Privileged, precise, and punishingly beautiful, Elisabeth of Bavaria rose to become Empress consort of the Austrian Empire at the height of its powers—so it’s no wonder Netflix has just made The Empress about her. Yet behind Elisabeth’s exquisite façade lies a lifetime of pain, violence, and an unimaginably tragic end.
1. She Was A Christmas Miracle
Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was born on Christmas Eve, 1837 to Maximillian and Ludovika of Bavaria. The little girl was supposed to have a charmed life: Her father was from an old, revered German house, while her mother was the half sister of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. In other words, Elisabeth seemed to have all the power and pleasure she could have possibly wanted. But the truth behind her “idyllic” family was much darker than all that.
2. Her Father Was Cruel
Elisabeth’s brood might have been rich, but they were miserable. Her parents had never been in love, and Duke Maximilian kept a string of mistresses he didn’t bother to hide from Ludovika. Indeed, every day at noon while Elisabeth was growing up, her father was expressly unavailable…because he was dining with his two favorite, illegitimate daughters. Really, it’s no wonder Elisabeth became so messed up.
3. Her Home Life Was Chaotic
Besides flaunting his infidelities, Elisabeth’s father was also an infamous eccentric obsessed with only two things: Himself and, more bizarrely, circuses. The little girl grew up watching her father perform feats in his own personal circus ring. This had strange consequences. With all these eccentricities, the ducal household was extremely informal, and didn’t care much for teaching any of the children the finer points of etiquette, let alone giving them any classical education.
Soon enough, Elisabeth was in for a rude awakening when she met the real world. But there were other problems, too.
4. Her Mother Thought She Was Ugly
Today, Elisabeth is famous as one of the most beautiful women history ever produced, but it was a much different story when she was young. Nicknamed “Sisi” by her family, she was actually quite shy and plain as a girl. She was apparently so forgettable, her mother even worried she would never find a husband, claiming her daughter had “no single pretty feature”. Well, that didn’t last…and it was her looks that would change the course of history.
5. She Turned Into A Striking Beauty
As Elisabeth grew, she shot up to an impressive 5 feet, 8 inches tall, which was very lanky for a time when proper nutrition wasn’t exactly guaranteed, even for people who could afford it. She had a gentle-looking face, piercing eyes, and an ineffable “something” that made people unable to look away. The young woman also cut quite the figure throughout her adult life, famously keeping her weight at a trim 110 pounds no matter the circumstance or the decade—though as we’ll see, that wasn’t a good thing.
Soon, she started attracting a lot of attention…and a lot of heartbreak.
6. She Had A Doomed First Love
When Sisi was barely a teenager, the dreamy girl fell deep in love with a man of her acquaintance named Count Richard. She was so serious about Richard, she harbored dreams of the dashing Count whisking her away into matrimony. Instead, she got a heartbreaking nightmare. Her parents found out about her schoolgirl crush and sent the Count away. Still, her tragedies were only just beginning.
7. She Was A Defiant Girl
Apparently, her parents’ disdain for Count Richard only made the headstrong Sisi all the more determined to love him. So when he finally did return to Bavaria, she was all set to seduce him again with whatever meagre tools she had at her disposal, with or without her parents’ approval. Only, that’s not what happened at all. Instead of falling in love with her, the Count fell ill almost as soon as he came back, passing shortly after. For Sisi, that’s when the bottom fell out.
8. She Suffered An Early Loss
Always a sensitive girl, Sisi took the news of Count Richard’s fate very hard. Her response was both bizarre and extravagant. The lovesick woman locked herself in her room for days, crying endlessly and even writing humble little poems for her One Great Love, swearing she would never love again. This teenaged reaction was just a glimpse of the tender, tormented woman she would grow to be. But it was also a date with destiny.
9. Her Mother Was Ambitious
For years, Sisi’s mother Princess Ludovika had been angling to get her children into advantageous marriages, though she certainly didn’t hold out much hope for the still somewhat plain Sisi. Elisabeth’s elder sister Helene, however, was another story. Helen had been beautiful since she was a girl, so the matron decided to shoot for the stars when it came to finding a husband. Before long, she had betrothed Helene to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, the girls’ cousin.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans…
10. She Was A Pitiful Figure
In 1853, Helene and Ludovika were set to make a carriage journey to meet Franz Joseph for the first time and receive a formal proposal from him. And then Elisabeth’s mother made a decision that altered everything. At the last minute, Ludovika decided to take Elisabeth along too, hoping to distract the lovelorn girl. It was a choice that almost everyone involved would come to regret.
11. She Wasn’t Supposed To Be Empress
Although Elisabeth was only 15 years old on that fateful carriage ride with her sister and her mother, she did enough damage to alter the lineage of the Austrian monarchy. While it was Helene’s day to officially become (almost) Empress of Austria, legend has it that the 23-year-old Franz Joseph took one look at little Elisabeth and swore he would marry none but her. The real story, however, is more complicated.
12. She Had A Legendary Stroke Of Luck
According to lore, it was a wardrobe malfunction that won Elisabeth the crown rather than simply her overwhelming beauty. Somewhere along their carriage journey, the coach carrying the women’s formal gowns disappeared. As it happened, the Bavarian family was in mourning for an aunt, and without a change of clothes, they had to wear their black widow’s weeds to the royal meeting.
Unfortunately for Helene, her coloring was sallow next to the dark cloth—but the same black made Elisabeth’s pale complexion sing. It all happened very fast from there.
13. She Had A “Fairy-Tale” Courtship
Soon, Elisabeth walked into a whirlwind courtship, with Franz Joseph dancing with her in public and gifting her flowers as a sign of his affection—all while poor Helene took her lumps. All of a sudden, the quiet dark horse Sisi was the golden center of attention. But beware: Franz Joseph’s obsession with Elisabeth was not the fairy tale it might look like on the surface.
14. Her Fiancé Had A Wandering Eye
Lest you think Franz Joseph was some Prince Charming, think again. He had a dark side to him few knew about. Just before meeting Elisabeth, Franz had actually been desperately in love with Princess Anna of Prussia. Then marriage negotiations fell through and he had to give her up. So in many ways, Sisi was just his latest obsession and plaything. As for how Sisi felt about the whole thing? Well, somehow it gets worse.
15. She Was Forced Into Marriage
In truth, Sisi felt utterly “self-conscious” about the Emperor’s affections and cringed at the attention he gave her. Of course, there was another, bigger problem. To put it more plainly: She just wasn’t that into him, royal title or not. When her mother realized this, her reaction was disturbing. Making it clear that Sisi needed to zip any complaints, she reminded her daughter pertly, “One does not send the Emperor of Austria packing”. So, the show went on. But somebody had to pay the piper, and soon.
16. She Was A Child Bride
In Elisabeth’s first days as a fiancée, it became clear that she was nowhere near ready to be Empress of Austria. After all, she was still barely into her teenage years. When Franz Joseph installed a play swing in her residence, she took to it gleefully like the child she was. Then, at her formal betrothal, she was so nervous that she could barely respond, and she wept throughout the ceremony. If only that was as bad as it got.
17. She Had Strange Tastes
Some of Sisi’s most childlike behaviors contained a disturbing amount of her father’s eccentricities. For example, as Franz Joseph’s fiancée, people showered the future Empress with gifts of gowns and jewels and all kinds of luxury items. Yet Sisi only had eyes for the strangest present of all. She took madly to a parrot, and was practically inseparable from it. It was all enough to make the court uneasy, but the worst was yet to come.
18. She Had A Monster-in-Law
There are horrific mothers-in-law—and then there was Princess Sophie of Bavaria, Franz Joseph’s legendarily domineering matron. An absolute force of nature, Sophie more than earned her nickname of “the only man in the Hofburg palace,” and she wasn’t an easy woman for Sisi to get along with right from the very beginning. Unfortunately, Sophie’s meddling would soon damage Elisabeth in more ways than one…
19. The Court Hated Her
If Sisi wasn’t sure about the Austrian court, the Austrian court was very sure about her, and not in a good way. Vienna was ultra-traditional at the time, even for noble courts, and her mother-in-law Sophie ran the social calendar with an iron hand. To add insult to injury, many courtiers thought Elisabeth was an upstart, coming as she did from a so-called “beggar’s household” and a father who was more interested in circus horses than his own wife. But then Sophie dealt Elisabeth the cruelest blow of all.
20. She Had One Secret Flaw
Obviously, Elisabeth was blossoming into an attractive young woman—but the young noble had one embarrassing flaw. After the formal betrothal, Sophie of Bavaria sent a list of “suggestions” for Elisabeth to follow, including the need to “take better care of her teeth,” which, Sophie pointed out tactlessly, were grey and dirty. Elisabeth’s trials didn’t end there.
21. She Had To Follow A Ridiculous Rule
When Elisabeth travelled to Vienna ahead of her nuptials, what she found shocked her. She knew the court valued pomp and circumstance, but nothing could have prepared her for the reality of endless fittings and cold manners. Poor Sisi, used to running around in the muck of the countryside, was even literally forbidden to wear the same pair of shoes twice. That’s how demanding the Viennese court was. Sadly, Elisabeth’s next actions didn’t do her any favors.
22. People Thought She Was Stupid
Young, green, and reluctant in a court already unwilling to accept her as their next Empress, Elisabeth gave a horrible first impression. Perhaps because of her insecurity about her teeth (Thanks a lot, Sophie) she often mumbled her words, especially in formal settings, and people started to assume this meant she was stupid. In actuality, Elisabeth had a sharp wit and an active, curious mind. But even she wasn’t smart enough to get out of the horrors she was about to find herself in.
23. Her Wedding Day Was Cursed
As Elisabeth’s wedding day fast approached, a bad omen nearly ruined everything for the nuptials. As a kind of wedding gift, Emperor Franz Joseph had presented Elisabeth with an exquisite diamond crown inset with emeralds for the ceremony. Well, just days before the big event, someone dropped the crown and they had to hastily repair it. Even then, some called the mishap darkly prophetic. More omens were on the way.
24. She Had A Very Public Embarrassment
At last, Elisabeth’s big day dawned, and the wedding also began with a disaster. On April 24, 1854, just eight months after meeting Franz Joseph, the now 16-year-old Sisi got out of her carriage and, after catching her tiara on an edge of the vehicle, stumbled right in front of all the dignitaries and her new family. Could this get any more embarrassing? The answer, unfortunately, is yes.
25. She Burst Into Tears On Her Wedding
Every bride wants to look her best on her wedding day. Well, Sisi didn’t get that opportunity, for one tragic reason. The teenager was so upset at the daunting future ahead of her with Franz Joseph, she spent the whole morning bawling her eyes out, and barely managed to hold the tears in for the ceremony itself. When it was all over, she was Empress of Austria…and the bad luck just did not stop coming, even at her reception.
