Okay, kind of great news, Empress Sisi turns out to be a weirdo. She’s the kind of weirdo who, if she was alive today, would be acknowledged to be some kind of brilliant, beautiful performance artist whose life was her art. And a royal. It would as if Daphne Guinness married Prince Harry, and began demanding that people present all her shed hairs to her in a little ball. (Really. Empress Sisi did that. Daphne Guinness, does not, to my knowledge, do that.)


This is a pretty significant deviation from what I originally thought I knew about Empress Sisi. Yes, I did know that the Sissi trilogy movies (it is spelled either Sisi or Sissi) made in 1955 were wrong. They were wrong even if Romy Schneider does look ridiculously pretty in them. Look at how pretty she looks:

This trilogy would have you believe that Sisi was a plucky, beautiful girl who married the Emperor Franz Joseph and had to deal with a really difficult mother-in-law while trying to be a good wife! It’s like The Sound of Music without the Nazis. Or the nunnery. It’s not actually like that, I guess, except for the “being Austrian” part. Well, it was 1955. Films set in the past are always really about the era the filmmakers are living in.  But yes, this depiction is incredibly inaccurate. Like portraying… oh, Jesus, pick any person and the opposite of that person. It was like that.

What I essentially knew about Sisi before beginning “all Sisi reading, all the time” week was that she was a very unhappy woman who had a difficult relationship with food. She didn’t eat, basically, and she exercised for hours and hours. Now, I think being in the public eye is the kind of situation that would give many women a bit of a complex about food. I do not, truth be told, know a single woman who seems to have a completely untroubled relationship with food, and they are not largely in the public eye so I figured, “Great. This is someone a lot of readers will be able to relate to.”

No. I was wrong. This is someone no one can relate to.

Actually, that’s not true, either.

I guess I’m asking just how quirky you are. Like, really, human hair – do you collect it? Do you periodically slip your co-workers mean poems about themselves? Is that how you communicate with people? Angry poetry writing? What’s your relationship with your hairdresser like? How many slaves did you have growing up?

Maybe you are the person who is really going to “get” Sisi. I kind of hope you are. I think that she seems like the most difficult woman I can imagine, but, hell, I like her anyway.

So. Who was Sisi?

Sisi was born one Christmas Eve to the Duke and Duchess Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria in 1837. Maybe it helps to know a little about Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria. He was an amateur zither player who once climbed the Great Pyramids. He forced a group of his servants to climb behind him, yodeling, so he could pretend he was climbing the Alps. He returned with three severed mummies’ heads and a group of children he bought at the Cairo slave market.

I cannot tell you whether or not luge lessons figured into anyone’s upbringing, but:

The court considered him “an eccentric.”

So, that was Sisi’s dad. She had a childhood just surrounded by Egyptian slave children, presumably playing kickball with the heads of mummies.

She was incredibly close to her father, who once told her,  “If you and I, Sisi, had not been princely born, we could have performed in a circus.” They did periodically play the zither together outside of beer gardens incognito to collect tips.

There is a phrase I have always wanted to use and will never, ever get to. It’s used in the Tudors. When Catherine Howard is asked to describe her upbringing, she replies “we ran a little wild”. I’ll never get to use that phrase, because, Jesus Christ, I sat on a tennis court and ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches for 18 straight years (it’s what WASPs teethe on). But Sisi could have used that phrase, if she’d been born 170 years later and been a Tudors fan.

This is perhaps overlapping too many historical periods.

All I mean is: Sisi ran a little wild growing up.

The romantic fairy tale portion of her story hinges on the fact that when Emperor Franz Joseph came to meet Sisi’s sister – who he was supposed to marry, though God knows why the Emperor of Austria was supposed to marry one of crazy Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria’s daughters (because Max was fun, maybe?) – the Emperor met Sisi, and immediately fell in love with her instead. Sisi was 15, and Franz Joseph was 23. I want to stress one point: this is not actually as normal as it is always made out to be in historical dramas.

Yes, you could be a man in your 20s and marry a young teenager in the mid 19th century, there were no laws against it, but it was still frowned upon. Suffice to say, Franz’s mother wasn’t thrilled about the choice, but was determined to educate Sisi in a way that would make her able to rule Austria “with dignity.”

This was during an age where Austria was often called “the sick man of Europe.” That was an impression that the court tried to combat largely by behaving pretty much impeccably. Franz Joseph himself was a quiet, dignified man who spent his spare time studying metaphysics. Soon after she arrived at the court Sisi was informed that she would not longer be able to yacht, go on shopping sprees or drink beer. The idea was that she would devote her time to more classic, ladylike pursuits, like, you know, weaving, or something like that. This may seem kind of obvious, but Sisi was not happy. 

She told her mother, “I am treated like a freak at a circus.”

This, I think, is one of the reasons that Sisi is frequently likened to Princess Diana. The notion is that she was just too young and beautiful and spirited for a stuffy court.

