dowager, hofburg style

Back in the day, when I was the poor relation offered in marriage to the most powerful man in the world, like Lady Mary, I was often at the mercy of dowagers. In Lady Mary’s case, the quippy ladies (made delightfully acid-tongued by that genius, Mr. Fellowes), have the eldest Crowley daughter’s best interests at heart because she is, after all, their granddaughter.

photo from carnival film & television

photo from carnival film & television

Alas, would that that were true for yours truly.

The dowager in my life, my mother-in-law, was also my aunt–having been the Wittelsbach daughter who married most spectacularly. Archduchess Sophie was often referred to as, “the only man in the Hofburg.” Like the irrepressible Countess of Grantham, the Archduchess was ever-busy in the background at Court, pulling strings and making up for the passivity and laziness of the men who sat in power.

As a true model of strength, however, Sophie was a tad undercooked. Though she brokered deals and snapped the reins during the revolution of 1848, once she managed to finagle her darling and favorite son, Franzl, up on the throne, she threw all of her energies into the hand-wringing meddling of any overzealous mum, and set out to make  a reasonable marital match for him.

one big happy family 1861

one big happy family 1861

Ah, she had such hopes that my woefully placid elder sister, Helene, would be the niece slash daughter-in-law of her dreams. Alas, her Franzl found Helene petulant and mild, and instead, set his sights on the fifteen-year-old brat kid-sister. Me.

I have often wondered, lo these three seasons of Downton, if our story were a series, who would play the Archduchess? Do we even have a Bavarian Maggie Smith? An über Frau with a big stick?

I relish the thought of such scenes as Sophie snapping my babies off my breast and installing them instead to a nursery in the center of her apartments at the Hof. Or standing at the end of the bed I shared with her son on our wedding night schimpfing about my duties as an heir-producer. Or presiding over the insufferable 13-course Sovereign Court Table when her dear Franzl was off on state business. Or banning my animals–the monkey, the hunting dogs–from the Imperial apartments.

Perhaps, once Downton runs its course, the world will be open to exploring the juicy lives of the Habsburgs. What do you think?

some tidbits on my siblings …

Doesn’t my gay brother-in-law look thrilled to be in this portrait with my two hot sisters?

We Wittelsbach children were a handful, I admit. The eight of us were wild children, raised to ride well and walk as though we had wings beneath our feet, but stable, long-term relationships were not our strong suit.

My eldest brother, Ludwig, was raised to be a military man, but his real love was the theater, and he fell head over heels for an actress named Henriette. He soon knocked her up (twice) which caused quite a stir in the court. Wittelsbachs don’t marry commoners, apparently, and it was up to me to legislate his union with the woman. Which I did. Not that it did any good–she was shunned from the circle, and died, bitter and aggrieved. After which, my brother married (and divorced) a young dancer before having a fatal heart attack at age 90.

Helene (known to us as Nené), as you know, was slated to marry Franz Josef, when I scooped her in Bad Ischl. Poor Nené tried not to be bitter, and was bee-lining toward old maid, when Maximilian Anton von Thurn and Taxis scooped her up, and in short order, along came four babies. All was not well with poor Max, who died at the young age of 36, leaving Helene to raise their small children alone (with the help of a full staff and governesses and so on , of course).

My favorite brother Karl Theodor (Gackl), lost his first wife to tuberculosis (which he also suffered from). At age 35 he married 17-year-old Princess maria Josepha of Braganza with whom he had five children.

My handsome little brother Mapperl. What a cutie!

My three little sisters were all somewhat precocious–each of them (Marie, Mathilde and Sophie), engaging in countless affairs–even having “secret” children with their lovers who were squired off and raised elsewhere. Marie, known as The Heroine of Gaeta, had a husband with a malformed organ (which was eventually corrected, but not before she gave birth to a set of bastard twins by her lover); Mathilde ‘Spatz” married Marie’s brother, whom she despised; and poor Sophie — she kept getting set up with gay men (my brother-in-law and our cousin Mad King Ludwig II), and was eventually betrothed to Duke Ferdinand of Alencon. Ah, but dear Sophie was a handful, and eventually ran off with her doctor, for which she was punished and thrown into a mental asylum and shocked into submission.

My youngest sibling, dear brother Mapperl (Max Emanuel), had perhaps the happiest marriage. He wed his love, Princess Amelie of Coburg (even though she’d been promised to Prince Leopold of Bavaria–something I took care of by suggesting my daughter, Gisela, in Amalie’s place). They had three sons together before Mapperl died of ulcers at age 42.

