Books: Franzi & Sisi

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Meantime Franz Joseph had been finding plenty to do at the office. His hodge-podge empire, he discovered, was a seething mass of anachronisms, misgovernment, discontent. To get a better idea of how the land lay, see which fences needed mending most, he began making the rounds of his property. On some of these trips he took Sisi with him. In the Italian provinces, where Austrian misrule was worst, even the paid hands would not clap the royal owners. At the Scala in Milan, the audience had to be commanded to attend, under penalty of fines: the aristocrats sent their servants to fill the seats. Sisi's charm and beauty made some impression on the scowling Italians; but it was not till she reached Hungary that she tasted triumph. There she was almost too successful: Hungary went so wild over her that Magyar-hating Austria began to mutter. While she was on this trip, her first child died. Vindictive Sophie said, "The heavens punish!"

Sisi gave Franz Joseph two more children, a boy and a girl. At Rudolf's birth Franzi was so overjoyed that he decorated the infant with the ancient order of the Golden Fleece. For once Sophie could find nothing wrong with Sisi's conduct but when her fourth grandchild was unpatriotically born in Hungary, Sophie was ostentatiously uninterested, even sniffed doubts of its legitimacy. What with Sophie's suspicious enmity and Franz Joseph's fond indulgence, it would have been a miracle if Sisi had turned out to be a model wife and mother. No miracle occurred. Left to her own devices, she smoked (very fast for those days), rode horseback till patient Franzi grumbled: "If only you had never seen a saddle!", exercised and dieted herself into an alarming slimness. And one day she told Franz Joseph she simply had to go away. Hurt but anxious, he let her go. After that she hardly came home except for visits. On one of them she sat at old Sophie's deathbed. Her tormentor out of the way, Sisi never even attempted to take her place as the real Empress of Austria. By this time she was as unpopular with the Austrians as she was beloved in Hungary. At 36 Sisi was a grandmother. She celebrated by sneaking out to a masked ball, picking up a young man and beginning a clandestine but innocent correspondence. She developed new hobbies: a morbidly "humanitarian" interest in insanity; a kind of throne-room liberalism in which she prattled social equality, without realizing what a limb she was out on. She built a Greek palace in Corfu (cost to Franzi: 30,000,000 kronen), tried to sell it as soon as it was built. She traveled tirelessly. At 57 Sisi became a great-grandmother. She exercised, traveled, prattled harder than ever.

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