26. Her Mother-In-Law Went Overboard
After the ceremony, Elisabeth’s mother-in-law Sophie (unsurprisingly) controlled every aspect of the proceedings. But even for Sophia, it was overkill: The dowager designated whom Elisabeth could talk to and whom she couldn’t at the reception, since the Viennese court had rules about that too. Indeed, since Elisabeth was now officially Empress, the rules were even stricter for her than for anyone else in her court. But that doesn’t mean it went to plan.
27. She Snubbed Her Family
Used to her cozy childhood, Elisabeth already felt stifled by Austria’s endless conventions. So when she spotted the familiar faces of her cousins in the reception crowd, she ran over to hug them. The response was swift and brutal. Sophie absolutely forbid her from doing any such thing, and forced the girl to only extend her hand for a chilly, reverent kiss. Except if Sisi thought that was bad, her wedding night was ten times worse.
28. Her Wedding Night Was Bizarre
Apparently no one in the 19th century had heard of “personal space,” especially not Elisabeth’s new mother-in-law. When the time came for Franz Joseph and Elisabeth to retire for the evening after the ceremony, Mama Sophie personally led them right up to their marriage bed. Sisi, understandably beyond mortified, reportedly hid her face, “as a frightened bird hides in its nest”. Oh, and there’s more.
29. Her Mother-In-Law Monitored Her Bedroom Life
Sophie had enough decency to leave the room before anything got going, but that didn’t stop her from asking an extremely private question. The next morning at breakfast, Sophie interrogated her son about whether he had slept with his bride. She was then disappointed to find—shocker of all shockers—that Elisabeth hand’t been in the mood after all that public scrutiny. But Elisabeth wasn’t getting off that easily.
30. She Lost Her Virginity In The Worst Way
Instead of taking the hint to back off after this breakfast exchange, Sophie only went full force on her bedroom meddling. Soon enough, she was watching Elisabeth’s every move and spying on her private conversations, all to make sure she knew what was going on behind her son’s bedroom door. So on the third night when the new couple finally did consummate their union, Sophie found out almost the exact moment it happened. Yeah, real awkward…and this monster-in-law had more up her sleeve.
31. She Had To Kiss And Tell
After her successful recon mission, Sophie forced Sisi into an excruciating act. The morning after they did the deed, the matriarch demanded that both Franz and Elisabeth “present” themselves to her at breakfast to discuss how it went. Sisi, like any sane woman, protested, but her husband—not wanting to upset mummy—pushed her along for The Most Mortifying Conversation Ever. Look, everyone has strange in-laws, but I defy you to find one worse than Sophie of Bavaria. Need more proof? You better sit down for the next little bit.
32. She Had Psychological Problems
The stresses of her position at court, especially with her mother-in-law breathing down her neck, took an enormous toll on Elisabeth’s physical and mental health. She was naturally a little reserved and introverted, and palace life made her more anxious than ever. Within weeks of moving into the royal castle, she developed frequent coughing fits and couldn’t even descend staircases without suffering panic attacks. Then the real bad news came.
33. She Got An Unpleasant Surprise
If the dowager Sophie needed any more proof that her son and daughter-in-law were doing their matrimonial duty, she soon got all the evidence she needed. Elisabeth, meanwhile, was in for the shock of her life. 19th-century birth control was sorely lacking, which is exactly how Elisabeth found herself pregnant almost immediately after her wedding. The teenager barely understood her new world, and now she had to worry about the horrors of childbirth. Actually, correction: Now she had to worry about “Grandma” Sophie…
34. The Court Objectified Her
To say Sophie got excited about her grandchild is a massive understatement. Sophie went way overboard, and poor Elisabeth was right in the middle. Always so considerate of personal boundaries, the dowager even made the young Empress show off her pregnant belly to the court whenever she could, much to Elisabeth’s discomfort. And then she took it up a notch.
35. She Had Household Drama
Somehow, in between showing her daughter-in-law off like a prized calf, Sophie found a way to make Elisabeth’s pregnancy all about her. Although the matron’s quadrant of the palace was far away from the Empress’s chambers, Sophie insisted on installing the nursery for the baby next to her rooms. As a cherry on top, she also demanded to be the one who decorated it. Elisabeth’s baby wasn’t even born yet, and the drama was coming to a disturbing climax.
36. Her Labor Was Brutal
On March 5, 1855, the naïve teenaged Empress gave birth to a baby girl just 10 months after her wedding, but a seeming lifetime of Sophie’s nagging. It was supposed to be a happy time, and maybe Elisabeth thought things would calm down now. Instead, it was only the beginning of another nightmare. Sophie of Bavaria went ahead and, without asking any permission, named the baby girl “Sophie” after herself. Then she added kidnapping to her repertoire.
37. Her Mother-In-Law Kidnapped Her Child
Dismissing Sisi as a “silly young mother,” Sophie all but stole the baby girl right out of the birthing room. She then refused for months to let Elisabeth see, breastfeed, or care for her newborn without her express permission. Incredibly, she later did the same exact thing with her second grandchild, Gisela. Though this tore Elisabeth apart, the matron wouldn’t budge. Sadly, in the end, Sisi would have precious little time with baby Sophie.
