In 19th-century Austria, Empress Elisabeth is settling down for a much-needed rest. But before she can close her eyes, she must attend to her nightly beauty regime – applying a leather mask over thin layers of raw veal. Amazingly, it’s just one step in a staggering routine that has earned her the nickname “the loveliest woman in Europe.”
Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was born in Munich, Germany, on December 24, 1837, to Duke Maximilian Joseph, a member of German royalty, and Princess Ludovika, whose half-brother Ludwig was King of Bavaria. As a child, Elisabeth, whose nickname was Sisi, enjoyed a relatively free-spirited existence far removed from the normal confines of a European royal household.
However, all that changed in 1853, when Elisabeth accompanied her mother and older sister Helene to Bad Ischl in Austria, where the trio met Emperor Franz Joseph. Apparently, it was expected that the Emperor would propose to Helene, who was considered to be the family’s most beautiful daughter.
However, it was the 15-year-old Elisabeth who ultimately caught the Emperor’s eye, and five days later the pair announced their engagement. On April 24, 1854, Elisabeth and Franz were married, and Sisi was forced to swap her laid-back lifestyle for the stuffy environment of the Austrian court.
Initially, the new Empress’ looks did not make a big impression on Austrian society. But over the next four decades, she would carefully cultivate a reputation as one of the era’s most beautiful women. However, her well-polished appearance belied a personal life that was as troubled and tragic as it was blessed.
From the beginning, Elisabeth and Franz’s marriage was dominated by the Emperor’s overbearing mother, Princess Sophie of Bavaria. And when their first child, a daughter, was born, she removed the baby from her mother’s care. In fact, she even named the baby Sophie – without asking Elisabeth for permission first.
When Elisabeth and Franz’s second child, a daughter named Gisela, came along, the Emperor’s mother took her away as well. Meanwhile, she began taunting Elisabeth for failing to produce a male heir. And when two-year-old Sophie fell ill and died after a trip to Hungary, the Empress fell into a deep depression.
Finally, in August 1858, Elisabeth gave birth to a son, Rudolf. And with his arrival, the Empress enjoyed a new-found influence and status at court. Always sympathetic to Hungary’s desire to succeed from the Austrian Empire, Elisabeth began to play a more active role in political affairs, helping to influence the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867.
The following year, Elisabeth gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Marie. And with Princess Sophie’s influence at court waning, Sisi was finally able to raise the child herself. However, this didn’t stop the Empress’ love of travel and adventure, and she spent much of her adult life exploring the world.
Throughout her life, Elisabeth’s behavior was often at odds with the refined atmosphere of the Austrian court. An avid reader and writer, she would often survive on very little sleep, preferring instead to spend her nights poring over the pages of books. In fact, she even wrote poetry, sometimes using her work to poke fun at her husband’s dynasty.
Already the subject of gossip, Elisabeth further shocked Austrian society when she took up smoking, a habit almost unheard of for a woman at the time. Moreover, the newspapers of the day were filled with rumors of the Empress’ alleged affairs. If they were to be believed, she counted a British captain and the Hungarian prime minister among her many lovers.
Today, however, Elisabeth is largely remembered for her beauty and unique style. But for the Empress, looking her best was always a luxury that came at a price. In fact, she spent much of her life confined to a strict beauty and exercise regime, the details of which have become almost legendary over the years.
Apparently, Elisabeth’s day would begin with a cold bath followed by a massage. Then, after breakfast, she would embark on a grueling exercise routine. As well as vigorous walks, she kept herself fit by indulging her love of horse riding. And as Elisabeth began to grow older, she only increased her physical activity, even commissioning a gymnasium complete with rings and weights at Vienna’s Hapsburg Palace.
However, this exercise was only part of what kept Elisabeth looking startlingly slim – even well into middle age. Supposedly, she also maintained a strict diet and would regularly give up almost all food as part of a fast. “She would partake only of pressed extract of raw chicken, partridge, venison and beef,” wrote Ludwig Merkle in his 1998 biography Sissi, The Tragic Empress.
As well as consuming minimal calories, Elisabeth kept her waistline trim by indulging in the contemporary fashion for wearing tightly laced corsets. In fact, she had special leather garments made in Paris and taunted her disapproving mother-in-law with her hourglass physique. Incredibly, at one point her waist was down to just 16 inches.
But if Elisabeth went to great lengths in order to stay slim, her approach to beauty was even more excessive. Desperate to stave off the effects of aging, she would take baths in goat milk and warm olive oil in order to soften her skin. Meanwhile, she would apply squashed strawberries to her hands and face, believing that the fruit would keep wrinkles at bay.
Perhaps one of the most startling aspects of Elisabeth’s beauty regime was her habit of sleeping in a special mask, designed to hold strips of raw veal meat against her face. She also refused to use a pillow while sleeping, and sometimes went to bed with wet cloths that had been dipped in vinegar draped around her waist. Apparently, she believed this would help her lose weight.
Most time-consuming of all, though, was Elisabeth’s haircare routine. According to many, her ankle-length mane was her best asset, and Franziska Feifalik, her private hairdresser, received a significant wage in return for styling it in elaborate braids. But the Empress was precious about her locks, and Feifalik was forced to account for each hair that fell out during the process. Furthermore, she washed it only once every three weeks, when a whole day was set aside to bathe it in a concoction of brandy and raw eggs.
However bizarre, Elisabeth’s regime seems to have worked, and age did little to dampen her reputation as a great beauty. But sadly, she was never able to escape tragedy. On January 30, 1889, her son Rudolf died in an apparent murder-suicide with his 17-year-old-lover at a hunting lodge near Vienna. Apparently, the Empress never recovered, and some say that she remained in mourning for the rest of her life.
Almost a decade later, Elisabeth was about to board a steamship in Geneva, Switzerland, when she was attacked by Luigi Lucheni, a Italian anarchist bent on killing a royal. And although his blade fatally pierced her heart, she was able to walk some 300 feet to the boat before collapsing. Apparently, the tightness of her corset had helped to temporarily stem the bleeding – ensuring that in death, just as in life, Sisi’s vanity continued to play a most vital role.