who had “a rather imposing personality”, had intended Franz Joseph to marry Helene (Néné), Elizabeth’s oldest sister. A meeting took place at Bad Ischl in Austria, and Sisi’s mother made her attend with the hope of arranging her marriage to one of the emperor’s younger brothers. To everyone’s surprise Franz Joseph showed no interest in Néné but fell in love with Sisi. The fact is that Sisi was exceptionally beautiful. On a strange act of courage against his domineering mother, the emperor asked for Sisi’s hand in marriage.
They got married in Vienna at St. Augustine’s Church on 24 April 1853. Unfortunately, Elisabeth was not happy at all about her weeding. She was only fifteen years old and used to a carefree environment. On the contrary, the Hapsburg court was pretty strict and uptight. Kris Waldherr indicates, in Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, from Cleopatra to Princess Diana (2008) that the new Empress passed most of her time locked in her room, refused to eat and cried constantly.
Franz Joseph and Elisabeth had four children: Archduchess Sophie in 1855, Archduchess Gisela in 1856, Archduke Rudolph in 1958, and Archduchess Marie Valerie in 1868. The mother of the emperor, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, however, did not allow the empress to raise her first three children. Rosa Montero explains, in Pasiones (1999), that Elisabeth’s mother-in-law took over her children and controlled the couple’s intimacy. Sisi tried to fight the situation, and took her daughters to a trip to Hungary in 1857 without her mother-in-law’s consent. Unfortunately, the girls got sick with diarrhea. Gisela went back to health, but Sophie died. The emperor’s mother held Sisi accountable of the archduchess’ death.
A life full of eccentricities
After her daughter’s death, Elisabeth was never the same again. Her behavior was erratic and became obsessed with her beauty and extreme exercise. Sisi’s beauty was a legend all across Europe. The empress was tall and slender, had fair skin and long dark blonde hair. According to Ingrid Teufl, the empress was fond of natural beauty and disapproved of made-up cosmetics. She used strawberry cream; veal and slug shine to keep her skin looking youthful and smooth. Combing her ankle-length hair took three hours a day, and was cleansed with egg yolks and French cognac. Sisi also used extra-tight corsets to maintain her 19 inches waist during her entire life.
In addition to maintaining a cult of beauty, Elisabeth sustained extreme exercise routines and kept a rigid diet. She took on riding for eight or nine hours daily. She practiced gymnastics too. Later in life, she stopped riding horses and commenced a routine of taking all-day long walks that left her staff feeling sick. Her absurd diet consisted on meat juice, milk and pieces of oranges. She was always fasting. Needless to say, scholars are almost sure that Sisi was anorexic. Her weight never passed from 110 pounds. She also suffered from episodes of anemia and depression.
Her relationship with her husband was faulty too. The emperor always loved her, but scholars agree that the sentiment was not reciprocated. Waldherr argues that Empress Elisabeth was “a woman ahead of her time.” Elisabeth found royal life oppressive. As a result, she disregarded her royal duties, disliked making appearances in public, and refused to be accompanied by bodyguards.
Except for taking care of the sick in hospitals and her support of the Magyars, Elisabeth did not do much as an empress. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth became king and queen of Hungary. This success, perhaps, would not have been possible without Elisabeth constant plead in favor of the Magyars. In fact, she had her last daughter, labeled the “Hungarian child”, in order to consolidate this compromise. The Archduchess Marie Valerie was Sisi’s favorite child and the only one she was able to raise herself.
Tragedies and assassination
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, without a doubt, led a strange and unhealthy lifestyle. Clearly, she was not a happy woman. Moreover, Waldherr points out in her book that tragedy followed Sisi. As already stated, her first daughter died during infancy. One of her closest friends was her cousin, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. They shared interests in riding, aesthesis and music. Ludwig, nevertheless, was declared insane in 1886 and died in mysterious circumstances. Three years later, her son, Rudolf, committed a murder-suicide pact along with his lover. The death of her son was devastating. She wore black for the rest her life, talked about suicide frequently and did not eat.
In 1898, the empress went on a trip to Lake Geneva with a friend. As always, she refused the protection of bodyguards. She was about to board a boat when an Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, approached her and stabbed her in the heart with a sharpened needle file. Waldherr indicates that Sisi did not even know what had just occurred and that her last words were: “What has happened?”
- Denenberg, Barry. Elisabeth: The Princess Bride, Austria-Hungary, 1853 (The Royal Diaries). New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003.
- Montero, Rosa. Pasiones. Mexico: Alfaguara, 1999.
- Teufl, Ingrid. Sisi’s beauty formulas: The Imperial anti-againg-pioneer. (Accessed 7 February 2012)
- Waldherr, Kris. Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, from Cleopatra to Princess Diana. Maryland: Broadway, 2008.