January 30, 1889 — Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, wrote a tragic note to his wife in the early hours of this day. It read: “I am going calmly to my death which alone can save my good name.” He then put a pistol to the head of his beautiful 17-year-old mistress who was lying in bed beside him and shot her dead. He did the same to himself shortly after. Or so the story goes. . .
Rudolf, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was the only son of Kaiser Franz Joseph I and Kaiserin Elisabeth of Austria. Rudolf had everything that money could buy but that, sadly, did not include much warmth from his mother or the love and respect of his father.
As well as being shown little affection during his strict upbringing the Prince was later excluded from affairs of state by his father.
And when it came to marriage it was a case of “father knows best”. In 1881, 22-year-old Rudolf dutifully married the girl chosen for him – Princess Stéphanie, a daughter of King Léopold II of Belgium.
It was not a happy relationship, Rudolf turning to drink and to flings with other women. But in 1887, at a ball in the German embassy, the 29-year-old Prince met Baroness Marie Vetsera – Marie Alexandrine Freiin von Vetsera – the daughter of a wealthy diplomat at the Austrian court. Though at just 17 she was little more than half Rudolf’s age, the couple fell in love and began a passionate affair.
It led to a showdown with his father. Franz Joseph demanded that the affair must end immediately and insisted that divorce from Stéphanie was out of the question.
Rudolf, who was a great lover of the outdoors, had built a hunting lodge in woods at Mayerling, a small village fifteen miles southwest of Vienna. In despair after the clash with his father, he took Marie there and seeing no alternative, apparently persuaded her to join him in a suicide pact.
Records show that they had a private dinner there on that last night, a valet serving a meal of pheasant with fresh mushrooms, leeks and baked potatoes. They were found dead the following morning.
There are reports that Franz Joseph I tried to cover up Marie’s murder by having her body secretly buried. According to other accounts, members of Marie’s family “dressed her, and propping up her body with a broomstick so that she could be placed upright in a carriage, smuggled her out of the estate in the middle of the night, probably in the futile hope of avoiding a bigger scandal.”
Despite three movies about the incident – in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux; 1957 with Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn; and 1968 with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve – nobody knows definitely what happened that night. What is certain is that the apparent murder-suicide made international headlines and the deaths were the focus of swirling rumours, speculation, claims and counter-claims that have continued to this day.
There is one undeniable legacy, though. After Rudolf’s death, his cousin, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was to become heir-presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungary. But in 1914 he and his wife were shot dead by a Bosnian Serb assassin on the streets of Sarajevo – tipping the whole planet into the horrific First World War.
Published: January 20, 2021
Archduke of Austria
Franz Joseph I
Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria