A tragic emperor's beautiful wife Memorial: Deaths of loved ones seemed to follow Franz Josef's ship of state like so many sharks. None was so devastating as the death of his beautiful wife 100 years ago this summer.

Sun Journal

March 19, 1998|By Myron Beckenstein | Myron Beckenstein,SUN STAFF

The Empress Elisabeth didn't realize she had just been assassinated.

As she and a lady-in-waiting were walking along a quay in Geneva a man rushed up, banged his hand on her chest, knocking her to the ground, and rushed off. The Countess Sztaray helped the empress to her feet. A passer-by tried to help her brush the dust off her clothes. Elisabeth said, "It's not worth it. Thank you very much."

She continued on her way "with her usual elastic step," boarded the steamer she had been trying to catch, and asked the countess, "What was that all about?" Then she start feeling strange, fell over and soon died.

The encounter with the man had not been accidental. He was an Italian anarchist looking for a prominent person to kill so he could get his name in history books. (His name isn't worth mentioning.)

He had not been banging his fist against her, he had been stabbing her with a homemade knife. But because of the blade's stiletto-like thinness and the angle of its entry, there was no sharp sensation of pain or visible flow of blood. But the blade perforated the empress' heart and she bled to death internally.

It was 100 years ago this summer that the empress of Austria was killed, a woman known for her outstanding beauty and sympathetic nature -- and for the troubles that filled her life.

Austria has never forgotten her. This year it will mark the Sept. 10 anniversary not with pomp and ceremony, things she hated, but with exhibits and appeals to popular culture. One major exhibit begins next month. Geneva will remembers her, too, with a limited-admission gala in which some of her effects will be auctioned.

For Elisabeth, death was the final blow. For her husband, Franz Josef, it was the latest of a series of tragedies that left him muttering, "Nothing is spared me in this world." Actually, more was yet to come.

His troubles began soon after he was crowned emperor of Austria in December 1848 and lasted until he died 68 years later in 1916. His contemporary monarch, Britain's Queen Victoria, known for her long reign, lasted only 64 years. Franz Josef's contemporaries included both Metternich and David Lloyd George, and all the 18 U.S. presidents from James K. Polk to Woodrow Wilson.

Franz Josef married Elisabeth for love when she was 16, but there was a reason their love didn't have a chance. For the same reason, his reign was doomed from the start.

The reason was his mother. It was an irony: But for his mother, Franz Josef never would have become emperor. Yet because of her, he never could be an effective emperor or the fulfilling husband he wanted to be.

The Archduchess Sophie didn't stop meddling even after she had achieved the throne for her son. Her meddling left a legacy of unhappiness, broken hearts and broken dreams.

If Elisabeth knew sorrow as a wife, she also knew pain as a mother. In 1889, their son, Rudolf, the popular heir to the throne, was found dead at an imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, along with his mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera. Was it suicide? Murder? The official verdict was a double suicide, but to this day some people don't accept that explanation.

The surfeit of tragedies suggests historical parallels between the Habsburgs and Kennedys. But the Habsburgs came first and had a greater body count.

Elisabeth was the third close relative of Franz Josef to die violently. In addition to the deaths of his wife and son, his brother Maximilian was executed in Mexico for his part in a French effort to take over that country. Maximilian's wife Carlotta went mad.

More was to come. Sixteen years after Elisabeth's murder, Rudolf's replacement as heir to the throne was murdered -- and this time most of the world felt the consequences.

The victim was Elisabeth's nephew, Franz Ferdinand. His motorcade blundered into the range of a fanatic while on a visit to a corner of the empire (Bosnia) that was unhappy with its place in the sun. Franz Ferdinand was not unsympathetic to the cause, but details didn't matter when opportunity to make a statement is at stake. He was slain, along with his wife, and World War I was born.

Elisabeth had still other problems. She was a cousin and close friend of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, known as Mad King Ludwig. Among other things, he believed in fairy tales and built the perfect fairy-tale castle, at Neuschwanstein. It was an inspiration to Walt Disney.

Mad King Ludwig was aptly named. And poor Elisabeth, her marriage long ago reduced to a shell, her son dead, drove herself half crazy worrying that she, too, was crazy, or soon would be, from inherited insanity.

The times over which Franz Josef and Elisabeth ruled were hard on Austria. He took over when Europe was in turmoil from the ill-fated democratic revolutions of 1848. Political turbulence marked almost their entire reign, with the various parts of the conglomerate empire wanting independence and going to various lengths to get it.

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