38. She Learned To Despise Her Husband
Throughout this turmoil, Elisabeth’s husband, Emperor Franz Jospeh, was the opposite of a comfort to her. She begged Franz to change Sophie’s mind, but the Emperor was no match for his mother—and he didn’t try that hard to convince her, anyway. Although never completely in love with Franz, Elisabeth now began to disdain him as a dull, unimaginative, and stale man pinned right under mummy’s thumb. Meanwhile, though, Elisabeth started reinventing herself.
39. She Had A Bizarre Effect On People
Even as her private world was falling apart around her, the Empress’s public image was taking off. Around this time, Elisabeth became an honest-to-God sensation. At balls, the Empress’s now incredible beauty became the talk of the entire room, to the point that people truly couldn’t handle themselves around her. Nobles would clamor to get closer, touch her hand, or catch a glimpse of her face. As one gala attendee recalled, “the people here acted insane. I have never seen anyone having such an effect before”. If only they knew the truth…
40. She Buried Her Child
In 1857, Elisabeth endured a mother’s worst nightmare. Her two daughters Gisela and Sophie became ill with diarrhea, and while Gisela slowly got better, Sophie only got worse. Nothing the doctors did seemed to help, and everyone just had to wait and pray. Eventually, the two-year-old girl fell victim to a terrible end, probably from typhus. Elisabeth was still a teenager, yet she was already mourning her baby. It didn’t get better.
41. She Had A Breakdown
Even the smallest moments hit the sensitive Elisabeth right in her heart, so she was nearly driven mad with grief over the earth-shattering loss of her little girl. The effects were obvious and heartbreaking. She refused to eat almost anything, and spent her days in total desolation, unwilling to distract herself from her all-consuming sadness. Soon enough, it began to have an outsized effect on the rest of her life.
42. She Was A Distant Mother
Little Sophie’s passing threw the already neurotic and fragile Elisabeth into the throes of a deep depression that would haunt her for the rest of her years. Sadly, that was far from the worst part. Elisabeth even began to withdraw from her surviving daughter Gisela, neglecting the girl when she needed her mother most, as if their distance would somehow help heal her mourning for her eldest girl.
Their relationship never recovered; the pair were never close again. Only, this became the least of Elisabeth’s worries.
43. She Had Boy Problems
By the late 1850s, the still-mourning Empress Elisabeth had borne Franz Joseph two daughters, but no sons. In an empire obsessed with male heirs, this was a big cause for concern, and the pushback was unimaginably painful. The court began to isolate Sisi even more, blaming her for not doing her duty properly. As always, the head of this hate committee was her mother-in-law Sophie, who didn’t mince her words…
44. She Got A Cruel Letter
One day, Empress Elisabeth walked into her study at the palace, and immediately made a chilling discovery. On her desk was a small pamphlet with some choice, cruel passages that someone had underlined. “The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne,” it read, “If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State”. The suspected source of this obscenely vicious broadside? I’ll give you three gue—Sophie. It was totally Sophie. But this time, Elisabeth wasn’t playing nice.
45. She Was A Mean Girl
Elisabeth had spent enough time in the Viennese court by now to gain some self-confidence, and she wasn’t going to take insults lying down anymore. She slapped Sophie right back… and she did it in the best way possible. Eventually, she took to throwing so-called “orphan balls,” debauched soirees where she only invited young couples and refused to invite any mothers. Of course, this meant that she could strictly exclude Sophie of Bavaria from attending. She also started getting some other new hobbies.
46. She Had A Compulsive Habit
Empress Elisabeth was a horse girl to end all horse girls, and was one of the very best horseback riders in the world during her heyday. Indeed, Elisabeth insisted on riding for hours upon hours every day. This led to a vicious controversy. Not only was her obsession seen as unladylike, but both Sophie and her husband Franz Joseph were afraid it would harm her precious fertility. False fears or not, Sophie and Franz did have something to fret about.
47. She Earned A Cool Nickname
As it happened, Elisabeth did take her passion of horse riding to dangerous levels. She had a coterie of male friends who she went hunting with, and she more than kept up with the boys, earning the nickname “Queen Riding to Hounds”. But along with this nickname went a reputation for recklessness. On at least one occasion while riding with her men, Elisabeth got into a horrific accident and lost consciousness—and then the situation got really worrying.
48. She Had A Death Wish
Elisabeth had a notorious drive to go harder, faster, and longer while riding. But this was rooted in a chilling desire. Even according to herself, Sisi wanted to escape palace life by any means possible, even death. After one hunting jaunt, she exclaimed on her return to Vienna, “Why must I return to my cage? Why could not I have broken all my bones, so as to put an end to it—everything!” Yes, Elisabeth was on a downward spiral.
49. She Was Utterly Neurotic
Vienna and its stuffy court had never grown on Elisabeth, even through all her years of ruling. Indeed, the Empress despised her royal life so much, many historians believe her frequent coughing fits and panics, which started in earnest when she arrived in the Austrian capital, were partly psychosomatic. It got so bad that she stayed away from Vienna for a full two years…and the moment she returned, Elisabeth experienced a migraine in the carriage and puked four times, all on the way there.
Elisabeth’s next response to Vienna’s constant demands was quietly devastating.
50. She Developed A Disorder
As mentioned earlier, Elisabeth insisted on keeping a rigorously trim figure even through her pregnancies, maintaining almost the exact same weight throughout her life. This compulsion contained a dark secret. Seemingly unable to control anything else in her life in the Viennese court, Elisabeth strictly controlled her food intake and her exercise, and most historians now believe she had an eating disorder. As the years wore on, it reached startling proportions.
