Book Review: Myths of Mayerling

Crime at Mayerling. The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera, by Georg Markus; The Habsburgs’ Tragedy, by Leo Belmonto

TVR Books | Gerda Butkuviene | March 2011

For many Austrians, the unsolved mystery of the death of the Crown Prince Rudolf carries enduring fascination and romance

Every country has its myths. More than 100 years passed since the final night of the Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, but for many Austrians, the unsolved mystery carries an enduring fascination and an undying sense of romance.

In a small village called Mayerling, some 20 km southwest of Vienna, a lovely church greets visitors from the low hill. Here within the walls of the Cloister of Carmelites lies the memory of a 100-year-old tragedy and a great imperial mystery.

The hunting lodge that once stood at Mayerling belonged to the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth; it was his retreat from the life at court, where he told friends he felt most himself.  There, on the Jan. 30, 1889, in the stillness of the Wienerwald, witnesses found the bodies of Rudolf and his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, daughter of an Austrian diplomat, both dead of gunshot wounds.

After the incident, at the request of the Emperor, in the place of the hunting lodge the new church was built, so that nuns could pray daily for the soul of Rudolf. The altar of the church, it is said, stands on the site of the lovers’ bed – today, on display at Vienna’s royal furniture museum, the Hofmobiliendepot. And in the chapel, the Madonna reminds many of the face of the Empress Elisabeth. The small museum inside the church has a small exhibit dedicated to the fatal night with the last letters of the Crown Prince Rudolf, photos and even the coffin of Mary Vetsera, whose grave (with her remains lying in a new coffin) can be found in Heiligenkreuz, not far away.

Many tourists come to Mayerling each year. The rich list of novels, plays, operas, movies’ screen plays or even musicals, whose authors were inspired by the tragic love story of Rudolf and Mary, keep public interest alive.

For it is not just the incident itself – romantic as it is – that continues to fascinate people more than a century later, but more the behavior of imperial family after the shocking event. The Habsburgs not only kept their silent about the incident that night, they tried hard to silence every possible witness. The Prince’s own coachman Josef Bratfisch, for one, was offered a monthly income for life to keep his master’s secrets and to take everything he knew to the grave. And he knew a lot, as he had spent the last evening with Rudolf and Mary, and her last words in a farewell letter to her family were, "Bratfish played the pipes wonderfully." Also, all the writings of Countess Marie Larisch, who used to arrange the meetings between Rudolf and Baroness Vetsera, some of which secretly took place in  a Viennese inn called Gmoa Keller, Am Heumarkt, still in business to this day, containing the ‘complete truth about Mayerling,’ were purchased by the Emperor, for what reportedly cost him more than the Giant Wheel in the Prater.

Any Viennese newspapers that reported anything other than a heart attack as the reason for the sudden death of the Crown Prince were censored or confiscated. And the name of Mary Vetsera became taboo until after the collapse of the Monarchy.

As a result, theories abound. Maybe Rudolf shot Mary and then shot himself? Maybe the lovers shot each other? Maybe Mary was poisoned or took poison herself? Maybe she died during the abortion? Maybe the lovers became victims of political conspiracy? Or a failed coup d’etat?

In his book Crime at Mayerling, The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera, Georg Markus claims that what happened at Mayerling was never seriously investigated, and the few investigations that were made were falsified – manipulated by the monarchy. The body of Mary Vetsera was buried as soon as possible, without judicial inquiry, and as secretly as possible, not even allowing her mother to attend. It was only later, that the version of the story surfaced in which Rudolf shot Mary and then shot himself.

At the time, Emperor Franz Joseph did everything in his power to get the Church’s blessing for Rudolf to be buried in the Imperial crypt, the Kapuzinergruft, impossible had the Crown Prince been seen committing murder and suicide. Instead a special dispensation was obtained from the Vatican to declare Rudolf ‘in a condition of mental derangement.’

