Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the Original Lady Di

Would you be morbidly depressed if you lived here? Sissi didn't spend much time in Austria, but this was one of her homes. Schonnbrun Palace was supposed to match Versailles, but the French had more money to lavish on their royalty. Still, it's far from shabby.

Besides St. Stephen, Kaiserin Sissi was the other historical figure I was inspired to research by this trip.

She hs been compared to Lady Di but seems to me she was more like a 19th Century Jacqueline Onassis of Austria-- rich, skinny, snares powerful leader, wins love of people for her beauty and style. German actress Romy Schneider played her in one of a series of movies and she is still a major tourist draw in Vienna where people come to see her clothes and her palaces.

Here's the story. She was a 16-year-old kid when her mother took her along with older sister from home in Bavaria to Vienna to meet Franz Joseph, the emperor of the Austrian Empire who needed to get married. The sister was supposed to be the bride, but Franz Joseph declared he would have no other than Sissi. Some say it was because he wanted a little girl who knew nothing of sex -- so as to be free to continue his own free-wheeling sex life. I couldn't find out what happened to the sister.

Anyway, Sissi moves to Vienna where her aunt -- now her mother-in-law sets out to ruin her life by turning her into a queen. She is badgered and hen-pecked. When she has children Mom takes over their upbringing. Her first daughter dies. Her third child is a son.

That takes off the pressure. Franz's philandering is way out of hand at about this point so she bolts, just takes up residence in another palace and here she begins to come into her own.

She learns the pleasure of travel, she finds that people respond to her considerable looks. She becomes a master horsewoman and huntress.

Franz is kind of intrigued by this and the couple actually gets back together in Hungary, which is being bonded to the Austrian empire. They hook back up there while getting coronated as rulers and have another daughter. Sissi falls in love with Hungary, and vice versa. Elizabeth bridge in Budapest is in her honor and at the base is a huge statue of a seated Sissi.

Sissi then begins to lose it. She spends three hours a day having her floor-length hair combed and she virtually stops eating in order to maintain her legendary figure. At the time of her death, she was found to be malnourished. She refuses to have her picture done or even to go out as she ages. She abandons all interest in her family except for her Hungarian daughter as she calls her.

Then her only son, the crown prince. commits suicide at age 30 with his young lover. This is a big scandal, not coz of the lover, coz everyone including his wife knew about that, but because of rumors that persist to this day that he was assassinated. (His death meant the crown passed to Franz' nephew who was shot to death in Sarajevo touching off World War I).

Sissi spends the next 10 days wandering around Europe depressed and hiding so no one can see her aging body. Then one day an Italian anarchist runs up to her and sticks a sharpened nail file into her heart.

Hollywood turned all of this into a royal love story with a sad ending. In reality Sissi compared marriage to slavery, being forced into a pact she didn't understand or want while still a child. She wasn't even a good mother. She ignored her son -- and her eldest, rather plain daughter, she married off. At age 16. The movie also doesn't mention anorexia, clinical depression and mental illness.

I guess that wouldn't sell.

Oddly, even the fate of the beautiful actress who became famous playing Sissi is dismal. Schneider slipped into alcoholism after her 14-year-old son impaled himself on a fence and died. She was found dead at age 42.

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