51. She Ate Gruesome Meals
Never a prodigious eater, Elisabeth eventually developed a total disgust for meat. She avoided animal flesh at all costs, and would often go without meals rather than eat any meat if that was the only thing on offer. Still, she was conscientious about her nutrient intake, and to get protein, the Empress often just squeezed steak juice into her soup and called it a day. Unfortunately, this gets more idiosyncratic.
52. She Wanted An Invisible Waist
Elisabeth’s obsessive trimness also manifested in an infatuation with “tight-lacing,” where women wore their corsets so tight that it made them wasp-waisted. Of course, this was Elisabeth, so your average tight corset simply would not do. The young Empress outsourced special rigid corsets all the way from Paris—used specifically by courtesans—to achieve the sucked-in look. Yet this habit was also a secret revenge.
53. She Defied Her Mother-In-Law
Although the informal, freedom-loving Elisabeth generally hated waiting around to get dressed up in court finery, she had no problem at all when it came to tight-lacing, even though it often took an hour to achieve the proper effect. Why submit herself to it then? It was actually an ingenious act of defiance. She liked showing off her thin waist in part because it proudly told her mother-in-law Sophie that nope, she wasn’t pregnant with a son yet. But not for long…
54. She Finally Had A Boy
On August 21, 1858, Elisabeth finally shut her mother-in-law’s mouth and gave birth to a baby boy, the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. The happy news came with a 101-gun salute and the blossoming of Elisabeth’s full political power at court, whose courtiers would now deign to truly accept her into their fold. Once more, Sisi probably hoped this would be her turning point into happiness, but once more she was very, very wrong.
55. Her Son Was Painfully Sensitive
Like all of her children up to that point, the Dowager Empress Sophie let Elisabeth have no say in Rudolf’s upbringing. Yet the biggest betrayal came from Elisabeth’s own husband. Franz Joseph had been more ecstatic than anyone that he had finally had a boy…until he realized his son wasn’t like him at all. Instead of wanting to play war games and shoot cannons like his father, Rudolf grew into an emotionally vulnerable child. The Manly Man Emperor was aghast, so he embarked on a ruthless mission.
56. Her Husband Harmed Her Son
Elisabeth never had much control over her children’s day-to-day lives, and Emperor Franz made sure it stayed the same for Rudolf. While Elisabeth was away or otherwise absent, the Emperor tried to drill manhood into her son behind her back, hiring a Major-General to take over the boy’s education. The soldier would wake poor Rudolf up with pistol shots in the middle of the night and force him to train in extreme weather conditions. Eventually, though, Elisabeth found out, and it came to a bitter end.
57. She Gave The Emperor A Furious Ultimatum
One day, Elisabeth returned from a lengthy stay away, and she witnessed a chilling sight. After all of these cruel lessons in “manhood,” poor Rudolf was on the brink of insanity. Elisabeth immediately demanded that Franz Joseph stop her son’s training. Luckily, the Emperor gave into his headstrong wife…but it may have been too late. This near-mental collapse might help explain Rudolf’s infamous actions in later years.
58. Her Beauty Regime Was Punishing
Though Elisabeth loved her children in her own way, she also became dangerously self-obsessed and inward turning over the years. The Empress was famous throughout Austria and beyond for her incredibly long chestnut brown hair, and she made sure to take punishingly good care of it. She would schedule an entire day off every two weeks just to wash her locks in a special egg mixture. She also hired a personal hairdresser…and her demands were unhinged.
59. She Was A Harsh Mistress
When Elisabeth hired Franziska Feifalik to attend to all her mane needs, it was no cushy royal position. Feifalik had to wear white gloves without any rings when she worked the Empress’s precious royal locks. But that wasn’t all. When Feifalik completed the hairdo, Elisabeth forced the servant to present her with the comb while she critically examined any strands that had fallen out. Obviously, Elisabeth’s underlying unhappiness was still leading her down dark paths. She would only go further.
60. She Loved Rebels
One of Elisabeth’s biggest strains in conservative Vienna were her liberal-minded beliefs. She had never quite abandoned her free-wheeling upbringing, and this was in constant tension with Vienna’s rigid ways. So one day, she found a surprising outlet. She became obsessed with Hungary, one of Austria’s unruly territories at the time. Sisi felt an affinity with its staunch independence hidden under a placid interior…but there might have been a more salacious reason for her ardor.
61. She Had A Secret Crush
When Elisabeth became one of Hungary’s key supporters, many whispered she had scandalous motives. Those in the know claimed it was because she was in love with the handsome Hungarian Count Gyula Andrassy. Andrassy was a dashing, vain, and infamous rake who was nonetheless whip-smart—AKA everything Elisabeth wanted, and more particularly everything her husband Franz Joseph wasn’t. But she was treading on dangerous ground.
62. She Had A Romeo And Juliet Story
Elisabeth and Andrassy quickly fell into, at the very least, a deep friendship. They were soon corresponding constantly in Hungarian, passing letters back and forth through clandestine routes to avoid too much attention on their relationship. Yet the pair met a bitter fate. Although most historians believe they were in love, they also believe that Elisabeth could have never acted on her desires, and that the two never consummated their passions. Perhaps frustrated, Elisabeth began taking it out on her husband.
