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?

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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 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.

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.

sibling rivalry never goes out of style.

the "it" sisters of 2011

Sisters. Can’t love with them, can’t love without them. It has more than come to light that at the latest royal wedding, all eyes were not on Kate. Some were on her younger sister, Pippa. Many, in fact, were on her younger sister. Including those of the spare heir, the paparazzi, and her increasingly anxious beau.

But, what’s a royal wedding without a wee scandal, yes? My own royal wedding was replete with sister jealousies, as many of you know. Word on the street is that I scooped my elder sister for the Emperor’s attentions using my feminine wiles. It was my sister, Nené , who was slated for the throne. Franz Josef’s mother and our mother, Ludovica (who were also  sisters) had painstakingly arranged it. But, alas, my sister was a bit of a sour puss, and, well, it’s not exactly that I cavorted in a bikini top, but the Emperor found my shy-yet-frisky demeanor a bit more to his liking.

the "sit" sisters of 1848

I’m setting the record straight here and now. I did not flirt with the Emperor during the betrothal meeting. I did not bat my eyelashes. I did not, as the movie indicates, accidentally hook the Emperor with a fishing line whilst he tarried to the castle. No, I think the Emperor’s choosing me had more to do with passive-aggressively thwarting his mother’s meddlesome ways.

Whatever the reason for Franz Josef choosing me over my sister, it caused quite a stir in our family. Nené didn’t speak to me for months! Of course, eventually, she found a beau of her own, and it’s been said that her marriage was the happiest of all us Wittelsbach girls.

It remains to be seen how the Middleton girls stack up over the marital long haul. I’m sure we’ll all find out.

issue. and that rhymes with tissue.

Maria Theresa before her 16 births.

My kingdom for an HEIR! A male heir, that is.  The cry was heard throughout the world, issued by wives and their protectors.  For until the 20th century confirmed that the sperm donors, not the incubators, determined the sex of a child, women took the rap.

Remember Anne Boleyn?  The chopping block stood more than ready when a queen failed to give birth to a thriving male child.

In my own case, my mother-in-law, the Archduchess, stood beside my bed with each of my childbirths, ready to praise or condemn me depending on what the new baby bore between its legs.  My first baby was a girl.  My second baby: also a girl.  And then, praise the Lord, my Rudolf entered the world, and all was well.  For a while.

My dear Mummi, when it came to issue, she was a champion.  She had ten babies.  Ten!  Can you imagine?  In the days when hot water and a brass bedrail was all a laboring damsel had for her trouble.  No epidural. No Demerol.  No–oh, what do they call it, twilight sleep?  And that paragon Maria Theresa, she was a brood mare to outdo all.  She gave birth to sixteen children.  And they all lived!  Tough act to follow for any Austrian monarch, don’t you agree?

Maria Theresa after expelling her brood.

After Rudolf, I had my very favorite child (conceived during one of my make-up sex encounters with the Emperor–those are always special, are they not?)

One hopes that this “male issue” pressure has subsided permanently.  I mean, look at the three most recent US Presidents.  They beget girls only! Girls!  Thank the Lord that women, queens, first ladies and the like no longer face the opprobrium dished out by the guillotine for giving birth to baby girls.  Well, legally, anyway!

sexting with the count

one hunk of hungarian handsome

Ah, the blogs.  The tweets.  The texts.  So many forms of expression!  No need for a go-between, these days, to deliver a sliver of wit, of inspiration.  All right, I’ll just say it. A dollop of lust.

In the Hof, during my daily hairdressing sessions where I was attended to by coiffe -masters, Greek tutors, and my bevy of ladies-in-waiting, my mind turned to matters of the, er,  heart.  I cannot tell you how impossibly lonely it was for me at Court there in torpid Vienna!  Always getting ready for some formal appointment with a snooty Viennese social climber or one of my mother-in-law’s sycophants.  So whilst the brandy and egg yolk masques penetrated my tresses and the ground leeches and vinegar assaulted my freckles, I closed my eyes and returned to my homeland. And, naturally, thoughts of my homeland led to horses.  And horses to counts, and, well, that’s when the trouble began!

Had I an instant communication device–a Blackberry a Droid–I might at least have been able to entertain myself–send a little quip to one of my sisters, perhaps.  Or a randy little missive to my friend, the Hungarian Count Gyula Andrássy.  I might have texted: Hair needs your expert attention. Please come.

Or I might have slipped off: Bodice heaving. Send help.

But, alas, I had to deliver my impulses the old fashioned way: through long, arduous, complicated and dangerous maneuvers which involved my dear Hungarian girl, Ida Ferenczy.

It was a brilliant stroke, I must say.  Who could argue with an Empress’s need to expand her knowledge of language?  Ida and I blathered on in our pig Latin way, under the auspices of tutelage.  Sharp as a boning knife, and nearly as fast as an iPhone, Ida scribbled  down my code in her native tongue–unable to be deciphered by the piggish herd of the Archduchess’s ladies-in-waiting–those nasty spies!  Then, twice a fortnight, off she tarried, by coach, with my ream of poems in hand.  Her perfect translation of my passion. Of my longing.

