This is a post that I wrote after visiting Vienna in 2012 but somehow never published. Enjoy!
Empress Elisabeth of Austria had everything the world and God could offer. She was beautiful and slender. Fiery and determined and frighteningly intelligent. She was born into great money and married into even greater. Her husband was not only a prince, but a good and gallant one, who married her for love, not money. She had several healthy beautiful children. In a restricted court society, she had great freedom, and when she lacked freedom, she took it anyway.
Empress Elisabeth had absolutely everything. And was incredibly, tragically unhappy.
Many said she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Her hair was so long she could stand on it.
She had an 18-inch waist (if that):
She was the queen of fashion in the Austro-Hungarian Empire:
Empress Elisabeth of Austria was the most beautiful woman in the world. And she knew it.
I would summarize Elisabeth’s personality using the following three (or four?) words: vanity, and mental instability.
A staggering proportion of her life’s energy was spent on the upkeep of her famous beauty. Her hair required an average of three hours of care and styling daily. The rest of the day was devoted to exercising vigorously, and to eating as little as possible. Like Catherine of Siena, Elisabeth was another historical figure who clearly had an eating disorder. I won’t call it anorexia, or bulimia, or exercise bulimia, because it was a combination of all these. Suffice it to say, Elisabeth had disordered eating. She would go on crash diets, eating nothing but oranges and chicken broth for weeks. She had a private exercise room in each of her palaces. Walking was a popular Victorian pastime, and Elisabeth loved walking. Except her walks sometimes lasted 8 hours. And instead of walking she practically ran. Her other favorite form of exercise was horseback riding, which she practiced daily and fiercely. She preferred eating while standing, and when forced to sit at public functions and state dinners, she never took more than 25 minutes to finish eating (a great inconvenience to the guests, because one had to stop eating when the person of highest rank set down their fork).
But her beauty was reserved only for herself. Even though she had a handsome royal husband who worshiped and adored her, she would have none of him. She spent years at a time away from the Viennese court, and even when she was home, her husband had to petition to see her along with everyone else. But she never took a lover, either. Because Elisabeth hated sex. She was [reportedly] frigid, and wrote poems on the disgusting nature of physical passion. We are not dealing with Helen of Troy here, people. She posed for many famous portraits, as was her royal duty, but she was very reluctant to have her photograph made. She had a personal photographer who had exclusive rights to reproducing her image (and only rarely did she give him permission), and when paparazzi got too close, she thwarted their efforts with a fan she kept handy at all times.
Elisabeth’s favorite pastimes were riding, not eating, and writing volume after volume of melancholy, nihilisic poetry.
I guess what finally fascinates me about Elisabeth, is her infinite self-absorption. Okay, I get that not all people who “have it all” are happy. I understand that the pressures of the court, the pressures of her royal mother-in-law (who was super strict regarding Elisabeth’s behavior in Vienna and restricted Elisabeth’s role in the raising of her own children) can make being rich, famous, beautiful, and powerful not all that fun. But Elisabeth demonstrated that she wasn’t afraid to break the imperial mould. Contrary to the wishes of her husband, her mother-in-law, and her government, she spent the majority of her time far away from the Viennese court, traveling for years at a time all around Europe. At some point, Elisabeth learned to do what she pleased, and to hell with everyone else. And yet, somehow… she never managed to do anything to make herself happy. She was skinny and beautiful. Not happy. She traveled wherever she wanted. Not happy. She could have had any lover she chose. She didn’t want any. She spent millions and millions building fabulous palaces for herself. She used them once and then promptly sold them. She threw all her energy into helping the “plight” of the Hungarians. After being crowned Queen of Hungary, she promptly ignored their political problems.
Elisabeth had the resources and the strength of will and character to do whatever it took to make herself happy. And she tried – why else would she have built the palaces, why else would she have roamed the world? I think she was looking for something she never finally found, and never even really knew what it was.
Now her face and her beauty of which she was so jealous are plastered on cheap knicknacks that people covet, talismanlike, just to touch a bit of her melancholy mystique. Sissi dressup dolls and fashion figurines fly off the shelves at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna; she is every girl’s fantasy of a fairy princess. But her dark hair and shimmering gowns just keep reminding us that being beautiful is more important than being happy.