Archive | May 2012

Rebel Empress

While researching an idea for a new novel, (I was specifically looking for a famous horsewoman in history) I stumbled across the EmpressElisabeth of Austria.  She was indeed an avid horsewoman and was actually known as “the finest horsewoman of her day.”  She excelled at the hunt, taught her horses tricks, and trained with famous circus riders at the riding school she built at Godollo in Hungary.

As I researched further, I became intrigued with the rest of her compelling, fascinating and tragic story.

Born Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Munich, Bavaria 1837, “Sisi” as she was known to her family, grew up far from court in the Bavarian countryside at Possenhofen Castle.

Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria, and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, raised their four children with little discipline and few rules.  The children spent much of their time riding and pursuing country sports rather than learning the protocols and etiquette of court life.  This fact probably led to Sisi’s later philosophy that to be an individual and non-conformist would be the greatest achievement of all.  Her quest of this individualism would be her biggest challenge and one that she never quite achieved.

As in most royal families, marriages were arranged.  When Sisi was fifteen, she accompanied her mother and her older sister Helene to Bad Ischl, Austria to meet Helene’s betrothed, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria.  The arrangement was orchestrated by Franz Joseph’s domineering mother, ( also Helene and Sisi’s aunt) Princess Sophie of Bavaria.  Although Helene was considered the beauty of the family, Franz Joseph became instantly infatuated with Sisi.  He defied his mother and told her if he could not have his cousin Elisabeth he would have no one at all.  The betrothal was announced five days later.

Elisabeth’s married life was far different from her free-spirited childhood.  Hapsburg court life was rigid and strict.  Her Aunt, the Archduchess, was an overbearing and demanding mother-in-law who interfered in the new couple’s life at every turn.  Soon, Elisabeth began to display health problems.  She had difficulty with her lungs and would suffer from spasms of coughing, and also developed several phobias.

Ten months after the wedding, she gave birth to her first child, Sophie, named after her mother-in-law, by her mother-in-law.  This was to set the stage for next child born to Elisabeth, Gisela who was also immediately taken from her and put in the care of the Archduchess.  The Archduchess also made it abundantly clear her disappointment at Elisabeth’s inability to bear a son.  The Archduchess was to suffer several other disappointments when her son, Joseph Franz took Elisabeth and his two daughters to Hungary for a visit in 1857.  During the visit, Elisabeth fell in love with the Hungarian people, particularly the Magyars, an ethnic group associated with the Hungarians, (whom her mother-in-law despised) and urged her husband to show mercy to Hungarian political prisoners.  She was later chastised for her “political meddling.”  The trip also proved horribly tragic for Elisabeth as both her daughters became ill with diarrhea.  Gisela, the baby, recovered quickly, but two year old Sophie succumbed to the illness, which was later determined as Typhus.  The death of her first child sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.

Elisabeth was painfully learning that most aspects of her life were not in her control.  She felt she had no identity as a mother or the wife of an emperor.  In her depression, she began to shun all responsibilities and spent much of her time riding.  Grieving her daughter, she would also stop eating for days at a time.

Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth realized her physical appearance was an attribute greatly valued by society.   Her looks became the primary source of her control and her self-esteem. She became obsessed with her face, hair and figure. Unusually slender, Elisabeth’s waist measured 19 inches.  At 5’8 inches tall, she weighed 110 lbs.  Living on a strict diet of beef broth, milk and eggs, she was able to reduce her waist to 16 inches in diameter. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110, the next few days would constitute a strict fast.

Elisabeth also emphasized her tiny waist through the practice of “tight lacing.”  She had corsets specially made of leather, to hold up under the strenuous lacing, and would only wear them for a few weeks at a time as they would eventually stretch.

The only “flaw” in her beauty was her teeth.  Due to either poor dental care in her youth, malnutrition from dieting, or from the possible effects of bulimia, her teeth deteriorated early.  In public, she would often hide her face behind a small leather fan.  After age 32 she refused to have her photo taken or sit for portraits.

In addition to extreme dieting, Elisabeth also developed a rigorous and disciplined exercise routine.  She had gymnasiums built in every castle where the royal family resided.  She had mats and balance beams and mirrors installed in her bedchamber so she could practice on them each day.  She rode her horses often, sometimes three to five hours at a time.  Another of Elisabeth’s unusual beauty traits was her hair.  Thick and golden brown, her tresses reached somewhere between her knees and ankles.

Every two weeks, her hair was washed with special “essences” of eggs and cognac.  The process took hours, so activities and obligations for the day were cancelled.  Her hairdresser was forbidden to wear rings and was required to don white gloves while dressing the royal coif – an activity that took two to four hours a day.

In 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir.  This, coupled with her sympathy toward the Hungarians made her an ideal mediator between the Magyars and her husband, the Emperor.  Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics developed as she grew older. She firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side whenever there were difficult negotiations between the Hungarians and the court.  At one point, she demanded that Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman (and rumored to be her lover) be named Premier of Hungary or she would leave the Emperor.  He complied and Elisabeth stayed in the increasingly unhappy marriage.

In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary and in turn, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were named King and Queen of Hungary.  The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there, where she built her riding school.  Elisabeth much preferred her Hungarian home to her Austrian one and rarely went back to Vienna.  In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie.  She was determined to raise this child herself and openly rebelled against her mother-in-law.  Soon after, the elder Archduchess Sophie died forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children.

