Biography, Blog and News

A mortal […] comes up like a flower and is cut down, by Lucy Coatman

Carved onto the gravestone of Baroness Mary Vetsera in Heiligenkreuz, this Bible verse provides a sobering outlook on her short life. In the early hours of the 30th of January 1889, seventeen year old Mary was shot – willingly – by Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, who then turned the gun on himself. This tragic event caused a scandal throughout the Austrian empire, and it is by her death at Rudolf’s hands that Mary has been remembered. The Baroness has gone down in history as a ‘titled trollop’ and sexual adventuress. Because Mary is framed in terms of her death alongside Rudolf, the events of her life have been of less interest.

But what of the young Baroness who sang in church choirs, devoured romantic novels, enjoyed the music of Beethoven, and whose heroine was Mary Stuart? Marie Alexandrine, Baroness of Vetsera, was born on the 19th of March 1871. Following the fashion of the time, she chose to go by the English ‘Mary’. She was the third of the four children of heiress Helene (neé. Baltazzi) and diplomat Albin Vetsera. Not quite aristocratic, but too rich to be ignored, Helene Vetsera was concerned with finding her way into the blue-blooded circles of the imperial capital. A lady in waiting of Empress Elisabeth noted in her diary, ‘Madame Vetsera wishes to go to court and to gain prestige for herself and her family’.[1]  Mary attended an institute for noble girls at the Salesian convent, and educated in all the social graces necessary for a life in aristocratic circles.

While journalist Georg Markus has claimed that Mary was only interested in her toilette, ice skating and horse racing, a questionnaire which she filled out in 1884 provides us with a different depiction.[2] When faced with the question of her idea of misery, her answer, ‘going to the dentist’, gives us a glimpse of her sense of humour.The questionnaire suggests a girl drawn towards the romantic and melancholy: her favourite writer was the Hungarian revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi, and her fictional hero was Siegfried. It is not only Mary’s self-presentation that allows us to draw this conclusion. Maureen Alleen (an American that Mary befriended in England) wrote that, in the summer of 1888, Mary looked ‘sweet’, but approached life in a serious and tragic manner.[3]  This image is very different to that of the frivolous, vain, thoughtless mistress of Crown Prince Rudolf that has been handed down to us.

Mary Vetsera felt, and she felt deeply. Like many teenagers in the empire, Mary collected pictures of Crown Prince Rudolf in the same way that young people today fill their walls with posters of the latest pop stars. The first time she saw Rudolf (albeit from afar) on the 12th of April 1888, she noted on her calendar that a ‘passion was born’.[4]  Marie Larisch, the niece of Empress Elisabeth, acted as chaperone. According to the letter, Mary and the Crown Prince were immediately engaged in pleasant conversation, and he begged Marie Larisch to bring her back as soon as possible.

While it was accepted for male members of the imperial house to have mistresses (Rudolf had numerous), it would have been dangerous for the unmarried Mary and the reputation of her entire family if word got out. In order to protect her, a fiaker (carriage) would wait on the street around the corner from her palace and drive Mary to a secret entrance at the Hofburg Palace.  The affair reached its climax on the 13th of January 1889. ‘We both lost our heads,’ wrote Mary to Hermine Tobis. ‘Now we belong to each other in body and soul’.[5]  There are multiple theories as to what precisely happened: the physical consummation of their affair, the confirmation of a pregnancy, their joint decision to die together.[6]

Whatever transpired, it was a momentous day for Mary who, in her goodbye letters written just hours before her death, asked her sister Hanna to leave flowers on her grave every year on this date. To her mother, she begged for forgiveness for what she had done. Her advice to Hanna was to only marry for love – because she could not do this, she decided to die alongside Rudolf. These letters unequivocally prove that she died willingly beside the Crown Prince.

But why did Rudolf kill Mary? Popular media would like us to believe that it was due to their impossible love. On the contrary, this was not a serious relationship for Rudolf. If he loved any woman in his life, it was his long term mistress Mizzi Caspar. He took advantage of Mary’s clear feelings for him, and had her die alongside him as he was too simply scared to die alone: he had already offered suicide pacts to Mizzi and his wife Stéphanie. His own decision was the combined result of his appalling upbringing, which affected him in adulthood, his disastrous marriage, his father’s banning him from political life, and the suffering of venereal diseases. In a letter he wrote alongside his will, Rudolf claimed that this was the only way in which he could leave this world as a gentleman.[7]

Knowing that Rudolf killing not only himself but a seventeen-year-old girl would deny him a church burial, the imperial family sought to erase all memory of the Baroness. Her uncles were forced to take her body (which had been carelessly placed in a closet), push a broomstick into her clothes to keep her corpse upright, and travel with her between them in a carriage to create the illusion that she was alive. There could be no evidence that a second body was found, and Mary was hastily buried in the cemetery in Heiligenkreuz. Helene Vetsera was compelled to leave Austria without visiting the grave, and the memoirs in which she sought justice for her daughter were suppressed.

The two gun shots that echoed from Mayerling hunting lodge sent shockwaves throughout the Empire. Following Rudolf’s death, the unpopular Archduke Franz Ferdinand became heir to the throne. His assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 sparked a chain of events which led to World War One. But the final word should be Mary’s. In her farewell letter to her mother, Mary wrote ‘forgive me for what I have done. I could not resist love’. She lived and died by her motto: ‘j’aime qu’on m’aime come j’aime quand j’aime’: I love to be loved as I love when I love.

Lucy Coatman is an MLitt student at the University of St Andrews. She is particularly interested in nineteenth-century Austria and gender history.  From September, she will be researching “The Last Empress: The Transitions, Images and Functions of Zita of Bourbon-Parma, 1911-192” at Central European University.

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[1] Georg Markus, Katrin Unterreiner, Das Original-Mayerling-Protokoll (Vienna, 2014), p. 16.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Friedrich Weissensteiner, Frauen um Kronprinz Rudolf (Vienna, 2004), p. 227.

[6] Greg King and Penny Wilson provide compelling evidence from Crown Princess Stéphanie and Mizzi Caspar that Mary was pregnant: Twilight of Empire, pp. 229-230. Georg Markus also suggests this possibility in Crime at Mayerling (Vienna, 1993), pp. 60-61, p. 113.

[7] Hannes Etzlstorfer, Mayerling 1889, Ein Mythos entsteht (Heiligenkreuz, 2016), p. 50.

1 thought on “A mortal […] comes up like a flower and is cut down, by Lucy Coatman

  1. I wonder if Baroness Mary Vetsera’s reading included “Cometh Up as a Flower” by Rhoda Broughton, 1867?

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