63. She Controlled Her Husband
Although Elisabeth might not have been able to have Count Andrassy for herself, she made darn sure Emperor Franz Joseph gave her everything else she wanted for the Count. Sisi even pushed her husband to make Andrassy the Premier of Hungary, and her methods could be terribly cruel. She once threatened Franz Joseph in a letter about her preferred candidate, “If you say ‘No,’ you will be relieved forever from my future”. Then again, Andrassy wasn’t Elisabeth’s only flirtation.
64. She Liked Younger Men
Elisabeth loved riding and hunting for its own sake, but she also liked the company of the men on those jaunts. One of the Empress’s favorite hunting companions was the rough, crude, and excessively talented horseman Bay Middleton, who was nine years her junior. Elisabeth harbored feelings for Bay, and loved to make him jealous by flirting with her other horsey boys. As with Andrassy, however, Elisabeth and Bay could look but not touch. This is never a recipe for healthy affection, but their love soon grew even more tainted.
65. She Sent Clandestine Letters
Eventually, Middleton grew so romantically frustrated with his royal conundrum, he quit Elisabeth’s riding company entirely and found himself a nice, calm fiancée he could caress whenever he wanted. Elisabeth took it very hard: With Bay gone, the once indomitable Empress gave up riding entirely…but she didn’t give up Bay. She kept up a secret correspondence with him for years and even met him again a handful of times incognito. Yet Elisabeth’s bad luck with romance didn’t stop there.
66. Her Lover Met A Violent End
Bay Middleton was a vicious daredevil, just like everyone else in Elisabeth’s riding set. In fact, Elisabeth probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But the Empress’s lover paid a high price for his daring. In 1892, Middleton was gunning along in a horse race once more when he slammed to the ground. It was over in seconds; he broke his neck and perished almost instantly. It was almost like Elisabeth was cursed to be unhappy…and once more, she took a lot of that unhappiness out on her husband.
67. She Refused To Do One Thing
Not content to just boss Emperor Franz Joseph around about which political positions to appoint, Elisabeth also dealt him a cruel blow behind bedroom doors. Partly because she loathed the idea of being pregnant again and ruining her figure, and partly because she had zero interest in him, Sisi began refusing to let the Emperor sleep with her. Like, ever. And her chilliness went beyond that.
68. She Played A Cruel Joke On The Emperor
The Empress found increasingly bizarre ways to insult Franz Joseph. A passionate devotee of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Elisabeth had a bedroom in one of her palaces done up like a fantasy set for the play. In a supremely mean joke, she then had her Bed of State depict the Faerie Queen Titania with a donkey, a clear reference that turned her into the legendary beauty and her husband Franz Joseph into the mule. Ouch. Still, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t, er, “giving” to the Emperor in other ways.
69. She Was In A Love Triangle
Empress Elisabeth was a famously unconventional woman, but most people didn’t know her most racy act. Since she very well didn’t want sleep with Franz Jospeh, Sisi actively encouraged him to take the actress Katharina Schratt as his mistress after noticing the Emperor ogling the thespian. When Franz Jospeh, still quite gaga over his wife, protested, Elisabeth put her foot down and insisted. Not that she was actually nice to the poor woman…
70. She Made Fun Of Other Women
One day, a visiting dignitary saw Emperor Franz’s apartments as a part of an official tour with the royal couple. While they were inside the rooms, Sisi showed him a private portrait of Katharina Schratt and asked the dignitary if he liked it. Perhaps knowing what Elisabeth was aiming at, the dignitary responded right away: “She looks horribly common”. Even worse, this caused Elisabeth to burst into laughter right in her husband’s face.
Eventually, though, Sisi did go back to her husband’s bed. She just did it on her terms.
71. She Manifested A Pregnancy
Elisabeth only conceived a fourth child when she wanted a fourth child. That is, after Hungary and Austria finally reached an agreement, and she and Franz Joseph became King and Queen of Hungary. Her reasons were ruthless. Once the imperial integration was complete, Sisi knew it would be politically advantageous to birth an heir in Budapest.
Well, that’s exactly what she did. Her daughter Marie Valerie was born in the Hungarian metropolis in 1868. Only, it didn’t go how Elisabeth planned.
72. She Smothered Her Child
This time around, Empress Elisabeth demanded that she actually take care of her child personally for once. The plan backfired horribly. Deprived of her maternal instinct for years and estranged from many of her children, the once emotionally withdrawn Empress now smothered her youngest daughter. People at court snidely called Marie Valerie “The Only Child” because of how much Elisabeth doted on her. There were other consequences, too.
73. She Played Favorites
Unfortunately, Elisabeth’s other children felt the full force of her favortism in very upsetting ways. While Elisabeth claimed Marie Valerie could marry “a chimney sweep” as long as the girl was happy with her groom, she forced her eldest daughter Gisela into marriage with Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Somehow, she managed to make it even worse. To add insult to injury, Sisi showed up to the wedding in her top-notch finery, as if she wanted to outshine her daughter.
Elisabeth’s bad habits and selfish ways were getting out of control, and it led to one very bizarre moment in history.
74. She Ghosted Queen Victoria
As Elisabeth matured from gangly teen to Empress in the bloom of her power, she didn’t give a darn who she offended—but one day she insulted one of the most powerful women on Earth. While visiting England, Elisabeth busted into Queen Victoria’s residence for lunch much earlier than she was expected, interrupting the monarch at Church. And then the Empress really did her worst.
Victoria hastily left Church, met the Austrian ruler, and was just about to set up the lunch Elisabeth was apparently so desperate to chow down on. Sisi then suddenly decided she actually didn’t want refreshment anymore, and left the palace after a mere 45 minutes and a whole lot of trouble. Guess what? Her next move was even odder.