As you can see, happily ever after was NOT the Wittelsbach tagline!

my brother-in-law Lutzi Wutzi

The Habsburgs were not noted for attractive offspring

God bless the homosexual men in my life. Unlike those serious, straight fellows who are always going on and on about dominion and defense strategies, polishing swords and adjusting their packages, the fops at Court have always been far more entertaining and personable.

Take my cousin Mad Ludwig. O sure, he had his issues–falling in love with his psychiatrist, obsessing over his fairy castle–but Ludwig II had an appreciation for the finer things. He kept Wagner in Steinways and patronized many a sculptor, filling his halls with marble busts and glamourous facades. Ludwig, who I’ve written about several times, was my playmate and confidante during those crazy Crimean years and various uprisings.

But Ludwig II wasn’t the only Mad Ludwig in my life.

My husband’s youngest brother, a man the Habsburgs literally kept in the closet (one offsite, as it turns out) was also named Ludwig. Ludwig Viktor, commonly referred to as the Archduke Lutzi Wutzi.

Lutzi made a far more attractive lady, don't you think?

Like Ludwig II, Lutzi had an eye for design. He commissioned a fancy Italian-style palace on the ring where he hosted his infamous single-sex soires inviting guests to “dress in costume,” wink-wink.

As the baby in a family of boys, Lutzi was coddled by his mum, the ever-protective Archduchess Sophie. Rumor has it that the matriarch, lamenting that she had no girls, would dress her youngest boy up in gowns and crinolines. I suppose the outfits grew on him, as he seemed much more comfortable pantsless.

...though this likeness of Lutzi is just plain scary

As with her other sons, the Archduchess was quite meddlesome in matters of betrothal, eventually setting her sights on my youngest sister–her namesake, Sophie Charlotte–as the perfect bride. Sophie, perhaps the prettiest of all of us Wittelsbach daughters, took one look at her intended and commenced to vomit. (Unfortunately for dear Sophie Charlotte, the family also tried hooking her up with the other gay Ludwig–the poor dear had quite a complex, and all but swore off men entirely–but that’s a story for a different day.)

I adored my brother-in-law, however, and we spent many afternoons together in the royal apartments over tea, where he offered good counsel on fashion and accessories while gossiping about who at Court was with child versus merely fat–splendid girl talk. Alas, dear Lutzi could not keep a secret, and after many a divulgement, I had to banish him from my inner circle.

Just as well, however, as my Franzl soon had to banish him from Vienna proper after one of his Orientalist steam bath encounters resulted in an officer giving the archduke a black eye when his royal hand squeezed the soldier’s very heterosexual knee. To avoid further scandal my emperor sent his baby brother into internal exile in his provincial bolthole, Schloss Kleßheim in Salzburg, where he lived notoriously and happily ever after.

the heroine of gaeta

how do you solve a problem like marie?

Do you know my sister, Marie? She was barely 12 when I was whisked away from my family to become Empress, but over the years following, we grew quite close. In fact, I named my favorite child after her.

They called her the Queen of Two Sicilies, which has such a romantic sound, does it not? Ha! The marriage of Poor Marie at age 17 to feeble, asexual King Francis of Naples was anything but romantic. Francis was a religious zealot, anxiety-ridden and afraid of his own shadow. Imagine my gorgeous sister, young, hopeful, willful. Bavarian through and through! She was tossed as a teenager into a kingdom threatened by revolution and anarchy, to rule beside a skinny little weasel who garnered no respect.

My sister and her wormy and sickly husband fled war-torn Naples, and sought refuge in the fortress at Gaeta during the political confusion surrounding the establishment Italy proper, where Marie’s defense of the fortress earned her the nickname “the heroine of Gaeta.” Alas, though Marie withstood several attacks on the fortress (I believe the King was meanwhile hiding under the bed), the fortress fell, and the couple escaped to Rome.

From then on, my sister (her confidence buoyed by all the political intrigue and turmoil and near assassination),  decided to live life on her own terms. For several years thereafter, brave-hearted Marie, traveled the world, swam naked in the sea, smoked cigars in public, and took a lover (who, by the way, was an officer of the Papal Guard). I actually facilitated this tryst, I’m proud to admit, as did our other politically-betrothed sister, the Countess Mathilde Trani.

sis with francis before "the operation"

Such was the pent up passion of my dear Marie, that she spit in the face of caution and ended up with child. If ever a big Bavarian family comes in handy, it’s when one of their ilk is knocked up out of wedlock. We three sisters pleaded illness and off we tarried to our family’s summer home, our beloved Possi, where we were greeted by dear Papa.  Always one to keep composure, he calmly offered, “Well, all right, such things happen. What’s the point of cackling?”