I awaited with much agitation for her arrival back to Court the following week when she would deliver a crisp square of parchment from the Count.  Yes, the wait was torture.  But how delicious when at last my red-cheeked Ida strode up with the letter!  How I nearly ripped the thing open, gorged on the ripe sentences that returned my desire.  You see, my le beau pendu was a political sensualist.  Yes, yes, he was vain (as am I!), but no man could fill a uniform the way he could. He was, like me, less a monarch and more a romantic.

He did like his brandy, his cards and anything in a dirndl–but his image, what with the tiger fur he favored, the gems sewed into his jacket, kept me from dissolving under many a leech-masque, and kept my imagination simmering long after the burner in my marriage turned off.

me and marie

say what you like about the eating of cake, the woman knew how to party

Marie Antoinette was my husband’s grandfather’s aunt, and, secretly, I idolized her.  Various portraits of “Madame Deficit” –as  the French continue to refer to her–hung about both the Hof and the summer castle, Schönbrunn. Sure, her life ended badly, but it was great fun while it lasted.

She had a sanguine temperament (unlike me and my constant battle with melancholy), and had such a salon of interesting friends, most notable among them, her suspected lover, Count Fersen.  Whether they did, or did not, consummate their affections remains gossip-worthy even now, a hundred years later, as I listen to the casual chit-chat of my ladies, while they tend me.

What we have in common more than anything, Marie and me, is perhaps our mutual appreciation for a good party–and I don’t mean one of those stuffy state Court affairs–no, I like to kick up my slippers at a festive ball.  And by festive, I mean, one that excludes parents!  (Including a certain Archduchess who shall not by named.)

every girl should have a faerie wand or two

Back in the early days of marriage, I would arrange these parties in my apartment, and they came to be known as Sisi’s “orphan balls.”

Most famous was one where I’d invited 25 couples and expressly forbid any consorts or mothers.  The speculation, of course, was that I was “acting out” after a fight with my mother-in-law, and that due to political and domestic pressures my husband had taken up with some tart or another, and perhaps all of that played a role in my need to host a ball where I called the shots, but I like to think that I held parties so I could move, unrestricted, at long last.

Dancing until dawn, watching the sunrise out the ballroom windows.  The poetry readings! The singing!  It was all so very Marie.  Ah, for those salad days once more.

why my sister did not become empress of austria

after my engagement, my sister grew grumpier yet

Alas, poor Nené, my humorless sister.  As the eldest daughter in an inbred family full of loons, she was the only sane one and for all of her sanity, she very nearly became an old maid.

As you all know, I was “that little monkey” who was dragged to Bad Ischl as an afterthought that day in August, 1853.  The Emperor was not supposed to pay me any mind–I was a mere child, just fresh from the nursery.

My sister’s likeness preceded her introduction in the form of many a studio shot: sitting in a brocade parlor chair with lips pinched; gazing into space, sporting a fresh heart-shaped coif; on horseback with the strong, straight back our father demanded of us, but an expression that merely said, “this corset is digging into my ribs.”

In photographs, my sister’s face always looked sour and stern.  Her eyes squinted under heavy brow bones, her mouth, well, someone should have recommended more of a smile–(though, in her defense, none of us Wittelsbach woman ever smiled with teeth showing for our family curse included a mouthful of unsightly brown). And yet, had Helene been bubbly and animated in the flesh, she may still have been able to charm the young Emperor.  But, it was not the case.

helene, looking glum, glum, glum

Now, here’s where I came in.  Franz Joseph’s mother, the ever-meddling Archduchess, had decided that her son, the heir, would marry her sister Ludovica’s daughter, period. No one was more surprised than she (except, maybe, me) when he chose “the little monkey” instead of the more turned out, well-behaved elder girl.

Years later the Emperor shared his disappointment in how plain and stern my sister looked when first they met.  “No youth!  No joie de vivre!  You’d think, at eighteen, she was forty!”

It is true, Emperor Franz Joseph robbed the cradle by plucking a fifteen-year-old child from her nursery, but things were quite different back then.  For one, not only was I a child, I was also the Emperor’s cousin.  Ah!  But there was no child protective police in 19th Century Europe, so off to the Hofburg I went, leaving my elder, jilted sister to sulk for years to come–until she finally married a wealthy prince named Prince Max at the ripe old age of 24.

But here is the irony. My sad-faced sister was the only one among us to have a happy marriage in the end.  Go figure.

In which I first meet the Archduchess

this lace is impossibly itchy!

The first time I laid eyes on the woman who would eventually ruin my life, she disappointed me.  In the flesh, the woman for whom we’d practiced hours curtseying was nothing more than a fluffed up matron.  Grey hair roughly pulled off a deeply-lined forehead revealed tired, dull eyes.  Her many necklaces tiered heavily round a wrinkled, white neck, accentuating an overly ample bosom that spilled, angry and powdered, out of her corseted trunk.

Mummi introduced us, and we curtsied and kissed the woman’s rings, which tasted of cold metal.  Her fingers were gnarled and deformed.  The woman turned to Mummi, and I whispered in my sister’s ear, “She’s like a witch.”

Of the two of us, Nené has always been the calm one, slower to laugh or show excitement, much more like Mummi, but this time she whacked me a hard one to the arm.  She whispered harshly back, “Do not ruin my chance to be the Archduchess’s daughter-in-law.”

The Archduchess herself didn’t hear a word, because her mouth was whispering into her own sister’s ear.  They couldn’t wait to go at it about their disappointments and their troubles.  My crinolines were itchy, and I looked around the drawing room for biscuits.