75. She Was A Bad Girl
As Elisabeth grew more and more miserable in Vienna, her behavior grew more erratic. Besides her various panic attacks, she was also hyperactive and often suffered from insomnia—and to combat these things, she took up a scandalous habit. The Empress of Austria started the (at that time) very manly pastime of smoking to make the wee hours pass by, which absolutely shocked Viennese polite society. Then again, Elisabeth was getting harder to get along with in general…
76. She Got Into A Cat Fight
Elisabeth was one of the most beautiful women in Europe, but she wasn’t the only beautiful woman in Europe. One day, the gorgeous Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, was visiting court, and a jealous Elisabeth eyed Eugenie up for all she was worth. Later on during the day, an attendant accidentally stumbled upon the two Empresses in a room together, taking measurements of each other’s waist, hips, and calves. Ladies, ladies, you’re both hot.
Throughout her life, Elisabeth had gone through a variety of obsessions, from waist measurements, to horse riding, to the entire nation of Hungary. Now she turned to her latest fixation.
77. She Developed An Odd Fixation
In Elisabeth’s later years, she took to walking everywhere. While this sounds ho-hum, this is Elisabeth we’re talking about—so it was actually vicious and tormenting. Beginning in the early hours of dawn, she would range over mountains on day-long hikes, never stopping for food. And that wasn’t all. The Empress’s “walking” pace was so vigorous, her ladies-in-waiting insisted on having a carriage trail them so they could periodically collapse into it and recover their senses.
An unsuspecting officer even once stopped her entourage—out roaming in the dark of the night—and asked if they were fleeing pursuers, they were going so fast. Between all these obsessions, then, it’s no wonder her family life began to truly fall apart.
78. She Ignored Her Son
If Elisabeth’s relationship to her husband was out of whack and the one with her daughter Gisela distant, her relationship to her son Rudolf was downright destructive. Just as she did with Gisela, Elisabeth forced Rudolf into a loveless union with Princess Stephanie of Belgium…and this time, she didn’t get away with it. Rudolf grew more and more dissatisfied. Soon, he became hugely depressed and sought comfort in the arms of mistresses. But by then, Elisabeth had washed her hands of him and barely noticed. It would take a grave tragedy to wake her up.
79. She Passed On Her Genes
Elisabeth and Rudolf were eerily alike in many ways. Just like her, the Crown Prince was stubborn, sensitive, introverted, depressive, and largely uninterested in artifice. Indeed, they were probably the last two people on Earth who could ever be happy in a loveless marriage, as Elisabeth knew all too well. Moreover, Rudolf departed from his father’s conservative political views, taking up Elisabeth’s more liberal beliefs instead. Yet thanks to the imminent catastrophe lying in wait, they would never really know each other.
80. She Was In The Middle Of A Bloodbath
On January 30, 1889, Elisabeth suffered her worst blow yet. Indeed, it was possibly the worst experience she ever had to go through, except perhaps her own horrific end. After years of depression, her only son Rudolf took his own life. Only, there was more. Rudolf took his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera along with him in a so-called “love pact”. The event, now infamous as the Mayerling Incident, sent shockwaves through Austria…and Elisabeth was never the same.
81. She Broke Devastating News To Her Husband
Rudolf’s heartbreaking decision to end his life not only threw the line of succession into a tailspin, it also broke his mother’s heart. Elisabeth was one of the first people to find out, so she had the weighty task of breaking the news to Emperor Franz Joseph. Never one for public emotion, she sent Katharina Schratt in to comfort him immediately after—but inside, Elisabeth was falling apart. It didn’t take long for it to start showing.
82. She Tried To Raise Her Son From The Grave
For her short remaining years, Elisabeth could never let go of her son’s tragedy. Her grief quickly grew desperate and dark. She tried to establish contact with his ghost in a séance, and even visited the family crypt to be nearer to him. In her public life, she also almost exclusively wore black, and used a fan and a parasol to cover her face from prying eyes, unwilling to be part of the world. Then again, this turn inward had been a long time coming.
83. She Became A Recluse
A life in the spotlight as the most celebrated beauty of her age twisted Elisabeth in tragic ways. She began to believe it was her “duty” to be beautiful. This led to one of her most notorious decisions. After she turned 32, Elisabeth absolutely refused to sit for any more photos or portraits, preferring to live in an eternal, youthful glow in the public’s imagination. Only, as her middle age came on, her life was anything but beautiful.
84. She Went To A Dark Place
Rudolf’s end undeniably broke the Empress, and what little luster she saw in life began to fade quickly. Her melancholy was so intense, even her family, who were used to her mood swings and her strange need to put herself in mortal danger, began to seriously worry. As her daughter Valerie once confessed about her mother, “She envies Rudolf his death”. Yet fate had a much crueler twist in store for Empress Elisabeth.
85. She Had A Horrific Decade
As it turned out, the late 1800s were brutal to Empress Elisabeth. Not because she died, but because she lived while everyone else seemed to perish around her. In the four-year span from 1888 to 1892, she lost her father, her mother, her sister, her only son, Bay Middleton, and also her beloved Hungarian Gyula Andrassy. Upon Andrassy’s passing, the broken Elisabeth reportedly cried out, “My last and only friend is dead”. Then suddenly, in another shocking turn of the screw, she was next.
