Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Empress Elisabeth (Sisi)

Empress Elisatbeth by Oscar Kramer

Here are some facts that shed a different light on the romantic image you may have of the life of Elisabeth (Sisi), the beautiful empress of Austria-Hungary.

While history often paints her as a stunning beauty who captivated hearts, there's much more to Sisi's story.

This list explores the lesser-known aspects of her life, revealing a woman of strength, intellect, and a surprising amount of rebellion against the strictures of court life. Get ready to be surprised as we unveil the fascinating and multifaceted reality of Empress Elisabeth.

DISCLOSURE: I get commissions for purchases made through some of the links in this article.

Sisi loved the sea

“And when it is time for me to die, lay me at the ocean’s shore.” 

Something that Sisi said according to her daughter. She did not die at sea, but on a boat on the Geneva lake can be considered a sound alternative. Just like her hero Odysseus, Sisi had herself tied to the mast in stormy seas, to better appreciate nature's fury. 

In the book "Memoirs of the Last Lady-in-Waiting of Empress Elisabeth" we can read all about these traveling overseas. The writer Irma Sztáray,  lady-in-waiting to the Empress, was terrified, but Sisi had the time of her life!

Her wish was to be buried by the sea near her beloved Achilleion was not granted. As all Austrian royals, she was buried in the Imperial Crypt close to her son.

View from the garden of Achilleon- CorfuView from the garden of Achilleon- Corfu

Sisi had a tattoo

Sisi at an older age, this clothing style can hide a tattoo very wellSisi at an older age, this clothing style can hide a tattoo very well

To express her love for the sea, Empress Sisi had an anchor tattooed on her left shoulder.

At Madame Tussauds in Vienna, at the Sisi Uncovered Experience, you see Sisi's wax figure with a tattoo. Sisi's wax figure travelled to Graz, to receive her tattoo from Mario Barth, a well-known tattoo artist. He made a simple single-coloured design for the Sisi tattoo.

Only down point as far as I can see, the wax figure represents Sisi as a young woman around 1865 when Winterhalter painted her famous portrait. It was as late as 1888, at age 51, when Sisi went to a Greek harbour cafe to have the tattoo. 

Elisabeth in 1865, by WinterhalterElisabeth in 1865, by Winterhalter

The empress had some bad habits

According to a Los Angeles Times dispatch of September 24, 1890, Empress Elisabeth of Austria smokes "from thirty to forty Turkish and Russian cigarettes a day." 

After diner, she would enjoy her cup of Turkish coffee together with a strong Italian cigar. Smoking soothed her nerves, and allowed her to "see things in a happier light."

One of the most curious items Sisis inventory is her cocaine syringe. Nowadays this seems quite shocking, but the use of heroin and cocaine was quite normal in the nineteenth century. 

Heroin was, in fact, a Bayer brand name and was advised against coughs and migraines and as a pain reliever for menstrual pain. 

Cocaine was used as a painkiller. Even Sigmund Freud praised the remedy for 'mental and physical fatigue' and 'melancholy' in his book "Über Coca", which was published in 1884. Knowing Sisi's mood swings, she would certainly have tried that. 

A less harmful addiction Sisi had was to violet ice cream. The Imperial court supplier and patisserie Demel would deliver it frequently. You can still find this treat in their shop opposite of the Hofburg Palace. 

Sisi had to tolerate various mistresses and illegal children of Franz-Joseph

Anna Nahowski, mistress of Emperor Franz-JosephAnna Nahowski

Already very early in their marriage Franz Joseph had mistresses. Sisi knew for sure when he gave her a venereal disease. 

Anna Nahowski (1860–1931) was the mistress of Franz Joseph for over 14 years, from 1875 until 1889. She had 3 children, the youngest two were named Helene and ...Franz Joseph. They did not look like Mr Nahowski at all. With the birth of these children, Anne received large amounts of money. 

After years of marriage, Sisi began to recognise the value of a good mistress. Franz Joseph wouldn't miss her if she left on one of her long journeys again, as long as she left him well cared for. She encouraged Franz Joseph's contact with the actress Katharina Schratt.

Apparently, Sisi made a good choice.  Katharina became Franz-Joseph's best friend for 34 years. Sisi was free to come and go as she pleased.

More reading:  The Emperor and the Actress: The Love Story of Emperor Franz Josef and Katharina Schratt – by Joan Haslip

Katharina Schratt, mistress of Emperor Franz-JospehKatharina Schratt

Sisi received horse-riding lessons from a circus artist

Oscar Carré is a descendant of a German circus family. He travels around Europe with his horse act. In 1873, a permanent circus building was built in the Prater in Vienna, which may remain standing for ten years. Between performances, Empress Sisi receives private riding lessons from Oscar. She is grateful to him and gives him an Arabian purebred stallion, Mahmoud.

