About 11 years ago, in the early morning hours of a cold January night, I couldn’t sleep so I wandered into the living room, sat on the couch and turned on the television. I flipped through some channels and landed on TCM just as Robert Osborne was announcing the next movie, Mayerling (1936). He described it as one of the greatest love stories and having never heard of it, I was hooked. My original plan was to be up long enough to get sleepy, but instead I spent the next two hours transfixed by Charles Boyer and the beautiful Danielle Darrieux in all the drama that is Mayerling.
As we approach the 123rd anniversary of the incident at Mayerling on January 30, 2012, I am reflecting on the journey that Mayerling has led me on, from sitting on a couch in Tucson to walking the streets of Vienna, following in the footsteps of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera.
Crown Prince Rudolf was the heir to the illustrious Hapsburg Empire. The son of Emperor Franz Josef and the legendary Empress Sissi, Crown Prince Rudolf was the long awaited prince expected to carry on the rule of Hapsburgs. For centuries the Hapsburgs ruled and their Austro-Hungarian empire stretched out to cover many regions and cultures. The Hapsburg Empire seemed unbreakable; everything the empire touched seemed to turn to gold.
Yet, not everything glittered in the Hofburg palace. Emperor Franz Josef was a rigid, militaristic leader. He slept in a small iron bed and rose every morning long before the sun. The tempestuous Empress Sissi had been plucked at the tender age of 16 from a fairy tale existence at her childhood Bavarian castle. Sissi’s mother, Ludovica, was the sister of the Archduchess Sophie, who was also the mother of Emperor Franz Josef. Archduchess Sophie was a chilly woman with strict guidelines for proper conduct. She had picked Sissi’s sister, Helene to become the bride of Franz Josef and yet those plans fell to pieces once Emperor Franz Josef saw Sissi.
Sissi was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. They were betrothed and Sissi moved to a cold, glacial existence at the Hofburg with a nightmare of a mother-in-law. Sissi would later go on to roam all of Europe to escape from her symptoms of hysteria and try to gain control over her life by starving herself into anorexia.
Archduchess Sophie made it impossible for Sissi to care for her children and they were brought up under the strict protocol that Archduchess Sophie created. Crown Prince Rudolf was subjected to a cruel tutor who at one time fired a gun in his bedroom to awaken him. As he grew older, he trained with the Austrian army and received titles, yet he had no real purpose. He was a puppet, a charming puppet, but the only strings he controlled sought the typical empty pleasures of mistresses and drugs to numb his pain.
Crown Prince Rudolf was an extremely gifted and intelligent man, yet he was not allowed to fulfill the visions of progress he held in his mind. He was liberal prince, a prince of the people and in the stifling, militaristic environment of the Hapsburg Empire, he was considered a weed that must be plucked, lest it grow to become a threat. Emperor Franz Josef wanted to control his subjects but Rudolf was showing signs of wanting to listen to the people. So Rudolf’s every step was followed and every note he passed was intercepted. He ghost authored articles for a liberal paper in Vienna, but that ended when the Jewish editor of the paper was arrested on trumped up charges.
Rudolf was a man adrift and beginning to brood more and more about death. The Viennese are known for their acceptance and celebration of death. It is an irony that Vienna, a golden city of an empire, complete with elaborate balls, would be obsessed by death. Rudolf was no exception, he kept a human skull on his desk to remind him of the futility of his life. Then he met Mary Vetsera, the daughter of a minor nobleman and a Carole Middleton type of mother. In her eyes Rudolf found an escape from the gilded misery he knew. She represented purity and was untouched by political deceit and plots. Crown Prince Rudolf was like Prince William of his day. Women clamored and threw themselves at him, but Mary played the game tactfully and truly fell in love in him.
Rudolf was forced into a corner by his domineering father Franz Josef to leave Mary Vetsera forever once he became betrothed to her. Rudolf was a married man after all. Mistresses on the side were permitted, but no one dared to marry one! An annulment from Princess Stephanie of Belgium would never fly in Catholic Vienna. Rudolf and Mary created a suicide pact and committed the final act at his hunting lodge, Mayerling. Or so the story goes...
No one really knows what happened that fateful night. Rumors swirled of a Hungarian plot to execute Rudolf for not following through on establishing Hungary as its own country. Louder rumors persisted of Emperor Franz Josef having planned the murders himself; still others whispered that there was a terrific fight brought about by an insulting remark made to Mary Vetsera.
The official report stated they both died by gunshots wounds to the head. However, this doesn’t explain the bandaged hands of Rudolf that seem to cover defensive wounds in his death portrait.
Maria Vetsera was removed from her final resting place decades later by a ghoulish Austrian who wished to solve the mystery for himself. Upon examination, he discovered there was no bullet wound in Maria’s head! Her skull had been crushed by a blunt object. Most of the documents and papers pertaining to this mystery have all been lost and are yet unrecovered to this day. The Hapsburg family still refuses to comment on this unsolved mystery.
One thing we do know is that Rudolf and Mary wished to be buried together and that wish has never been granted. I visited Rudolf’s and Mary’s gravesites in two very different settings. Rudolf is entombed in the crypt in Vienna in an awkward setting next to his father and mother.
The dysfunction this family displayed during their lives makes it uncomfortable to view them together in a crypt. Mary is buried in a small village cemetery in Heiligenkreuz. I couldn’t believe I was really there when I arrived at her graveside.
I had promised myself 12 years ago that I would visit one day and I was so thankful that I was able to. When I arrived at the cemetary I almost intuitively knew right away where she was buried, I ran right to her. It was a homecoming of sorts. It wasn't until I was leaving that I saw this sign above the entrance pointing the way to Mary.
In the intervening years, Mayerling has been converted to a convent for nuns. To this day the nuns pray for the salvation of Rudolf’s soul. I wonder if Emperor Franz Josef and his guilty conscience created the convent to cover his sin? The altar in the chapel is placed on the very spot where Rudolf and Mary were found.
Walking the same cobblestone streets that lead to the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn palace as Rudolf brought me a sense of peace.
Visiting Mayerling and the small museum attached that displays furniture from the former hunting lodge gave me a further glimpse into Rudolf’s life.
Much of the historical buildings in the Ringstrasse are still as they were when Rudolf roamed among them.
After I arrived home from my trip to Vienna I was sitting on bed looking out my window at the view of Paradise Valley in the distance. You see Charles Boyer, the impossibly handsome actor that portrayed Rudolf in the Anatole Litvak masterpiece Mayerling, lived in Paradise Valley with his wife. Two days after she died of cancer in 1978, Charles Boyer went to a friend’s residence in Paradise Valley and shot himself. In an ultimate twist of irony Charles Boyer committed suicide in the same manner as portrayed in Mayerling. Without the love of his life, he found no more reason to go on living. I also thought about what might have happened if Crown Prince Rudolf had been allowed to suceed after his father. Might WWII have been avoided? Rudolf's cousin Franz Ferdinand was assasinated after he became emperor following Franz Josef's death. Would Rudolf and his liberal ways have been able to avoid the calamity that led to this first World War? Reflecting on all of this, I realized I had come full circle with my Mayerling journey. If it wasn’t for that one fateful evening when I couldn’t sleep I wouldn’t have become so enraptured with a dashing prince from a time long ago.
I will leave you with a clip from my favorite part of the movie, no words are spoken and none are necessary.