86. She Was In Fatal Danger
Just before the turn of the 20th century, Elisabeth’s informality doomed her to a gruesome end. In 1898, she was traveling anonymously through Geneva, Switzerland. Despite hearing reports of plots against monarchs’ lives, she decided to court danger and catch a ship to a nearby city without any entourage. Almost no one in her family liked this idea; after all, this was right before WWI, and political tensions were at an all-time high.
Little did Elisabeth know it at the time, but this sealed her fate. Because of her decision to forgo any pomp or circumstance, she only had one lady-in-waiting with her when the Grim Reaper came knocking.
87. Her End Was Quick And Dirty
When the anarchist Luigi Lucheni heard Empress Elisabeth of Austria was in town in Geneva, he quickly devised a chilling plan. Lucheni found her walking on a promenade toward her ship, almost entirely alone. It was too perfect for him not to take advantage of. He went up, peered under her parasol, and struck her in the heart with a crude four-inch needle file. Within moments, Sisi collapsed and was weaving in and out of consciousness.
88. Her Last Words Were Tragic
Everything happened so fast that Elisabeth’s last moments on Earth were full of confusion. After her collapse, attendants tore open her bodice laces, but could only see a minuscule incision above her left breast. Then, right before her end, Elisabeth regained consciousness for one last time. As she did, the once sharp woman was reduced to fear and bewilderment in the chaos. Her rescuers asked her if she was in pain, and she replied “No”. Instead, her final words broke their hearts. The royal meekly asked as she ran out of breath, “What happened?”
They pronounced her passing at 2:10 pm on September 10, 1898. She was 60 years old, and had ruled the Austrian empire for 44 years. And the aftermath was even more devastating.
89. Her Autopsy Revealed The Truth
The Empress’s official autopsy revealed heartbreaking findings. Lucheni’s aim was fatally accurate, with the needle penetrating over three inches into Elisabeth’s thorax, fracturing her rib, puncturing her lung, and then piercing her heart. She never had a chance. Ironically, her tight, wasp-waisted corset prolonged her life for a precious few minutes by stymieing the internal hemorrhage, but it never would have been enough.
90. Her Family Thought The Worst
When Emperor Franz Joseph and the rest of Elisabeth’s family heard the news, they were nearly on their knees in pain. But a more unsettling thought occurred to them. Because of Elisabeth’s chronic melancholy and her reaction to her son’s passing, when Franz and the children first found out about Elisabeth’s sudden end, they she had done it herself, just like Rudolf. When they realized it wasn’t, there was only one question on their minds: Why? Why had Lucheni done it? That answer is more frustrating than satisfactory.
91. Her Assailant Showed No Remorse
To those on the outside, Elisabeth’s informality, isolation from the Viennese court, and interest in small-fry Hungary had made her a champion of the common people, which made her end at the hands of an anarchist seem totally nonsensical. But her killer had his reasons. In truth, Lucheni was simply desperate to attack any political figure he could. Elisabeth was merely tragic collateral. As he said, “I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view”.
92. She Got Poetic Justice
When all of Austria and Hungary discovered their beloved ruler’s fate, the nations hurled themselves into a bottomless state of mourning, and they weren’t going to let her attacker off easy. The courts sentenced Lucheni to life imprisonment—although this actually enraged the devoted anarchist, since he hoped for capital punishment and to go out with a bang. Eventually, Lucheni got his wish by other means: On October 16, 1910, he succeeded in ending himself in his cell.
93. Hungary Fought For Her
Elisabeth had a triple coffin: two crypts of lead, and one ornate bronze exterior casket with clawed feet. The original inscription simply read “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria,” but her utterly loyal Hungarians balked at this exclusion of their realm. They demanded the final version also read “Queen of Hungary”. Her tomb lies in Capuchin Church in Vienna.
94. She Had Bizarre Laughing Fits
Elisabeth’s misery certainly had a self-destructive streak, but her psychic pain also took on eerie forms. She was vulnerable to strange fits, with one of her daughters once recalling, “Mama had a very strong bath, and when I went in to her, she could not stop laughing”. And as it happened, these insidious mental health issues were deeply rooted in her family tree.
95. Her Family Tree Was Twisted
Elisabeth may have come from a respectable family, but her father Duke Maximilian’s circus obsession was only the tip of the iceberg when it came to their eccentricities. Her grandfather Duke Pius was mentally feeble, and Elisabeth was cousins (and close friends) with none other than the notoriously unstable King Ludwig II of Bavaria. That’s not all, either. The Empress also developed a pathological fixation…
96. She Wanted To Be In An Insane Asylum
During her life, Elisabeth took a nearly indecent interest in the mentally ill, and she didn’t confine herself to mere reading on mental disorders. She frequently visited asylums, not to comfort patients but to prod them with questions and watch procedures like hypnotism take place. One day, when her husband asked her what she wanted for a gift for an upcoming occasion, she replied brightly and seriously: “What I would like best of all is a fully equipped insane asylum”.
97. She Thought Her Children Were Ugly
We know now that—partly because of her horrible experiences with her mother-in-law—Sisi wasn’t a great mother, and could never figure out how to regulate her attachment to her children. Sadly, she was a worse grandmother. Always image-conscious, Elisabeth was acutely aware that her daughter Gisela lacked beauty, and she never fully forgave the girl for it. When Gisela gave birth to a granddaughter, Elisabeth’s response was appalling. “Gisela’s child is of a rare ugliness, “ she said, “it looks exactly like Gisela”.