And, as it turned out, there was more than a bit of cackling amongst us bohemians at our Possenhofen idyll when it was revealed that dearest Marie had not merely one bastard in her womb, but two!

This story has somewhat of a happy ending, however. Understanding that scandal had its price, Marie handed her illegitimate baby girls over to the father, and returned to Francis, who admitted his sexual inadequacies, and underwent surgery to correct his particular penile deformation, and dear Marie was impregnated post-haste. Though the baby (who was born on my birthday) died in infancy, my sister and her husband developed an intimacy and new bond to rival any manufactured case study that Viagra could conjure, living, from then forward, rather happily ever after.

I’m such a Sisi

there's that apfel-cheeked karlheinz boehm crowning "me" empress

No, not “Sissi,” though the films about me starring Romy Schneider (that sad, sad gorgeous harlot–I mean, starlet), would beg to differ. We have Ernst Marischka, the film’s director, to thank for the blunder, but it’s an honest mistake, because Sissi is often the nickname for Elisabeth in Austria.

Here’s the real story on my various names. I was born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie Wittelsbach.  My Papa called me Lisi, but everyone else in my family bellowed Sisi! when I misbehaved.  I was never one for sitting about with my lessons, so shortcuts-are-me, even if that meant eliminating an extra letter.  And, frankly, Sisi looks better on paper than Sissi.  Tougher, leaner.

In our day, we had multiple names and titles, and partly this was to distinguish ourselves from the many other people in our family with the same given name. For instance, my mother’s real name was Marie, but shortly after birth her parents started calling her by her middle name, Ludovika, and promptly named a younger sister Maria.  My little sister was also named Marie, so it would have been quite confusing to have so many Maries running around, yes?  Of course we kinder all called our mother, the Princess of Bavaria, Mummi, and Papa called her, well, we shan’t go there.

Then there’s the whole Elizabeth versus Elisabeth conundrum.  We have the Americans to blame for that!  They often bastardize (bastardise?) good words by inserting the unwholesome “z” in place of the British “s” in –ise words, (e.g. organise/organize, recognise/recognize, realise/realize).  I propose that Microsoft adopt the Oxford spelling spellcheck as default in their next Windows upgrade, in order to right the wrongs done on behalf of the free Colonial world. But then again, I’m royalty, so of course I feel this way!

the mothers-in-law

With all the buzz about the new TV program Monster-in-Laws, it seems that less-than-charming mothers-in-law are once again in the public eye. I am quite sure that if I were alive today I would be glued to that particular reality television show, nodding in agreement when the Relationship Expert intervenes, wagging her finger at a meddlesome crone, and letting her have it.

It’s no secret that my own mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie, was a difficult woman. She disapproved of my exercising, my love of animals, my need for the occasional rest cure, and, of course, she was most affronted by her son’s complete obsession with me.

My monster-in-law in younger days

Never mind that she took complete possession of my children from the moment of their births–installing their very cradles in her apartments. Indeed, she turned my little ones against me, caused friction between the Emperor and myself, which all but drove him into the beds of countless tarts, thereby causing the eventual venereal diseases that necessitated the aforementioned rest cures.

But, having a son myself, I suppose I understand a mother’s love. Sometimes a woman forgets her boy is no longer a babe in short pants who needs to be reminded to wash his hands before supper. I certainly made mistakes with my own Rudolf, and if you asked that mousy woman who married him, she probably would not admit to collecting any Sisi Souvenirs.

Best castle ever: the Nueschwanstein

ludwig's fairy tale castle

A castle fit for God himself.

It’s no secret that I adored my cousin, Ludwig II. Like me, he was shy. A dreamer with a big heart and a need to follow his vision. As a child he would build these fantastic block castles, and I, seven years his senior, would flop down on the floor beside him and together we invented the most marvelous adventures.

When he became king (at the mere age of 18), he was truly clueless. His whole life he’d spent in the company of women – enjoying “dress up” and making little skits. He had no idea how to rule, so he appointed various politicians to do all that boring stuff, and set to his true work: building a fairy tale castle.

Ludwig based the design of the  “New Hohenschwangau Castle” on Christian kingship in the Middle Ages, and the new Versailles, recalling the aesthetic preferences the Bourbon King of France in its baroque-ness. The ultimate Nueschwanstein Castle was also inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner (whom he idolized and patronized–to the point of dedication of this very castle).


This is what the castle looked like when Ludwig died.

But, alas, my dear cousin never did get to see his fairy tale castle fully unveiled, as he died tragically before its completion. Another crazy genius, leaving the world a more interesting place than he found it.