With the oppression of her mother-in-law lifted, it would be assumed that Elisabeth would take control of her children and family, but instead, she drifted further away from them and began a life filled with travel.  She claimed that if she arrived at a place and knew she couldn’t leave, it would become a living hell.

In 1889, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s only son, and heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire died.  He was found with his 17 year old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera.  It was determined a murder/suicide committed by the 30 year old Rudolf.  The death would cause a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, and Hungary and Austria.  The line of succession would now be passed to Franz Joseph’s brother and his son, leaving Hungary out of the picture.

In perpetual mourning and never to wear anything but black again, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels.  When her health prevented her from riding, she took to making her servants endure miles long hikes and walks in the wilderness.  At fifty, she took up fencing with the same intensity as she had other sports.  She also threw herself into writing, became an inspired poet and wrote nearly five hundred pages of verse.  She despised court life and would often travel in disguise, without her entourage, to avoid being recognized.  Unfortunately, this decision ultimately led to her death.

               In 1898, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting left a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch a steamship for Montreux.  Wanting to avoid a “procession” or to be recognized as a person of significance, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train.  Since she was without protection, this gave Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, a perfect opportunity.  In town to kill the Duc D’Orleans, and failing to find him, the assassin learned from a Geneva newspaper that a woman traveling under the name of “Countess of Hohenembs” was the Empress Elisabeth.  Soon after she and her lady exited the hotel, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.

Lucheni stated after the murder, “I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign…it did not matter to me who the sovereign was…It was not a woman I struck, but an Empress; it was a crown that I had in view.”  Had he done his homework, he would have realized that Elisabeth was famous for preferring the common man to courtiers, was known for her charitable works and was a rebel within her own home and community and stood up for the underdog.

The entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep mourning.  On September 17, 1898, eighty-two sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral procession to the tomb in the Church of the Capuchins.  Her husband was devastated and quoted as saying, “That a man could be found to attack such a woman, whose whole life was spent in doing good and who never injured any person is to me incomprehensible.”

Although exceedingly eccentric, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became a historical icon.  Her limited though significant influence on Austro Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire.  She will always be known as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else.  Ironically, she herself could not escape the gilded cage.

Funny Lady Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice (sometimes spelled Fannie) was born on New York’s lower east side in 1891 as Fania Borach. She was the third child of Hungarian/Jewish saloon owners, but her interests were not in the family business. At fourteen years old, she made her stage debut during amateur night at Keeny’s Theater in Brooklyn. Shortly after, she started working in burlesque reviews as a singer and comedian.

In 1910 while performing in a burlesque show, she was noticed by famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. After the show, he approached her back stage and said he wanted to put her under contract for his Ziegfeld Follies. Fanny agreed and thus began her long association with the popular entertainment icon. She performed in seven Follies between 1910 and 1923 and in several Midnight Frolic editions 1915 to 1921. In the 1921 Follies she was featured singing “My Man.” Wildly popular, the song became her signature hit.

Brice was most famous for her character, Baby Snooks. She performed as Baby in the 1934 Follies. Fanny and Snooks then hit the airwaves in radio at CBS and The Baby Snooks Show was featured weekly till 1948. In 1944, Brice got her own half-hour show on CBS and earned $6,000 a week. Brice was so invested in Snooks, she would often do her radio performances in costume, even though her audience couldn’t see her.

Completely devoted to the character, she told biographer Norman Katov: “Snooks is just the kid I used to be. She’s my kind of youngster, the type I like. She has imagination. She’s eager. She’s alive. With all her deviltry, she is still a good kid, never vicious or mean. I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real. I am Snooks. For twenty minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.”

Brice was married three times, first to a local barber, in her teens. The marriage lasted three days before she sued for divorce. Her second husband, known as the love of her life, Nicky Arnstein, was a lady’s man, professional gambler, and white collar criminal. Arnstein served fourteen months in Sing Sing for wiretapping and Brice visited him in prison every week. In 1918 they married, after living together for six years. In 1924 Arnstein was charged in a Wall Street bond theft , was convicted, and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Prison where he served three years. Upon his release, he never returned to Fanny and their two children. She divorced him and then married Billy Rose, a songwriter and stage producer. Her third marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Fanny’s career was long and varied. She worked as a song “model”, comedian, singer, theater and movie actress. She starred in many films, two in which she plays herself, The Great Ziegfeld (1934) and The Ziegfeld Follies, (1936.) She recorded several songs for Victor and Columbia. After her death, she posthumously received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her 1921 recording of “My Man.”

At the age of 59, Fanny Brice died on May 29, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Hollywood, California, depriving the world of her varied and abundant talents. She is most famously portrayed in the movies Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975) by the incredibly talented, Barbara Streisand.

Fanny Brice is the inspiration for my character, Kiki Sands, in Saving Grace. Kiki’s role in the story is that of a famous funny lady who befriends protagonist Grace Michelle, and helps her to see the less serious side of life in show business. Having lost her sister to murder, Grace is determined to swim her way up the tarnished stream of deceit and pretense in the world of celebrity, and find the killer of her sister. Kiki , as mother-figure, friend, and colleague helps Grace to find the truth about her sister, and life itself.

Please enjoy this YouTube video of Fanny Brice singing her signature song, “My Man.”

Maggie says it All

In Downtown Abbey,The Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by incomparable actress Maggie Smith, is the epitome of British High Society. Her character outlines the resistance of the Aristocracy to any sort of social change. Little do they know, with the WWI pending, change is coming…

Enjoy this YouTube video of the Top Ten Maggie Moments of Downton Abbey, Season One. (She gets all the best lines!)