She Was Not Supposed to be Empress
Sisi traveled to the imperial court at the age of fifteen with her elder sister, Helene, who was intended as Emperor Franz Joseph's betrothed. It was there that the spirited and guileless young Duchess Elisabeth, "Sisi," inadvertently caught the eye--and stole the heart--of her cousin, the handsome young Emperor Franz Joseph. From almost the moment he saw Sisi, the emperor would not look twice at big sister Helene, instead declaring his intention to make Sisi his bride--and thus empress of much of Europe by the ripe old age of sixteen.
This did not sit well with Franz Joseph's most powerful advisor--his mother. The formidable Archduchess Sophie happened to be the same advisor who had arranged the marital match with Helene, and she did not believe that Sisi was the right bride for her beloved son. As you can imagine, things did not get off to the smoothest of starts between Empress Sisi and her mother-in-law.
She Was the Princess Diana of her Day
Known by such nicknames as "The Most Beautiful Woman Alive" and the "Fairy Queen" of her people, Sisi captured the hearts and minds of the public in a way that few iconic female rulers have done throughout history.
Like England's beloved Princess Diana, Sisi had a fractious relationship with certain members of her husband's family, often feeling like an outsider at court and preferring to mingle with commoners and escape royal life for her own private getaways. Like Diana, Sisi was painfully shy and sensitive, and yet she had a soft touch and a compassionate side that set her apart from the royals, who were often perceived as more formal and aloof.
Sound familiar to the "Queen of Hearts," Lady Di?
Every Day Was a Good Hair Day for Sisi
That's right, Empress Sisi's crown jewels were her rich chestnut waves, one of the physical features for which she became so famous. When the young Emperor Franz Joseph first beheld Sisi, he was immediately smitten by her, commenting specifically on her abundant hair. "What a beautiful crown of hair frames her face," he allegedly raved to his mother. And with good reason. Over the decades of her reign, Sisi's hair became so iconic that women throughout the empire attempted to fashion their own locks a la Sisi in order to emulate her elaborate appearance.
Sisi recruited a stylist from the opera house to manage her mane, devoting hours each day to its washing and combing and styling and upkeep. She also refused to cut her tresses. This led to hair so long and thick that Sisi often suffered from headaches; when Sisi needed relief from her heavy hairdo, she would reportedly loop a string through her bun and hook it to the ceiling, in order to gain a momentary reprieve from the weight of her waves.
She Was One of the First Targets of a Relentless Press
Sisi was hounded by the "paparazzi" of her day. From her first entry into her husband's capital of Vienna, Sisi's was the most recognized face in the entire Habsburg empire. Crowds gathered wherever she went, sometimes waiting for days if they knew that the enchanting empress was in the area. Viennese newspapers filled column after column with articles discussing everything from her physical appearance to her parenting skills, from her personality quirks to her wardrobe choices, from her marriage woes to her activities at court.
Because of this crushing public scrutiny, Sisi often fled the capital, traveling under the alias of "Countess Hohenembs" and seeking some solitude in remote regions outside of her husband's realm. As she became more and more bothered by the constant haranguing, the notoriously shy Sisi made it a habit not to leave home without a fan and a parasol, both tools to shield her face from prying eyes and camera lenses.
She Was an Intrepid World Traveler
Sisi had a perpetual case of Wanderlust, famously confessing: "I want always to be on the move; every ship I see sailing away fills me with the greatest desire to be on it." Her travels took her to places as far-flung as Egypt, Pompeii, Madeira and even Corfu, where she built a sprawling palace for herself.
In addition to the desire to see faraway lands, Sisi was a lifelong student of foreign languages. She was as comfortable in Hungarian as she was in her native German, and she could speak French, English, even ancient Greek!
She Was the Leading Fashion Icon of her Day
The people could not get enough of their stunning empress--eager as they were for images of her face, her figure, and her fashion choices--and Sisi knew that her incredible natural beauty was both a blessing and a curse. She often sought refuge in her vanity and her compulsive attention to her looks. Even after four children, she went to extreme measures to watch her weight and keep her narrow waist at below twenty inches!
Sisi feared the effects of aging, and sought always to keep her appearance young and fresh. She would reportedly cry at the sight of a gray hair in her famous coif. And she waged a lifelong battle against wrinkles, experimenting with homemade tinctures made of berries, eggs, sperm--even slabs of raw meat!
The Man Who Built the "Walt Disney Castle" Loved Her
Sisi won not only the heart of the world's most powerful emperor, but she was also a favorite of Bavaria's "Mad King Ludwig," the eccentric ruler who gave the world Neuschwanstein Castle. This happens to be the palatial residence used as the inspiration for Walt Disney's iconic castle.
King Ludwig had elaborate tastes and was known for his excessive style on everything from his passion for architecture to his patronage of the arts and music, and he was similarly effusive in his love and admiration for his cousin, Empress Sisi. Not bad for a secret admirer!
She Was Known as the Best Horsewoman In the World
Sisi was a talented athlete and she lived an active lifestyle until her dying day. She practiced gymnastics in her private rooms in the imperial palace, and her hikes through the mountains were so speedy and lengthy that oftentimes her attendants could not keep apace with her.
But Sisi's first love, when it came to physical activity, was horseback riding. She often joked that, had she not been an empress, she would have ridden horses in the circus. Sisi had riding rings installed in her homes and loved riding outdoors everywhere from the English shires to the Austrian Alps to the plains of Hungary.
The only woman who was ever put forward as a potential rival to Sisi's skills in the saddle? Napoleon III's Empress Eugenie. It was quite the sensational royal rivalry!
She Presided Over the Golden Age of Culture and Art in the Habsburg Court
Imagine a court where Johann Strauss II stalks the halls, composing waltzes as gifts for his royal patrons. Where artist Gustav Klimt is painting murals on commission. That was Sisi's world.
The nineteenth century in Vienna marked the highpoint of Habsburg achievement in the arts and culture. Composer Franz Lizst, who composed music for Sisi and Franz Joseph, apparently broke out in tears when he beheld his imperial patroness. Richard Wagner composed his epic "Ring Cycle" operas with money from Sisi's family. Just down the street from Sisi's thriving court worked a young physician named Sigmund Freud, pioneering new advances in psychiatry. I wonder what he might have said, had he had a session with his empress?
Her Husband Began World War I
Most of us learned in school history lessons that the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated, thus prompting Emperor Franz Joseph to declare war on Serbia and setting off the global catastrophe that became World War I.
But how many of us learned in those same history classes that, in addition to the men Franz Joseph and Franz Ferdinand, there reigned a fascinating, charismatic and strong leading lady, a heroine who presided over these twilight years of the Habsburg Court?
That lady was Empress Sisi. If they say that 'behind every great man is a great woman,' I would say that the story of Sisi teaches us that she did not stand behind her man, but right beside him. Sisi was a leading lady in her own right. With the beauty of a Princess Diana, the strength of a Catherine the Great, and the flair and tragedy of a Marie Antoinette, Sisi is the oft-forgotten historical heroine whose story proves that real life is even juicier than fiction. And now we know a great deal more about her and the indelible role she played in history.