5 castles series: Schönbrunn Palace

The baroque centerpiece of Vienna

I have decided to bow to expectation (and if you know me, you know how hard this is for me), and unveil some of the lesser known aspects of the ever-popular castles of Vienna. There are five of renown: Schönbrunn Palace, Hofburg Palace, Lower Belvedere, Upper Belvedere, and Schloss Wilhelminenberg.

Today we will tour Schönbrunn. Opulent homage to Maria Theresa, but originally built for Emperor Leopold I, this is where we spent much of our summers. How many rooms do you think in this Imperial cottage? Go ahead, take a guess. Nope, not even close.

1400 you say? Ding, ding, ding!

Schönbrunn is the well-known mother ship of the famous Palace Theater where Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played. Remember the movie Amadeus? The Palace Theater is where Mozart lost a contest for composers to his arch rival  Salieri.

i pledged my heart to the emperor in this very place. fitting, given that St. Augustine's is also called the habsburg heart crypt.

I married the Emperor in St. Augustine’s Church, another Schönbrunn feature. Perhaps my ambivalence on my wedding day has something to do with the fact that this church is also home to the exhumed Habsburg’s hearts? I don’t know. Just a thought.

Now we come to the most over-the-top aspects of Schönbrunn: the gardens and the zoo. The grounds, as you may glimpse below, continue to be manicured with characteristic Viennese attention to detail.  (Okay, let us call a spade a spade. Insufferable anal retention.)

As for the zoo, that is a sad memory for me. I bought a little macaque to entertain my daughter Valerie, but the ladies-in-waiting became quickly aghast due to its, um, indecorous obsession with its private parts, and it was then banished to the zoo. I could never bear to see animals behind bars, so, like a PETA member of yore, I boycotted the very institution.

That said, I should admit that I do have a prickly fondness for Schönbrunn on the whole. If for no other reason than, with 1400 rooms, I had ample space to hide from certain members of my family. All in all, if you have funds for one castle tour only, I suggest Schönbrunn without reservation. I mean with all those rooms embellished with gold leaf, the gardens, even the blasted zoo,  you are getting quite a hit of Vienna!

Fancy, yes?

all in the family

Here we all are, courtesy of Ludwig Angerer. My Franzl (in back at left) was by far the best looking, though that one on the far right, Karl, had a wicked crush on me.

The rumors are true. There is but one “legitimate” family portrait that features me, my husband, his family and our children. It is this portrait at right.

Before there was Photoshop, there was the photomontage expert. Smart handlers who knew how to juxtapose likenesses of us all in order to convey normal royal family togetherness. Ha! As if. Getting the blood sausage stains out of all the uniforms, well, that alone was quite toilsome.

Also, I’ve been much criticized for being a cold, distant mother. Rare is the photograph of me holding a child. On this I must opine. It wasn’t that I didn’t wish to stride about town with the children at my hip like Angelina Jolie, but the decorum of the day prohibited such unabashed public maternity. The staging alone required to gather us all in a ballroom or grand hall for a portrait was beyond the scope of our collective constitutions (remember, many of us were battling depression, grouchiness and familial ill-will), but here we are, in 1859, one big imperial clog.

Reviewing this portrait now, I will say, the choreography is a bit off, don’t you think? Who sits in that chair at left? A ghost? Shouldn’t my dear husband be in that chair? Well, you can thank the Archduchess for that edit. She was quite vocal on her assertions that her Franzl show the full measure of his uprightness and stare dead-eye into the lens, so there he is, as though readying himself for leading a battle. Which he did plenty of at the Hof.

Endnote: I am pleased, however, that my little Gisela is facing me, as it should be, rather than her grandmother, the matronly garbed Archduchess.

hats off to the princess

the not-so silent heroine of trw

A bit ago, I posted about the Royal Snubbing of Fergie, whilst musing on the possibility of Philip Treacy hats amongst the Royal Wedding retinue. My, my, am I prescient or what?

Not to toot my own horn, but I knew that where there’s a royal affair, there’s the pressure to set a trend. Not that any normal person could afford to tarry about under a Treacy headdress, but I’m sure there will soon be knockoffs fashioned by small Chinese children and sold for much more than the pennies they are paid.

Which makes it ironic (don’t you think) that Bea is auctioning off the hat and funneling the pounds to UNICEF, and Children in Crisis–two children’s charities. At this posting, the eBay bids have surpassed £20,200, and, along with that, some spotlight on the lot of poor and orphaned children throughout the world. It is often the reality that spectacle leads eventually to compassion, albeit circuitously. Who knew this better than the now-dead Princess Diana?

So here’s to Princess Bea–the child of the snubbed Fergie–she held her head (and headdress) with grace and class!