Sunday, July 15, 2007

Elizabeth and Katharina

If, as I asserted, Karl Tschuppik’s Francis Joseph I is a novel in disguise, then it ought to be good for at least one good anecdote. Okay, fine.

The Emperor had an Empress, Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, Duchess in Bavaria, Princess of Bavaria, of the House of Wittelsbach. She had never quite adjusted to the royal harness. She popped three royal babies in quick succession (and later, a fourth) but after having fulfilled her dynastic obligations, she pretty much decamped from the court in favor of a life of her own.

The Emperor, meanwhile, acquired a “companion,” one Katharina Schratt, the daughter of a postman, later an actress, and for more than 30s the “confidante,” oh tee hee, of the Emperor.

No, strike the tee hee. The relationship between the Emperor and Katherina was palpable and enduring, but it appears to have been in no way hydraulic. Rather:

Curious eyes might have seen the correct old gentleman, early in the morning when the big park of Schönbrunn was just beginning to wake up, leave his castle by a small, inconspicuous door which led to a small alley, cross the road, end enter the garden in a house of the Gloriettegasse which bore the number of nine. There he was awaited by a lady who was always good-tempered and smiling, and in the small room, furnished in the old-fashioned Vienna way, a white-clothed table, gay with flowers, was laid for breakfast.

--Karl Tschuppik, Francis Joseph 1 365 (1930)

Indeed, if either of royal couple did anything to excite the paparazzi, it was more than likely the Empress, willful and free-spirited and said in her time to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

But all this is background. Turn now to the evening of Tuesday, January 29, 1889, the fateful that changed the course of Empire and may have triggered World War I. That was the occasion when Crown Prince Rudolph, heir presumptive and the only son of the royal couple, put a bullet through his brain.

Heaven only knows why the Archduke shot himself: certainly no one on earth ever came up with a good story. His passing surely changed the dynamic of European politics but for the moment, the task was to deliver the news to the Emperor. The task fell to Elizabeth:

This was the bitterest hour of Elizabeth’s life. All unsuspecting, the Emperor sat in his study, the little dark-red room looking on to the courtyard. Who was to be the bearer of the news? An hour passed by before Elizabeth arrived at a decision. She sent for Katharina Schratt, the Court actress, the only woman who was intimate with Francis Joseph. One woman’s strength was not sufficient to break the news to the Emperor. The two women entered the Emperor’s study together to reveal the terrible truth.

Id. 281

Afterthought: The “bitterest hour” stuff may be hyperbole. On September 10, 1898, Elizabeth was promenading beside Lake Geneva when she was stabbed with a needle file by a young anarchist. She died. He said he had been looking for someone else, but it didn’t matter: “I wanted to kill a royal. It did not matter which one” (link). Katharina lived on until 1940.

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