This is actually a pretty false comparison. Look, here’s why:

Sisi responded to her situation by making up poems which she then recited to the court. Sounds really mature of her, right? No shopping sprees and beer swilling for her! Only ladylike poetry. Here’s an example:

Ich aber, web’ euch Kappen

Und näh’ auch Schellen dran;

Als narren geht ihr dan herum


I have woven some caps for you

And decided to put bells on the top;

That way you can go around like buffoons

Sisi basically wrote the poems that you recited all angry-like at a coffee-shop when you were 15. And then she started getting weird!

Have I mentioned that Sisi was considered to be really, really beautiful? She was. Even people who kind of thought that Franz had not brought home the most suitable bride agreed that she was stunning. “How beautiful she is!” exclaimed the Shah of Persia when he first met her. King Albert of Belgium claimed that Sisi was “a beautiful creature” which is not quite a compliment. But! Beautiful. Everyone agreed on that.

So it’s completely reasonable that she slept upright in a metal bedstand wearing a leather mask stuffed with raw veal.

The veal was against her face, that is. It was not part of the mask. The mask was just there to ensure that a slab of raw meat was held in place.  Why so Hannibal Lecter? Well, veal is… good for your skin? I feel like I am making this stuff up. I swear I’m not, though. And veal is actually not bad for your skin.

Still. Please take a moment to envision this. Envision wandering into the wrong room and finding this lady asleep, upright, strapped to a metal pole, wearing a leather mask. Now imagine noticing that the scent of raw veal is wafting through the room. I’d put odds of me running screaming from that ostensibly nightmarish castle at around 90%. The 10% is accounting for me somehow not having legs that functioned well because the 19th century was rough.

Really, all of Sisi’s beauty rituals were pretty amazing, and seem to stop just short of her bathing in a pool of virgin blood.

And they do sort of make sense. She went from being raised in a really bohemian home to going to a very strict court. (She was supposed to be weaving, remember.) While I’m apt to dismiss the movie trilogy explanation that all her problems were because her mother-in-law was so mean – she was very domineering. I mean, her mother-in-law picked out all her children’s names for her. Her looks were probably one of the only aspects of her life that she had complete control over.

She once claimed:

“Ah, the horror of growing old, to feel the hand of Time laid upon one’s body, to watch the skin wrinkling, to awake and fear the morning light, and to know that one is no longer desirable! Life without beauty would be worthless to me.”

Again, it’s not surprising that she got really controlling. Her hair, for instance.

God, her treatment of her hair was a big thing. It was the physical aspect Franz Jospeh most loved about her. Their relationship was pretty rocky, at least as evidenced from Sisi’s poem:

Unserer Liebe starre Leiche

Kamst du wieder zu beschau’n;

Our love’s stiff cadaver

You’ve seen it again

Sisi also became sickly soon after arriving at court. Doctors said it was TB, but there’s actually quite a bit of evidence that it was VD – such as the fact that her teeth rotted and she underwent mercury treatments (which were commonly used to treat syphilis at the time). That also might have explained some of her erratic behavior. The venereal disease would have either been acquired by her husband or by… not her husband. Either way, it wasn’t a great relationship.

So, well, it was nice that she kept her hair up for him. He loved this portrait of her, and kept it in his private study:

Keeping it up took two to three hours a day. Sisi’s hair went to her heels, and it gave her serious headaches, but she treasured every single strand. Her devoted hairdresser  Franziska Feifalik collected every hair that fell out when he dressed it each day, put them into a silver bowl, and allowed her to examine them. I have no idea what kind of examination went on with that, but I am going to guess that Franz received some pretty nasty poems. She also had it washed in a special egg and cognac mixture every other week, and on the day she did, all of her court business had to be stopped. When she started to get grey hairs, she also insisted that Franziska tweeze out each one.  Her niece once remarked, mockingly “the hairs on Aunt Sisi’s head are numbered.”

And if that seems odd, you should hear about her weight.

Sisi was 5’8, and determined to remain 110 pounds forever. She was actually naturally quite thin, and she walked constantly – often for up to 10 hours a day (and much to the dismay of the companions who had to accompany her). She was also a gymnastic fanatic, and had a gym installed in the palace, at a time when it was unfashionable for ladies to sweat.

However, that still proved a very difficult weight to maintain. Jesus, of course it was. If Sisi had been a model today she might have lived off coffee and cocaine, and sure, Sisi had a cocaine vial, but, I guess, not enough coffee. So she lived largely off of the squeezed juices of steak. The court chefs would squeeze steaks, and Sisi would drink the juice that came out. She also used a juicer to make soups of duck blood and bone marrow.

There’s a good movie to be made about Empress Sisi being a vampire if you choose to go that route.

Whenever her weight threatened to exceed 110 pounds – especially after childbirth (she did bear 4 children) – she fasted. Apparently the sight of meat alone was enough to revolt her. And yet she drank duck blood.

In her later years, she ate mostly sorbets, which I like to imagine were made with fruit. However, I can’t help but feel that Sisi would have loved this.

She transmitted this horror of weight to her daughter, who was, accordingly, terrified when she met Queen Victoria as a child. Terrified as one might be of a monster.

However, Sisi did have one food for which she made an exception. Despite her strict steak-juice drinking sorbet-snacking habits, it’s said that Sisi would venture out of the palace all the way to Demels for boxes of candied violets. Today, she’s still immortalized on many boxes in Vienna:

However, since many of these sweets are actually chocolates filled with violet creams, I get the sense that Sisi would never, ever have eaten those. I get the sense that she actually would have spit them back at people. There is no textual evidence of that, it just really seems like the kind of thing she would have done.

She also slept in clothes that were soaked in vinegar thinking it would help her remain slim, which begs the question: between the veal mask, and being upright, and sleeping in a nightgown soaked in vinegar how the hell did this woman sleep? I suppose ten hour a day walks helped with that.

Her skin was a whole other matter. We’ve already covered the veal mask, but it might surprise you to know that Sisi never wore any make-up. Because she was brave.

No, because she thought it interfered with the perfection nature had bestowed on her. She was incredibly critical of women who did. Of Princess Pauline von Metternich, who was often thought to be a beauty, Sisi said:

“She wears two inches of red powder on her lips and is dressed in material from countries that are far away even though she is too flat”.

This is what Princess Pauline looked like:

I think Sisi was being way harsh there. Never mind. Sisi wore no powder on her lips, though she did apply creams that could take upwards of 12 hours to prepare.

She also endured full body wraps made out of hay. I suppose when you think about it, while it seems uncomfortable, it’s probably no weirder than a lot of the spa treatments offered today. I’m sure you could, in fact, find a hay wrap somewhere.

One treatment that you may not be able to find is Sisi’s special slug cream, used to make skin soft. Except here. You can find it here. I found the recipe for you:

Put ½ kilo lard into water-bath

add 2 Quintchen (fifths) marshmallow roots

Add 70g ground slugs

Let it stand for four hours to cool off.

And then you just hop in, and it’s great, and not weird at all.

The olive oil baths Sisi took, on the other hand, are still used today, and actually do soften the skin. And Sisi did believe that vinegar was the cure for just about everything, and, actually, apple cider vinegar is considered a pretty popular treatment today, so she wasn’t wrong about everything. And hell, we’ll probably all be bathing in slugs in 20 years again, anyway, so… no it still seems weird. I think it’s the lard. I think it’s the lard aspect that makes it seem so weird.

Of course, Sisi’s life wasn’t all eccentric beauty treatments. Her son, Rudolph, was found dead in a murder/suicide pact with his mistress, an event which grieved Sisi deeply. After that, she wore black until the end of her life, and was concerned that some strain of madness in her had been passed on to her son. Not because of the beauty treatments! Because when she and Franz went traveling she liked to strap herself to the front of ships during storms so she could truly experience it. That, weirdly, was the thing people at court decided was a bit odd.

She spent a great deal of time seeing mental asylums erected after that. People who want to compare her to Princess Diana often claim this indicates she was the “people’s princess.” In actuality, I suspect this was just because Sisi felt a great affinity for people with troubled states of mind.

Today, the “Sissi syndrome” is medically recognized as a form of depression suffered by unusually active people.

I think Sisi had a really admirable sense of humor about her issues. When the Emperor asked her, in 1871 what she would like for Christmas, she asked for a tiger, and a fully equipped mental asylum. That’s what I ask for every Christmas, too, or am going to, from now on.

Although it is possible she was serious. It’s hard to tell.

She was ultimately killed by a knife-wielding anarchist at the age of 60. He said he just struck at the first crowned head that passed by, and Sisi did not realize how serious her wound was. Her last words, much like Archduke Franz Ferdinand, were “it is nothing.” I cannot help but feel that I would like to see a more interesting ending for Empress Sisi – devoured by a tiger, perhaps! – but then I remember she was stabbed by an anarchist. That is very high on the list of “interesting ways to die.” And perhaps fitting for a woman who, if not a people’s princess, should be regarded as one of the patron saints of all weirdos.

In her diary, Sisi wrote that:

“I wander lonely in this world,

Delight and life long time averted,

No confidant to share my inner self,

A matching soul never revealed.”

And that is true, but that’s not a bad thing. In a world where a lot of people seem like iron filings, Sisi was a truly bizarre little snowflake. It would be an honor to receive a really, really nasty poem from her. If you want to remember her, here is a place you can buy candied violets and here is a place where you can buy raw veal. The slugs you will have to collect from your own garden.


Additional Reading:

Scandalous Women by Elizabeth Mahon

Sissi: Myth and History

Sisi Museum of Vienna Website

The Lonely Empress by Joan Haislip

The Sissi Collection

“The Beautiful and Damned” – Wall Street Journal