Oscar Carré had circus theatres built not only in Vienna but also in Cologne and Amsterdam. The Ringheater in Vienna burned down in 1881. The famous Circustheater Carré in Amsterdam still exists. Now known as Royal Theater Carré, it is used for theatre, musical performances, ballet and cabaret. But once a year the horses and circus performers take over the building again for the annual World Christmas Circus. Nice that I live in the area, I've been there once, it was great!

Sisi loved to hunt

Sisi loved her horses as much as she loved the sea. She went on all the famous hunting parties around Europe, riding for 10 hours a day, days on end. 

She did have a fresh change of clothes somewhere in a noble house along the route.  

A groom and a lady’s maid would be waiting there all day, so she could be sewn into a new dress whenever she desired.

Some of Sisi's horses were almost as famous as she was. They are all thoroughbreds, descendent from famous racehorses.
When she travelled to Ireland for the hunting season in 1854 she brought at least 8 horses with her with names like Sweetheart, Sailor, Bright Star, Buttercup and Sunflower. 

She called one of her horses “Nihilist”.  

According to the Cambridge dictionary: someone who believes that all political and religious organizations are bad, or that there are no principles or beliefs that have any meaning or can be true. 

Did she think about herself when she chose this name? Or was she foresighted and named her horse after Luigi, the nihilist that would end her life?

Sisi road aside, as befits a lady in those days. Looking at some paintings I notice that, as a football player, she is two-footed; she rides with both legs to the left, and sometimes she has her legs to the right.

Sisi takes her cows on a holiday 

An important part of Sis's diet is milk from her Jersey cows. Sometimes it was the only thing she consumed. 

In a secluded corner of the Schonbrunn park, you can find the empress’s dairy farm. She kept these special cows here so she would never be out of milk.  The records from her visit to Ireland show that she did not only bring her servants and horses, she also brought her cows. When she traveled by ship it was difficult to bring cows. She then settled for goats.

Sisi's sister dies at fire in the Bazar de la Charité

The miniseries “Le Bazar de la Charité” can be seen on netflix. 

A beautiful costume drama based on a real event, my favourite kind!

 The story is dramatic enough; During a charity bazaar in Paris in 1897, a fire broke out in the cinema. The wooden building with only one exit burns like a torch. The people, mainly women, are trapped like rats. 129 Victims were killed. 

To make this story even more intriguing, one of the victims was Sisi's sister. Sophie was Sisi's youngest sister who was engaged to her cousin, King Louis II of Bavaria for a while until he broke it off.

You can watch the movie "Ludwig" for a glimpse into this part of Sophie's life. According to an eyewitness, Sophie died praying on her knees (the eyewitness was a nun, so it might have been kind of a subjective memory). Sophie's remains were identified by her dentist, who recognized her gold fillings.

You can watch Le Bazar de la charité on Netflix, buy the DVD's or read the book

Duchess Sophie Charlotte in BavariaDuchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria

There is a new series in the making about Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Amy Jenkins, one of the writers of the beautiful Netflix series the Crown, is working on a new series about the life of Sisi.

Jenkins is inspired by the two bestselling novels by Allison Pataki, “The Accidental Empress” and “Sisi: Empress on Her Own".     After the 1955 Sissi trilogy, it was about time for a new series about the fascinating life of Empress Elisabeth. I can't wait!

Update 2023

The Empress, the Netflix series about Empress Elisabeth of Austria, is out!

The show was filmed in several locations in Austria, including Schönbrunn Palace, the Hofburg Palace, and the Belvedere Palace. The producers also took some inspiration from the real-life diaries and letters of Elisabeth.

It is a mix of historical accuracy and fiction, more interested in telling a compelling story than in providing a completely accurate retelling of Elisabeth's life.

The costumes in The Empress are a mix of historical accuracy and creative interpretation. They are generally faithful to the fashion of the time, but they are also designed to be visually appealing and to reflect Sisi's personality. There are some shocking looks, who expects a lady-in-waiting with a 80s bob haircut, or Sisi with sun glasses? Other outfits were absolutely stunning, like the wedding dress.

Twe more recent movies about Empress Elisabeth that you can watch:

Corsage (2022)

Watch it on Prime

Sisi & I (2023)

About Irma Sztáray

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