Stories of the tragic ending of the Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary Vetsera at Mayerling have been a favorite of dramatists and filmmakers. In the musical Rudolf, The Mayerling Affair, directed by David Leveaux at Vienna’s Raimund Theater as well as in the ballet Mayerling at the Vienna State Opera, both staged in the 2009-2010 season, the final scene between the lovers together in bed at the hunting lodge could be observed by spectators only in a total dark or behind the folding screen, just with the clear sounds of two shots.

On the contrary, in the Terence Young’s 1968 movie Mayerling, Omar Sharif as the prince and the young Catherine Deneuve, were constantly on camera until the very end. The film, an English-French co-production, maintains the legend of undeniable love leading to death. At the end, Rudolf shoots Mary Vetsera and moments later, overwhelmed, shoots himself, still keeping her hand in his.

In the novel The Habsburgs’ Tragedy written by Polish author Leo Belmonto (Leopold Blumental) suggests quite uncommon interpretation of the event by creating the portrait of the Baroness as smart, selfish and manipulating feelings of her beloved. In the last pages of the book, facing the growing indifference of the Crown Prince, Mary decides to poison herself at Mayerling, leaving a letter inviting him to follow her, knowing it would be a question of honor for the Emperor’s son. Staying alive he would have to find a public explanation of  the dead woman’s body in his hunting lodge, the fact which undoubtedly was a real threat of staining his name in society and, more important, in the eyes of imperial family.

Nevertheless some things are common in many pieces of art inspired by the tragic life of Crown Prince Rudolf. These is the troubled relationship between the Emperor and his son and successor, the need for a mother who was constantly away avoiding the duties of the court, the unhappy marriage with Princess Stephanie of Belgium, his frustrated political objectives, and a series of physical symptoms including constant headaches, insomnia and the effects of morphine and alcohol – and what was perhaps a clinical depression. Maybe all of them led to suicide, maybe none. That’s why Mary powerful line in Rudolf: the Mayerling Affair is so convincing: ‘It is often better to die at once, than to die a little every day.’

But among the romancers of ‘Mayerling fever’, little of the darker sides of the story emerged: That the Crown Prince had sired some 30 illegitimate children (according to his grandson Prince Francis Joseph Windisch-Graetz), or that he carried the gonorrhea that infected his wife and led to her sterility thus burying their hopes for a masculine heir; or his affair with Mary’s mother Baroness Helene Vetsera, when Mary was only six, or that Mary was perhaps not his great love after all.

According to the Imperial Police Institute, who sniffed about Rudolf’s private life "for the sake of his security", even the night before Mayerling, Crown Prince spent with his another mistress Mizzi Caspar. And that six months earlier, he had suggested a double suicide to Mizzi, who refused. In Crime at Mayerling, Georg Markus suggests that Rudolf was afraid of being alone, both of living alone and also of dying alone. And it was Mary who agreed to the plan.

Many of the mysteries of Mayerling may never be solved. Many witnesses are dead, much of the evidence destroyed. And the appeal of a story of tragic romance is too strong. It would probably take an exhumation of the prince to put the speculations of this most sensational chapter in the six hundred years history of the Habsburg empire to rest. But so far, writes Marcus, heir to the throne Otto von Habsburg and the Capuchin friars who govern the crypt have refused all requests.

And sometimes the details have proved dangerous. In 1991 Linz furniture dealer Helmut Flatzelsteiner removed the remains of Mary Vetsera and approached a journalist at the Kronen Zeitung to sell the story and the skeleton, which was then reinterred in Heiligenkreuz in 1993. It had been the second time, after the body had been placed in a new coffin in 1959 after the original one was plundered by Soviet soldiers looking for jewelry.

It’s the same mistake all over again, writes Markus: As in 1889, Habsburgs’ silence allows the myth to survive, and forever new, fantastic versions to be imagined.


Dramatic works included in this review:

Crime at Mayerling. The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera, by Georg Markus (1995)

The Habsburgs’ Tragedy, by Leo Belmonto

Rudolf, The Mayerling Affair, a musical by David Leveaux (2009)

Mayerling, a film by Terence Young (1968)

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