Friday, January 24, 2014

The Emperor & the Actress: The Love Story of Emperor Franz Josef & Katharina Schratt by Joan Haslip

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: January 24, 2014

She was the darling of the Austrian stage, a blond "bird of paradise" with "laughing blue eyes and a little girl's face." He was one of the nineteenth century's most influential rulers, the last great Hapsburg emperor, who, years later, would plunge the world into war. She rose from a broken marriage and financial ruin to become the pampered confidante of Europe's rich and powerful. He grew hopelessly obsessed with this guileless girl from the Vienna woods, and lavished his affection—and his wealth—on her. The Emperor and the Actress is a factualaccount of the relationship between Emperor Franz Josef and Katharina Schratt, a leading lady described by one drama critic as "the average man's ideal. . .both seductress and housewife, earthy and sophisticated." This is a riveting tale of forbidden love and political intrigue, of madness and murder, of a woman's conquest of her monarch—and of the terrible sacrifices both were forced to endure. In following Katharina's progress through the theatres, palaces, and watering spots of Europe, author Joan Haslip provides an engrossing glimpse of daily life off and on the stage and at court. She resurrects the forgotten theatrical customs and luminaries of the era. And she describes—in rich detail—the world of princely opulence and sumptuous luxury enjoyed by a privileged few. The Emperor and the Actress is far more than just the story of Katharina Schratt—the toast of fin-de-siecle society, the mistress "enslaved in golden chains," a friend to Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms. It is a study of power—the power of beauty, of seduction, of tradition, of wealth, of art, of madness, and of change. And it is a haunting portrait of vanished European monarchy, the last gasp of the Hapsburgs, the excesses of absolute rule.

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I have an obsessive interest in Crown Prince Rudolf which is unfortunate as there isn't a lot of material available for those wishing to understand the details of his short and tragic existence. 

Emperor Franz Josef
Having devoured The Road to Mayerling: Life and Death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria by Richard BarkeleyCrime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera by Georg Markus, The Mayerling Murder by Victor Wolfson and Mayerling: The Facts Behind The Legend by Fritz Judtmann, I wasn't entirely sure where to turn for additional infornation. I continued my research online, but it wasn't until discovering tidbits of otherwise unpublished information in The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans that I gave serious thought to reading titles unrelated to the 'incident' itself. 

My first instinct was to look for anything related to Mitzi Kaspar, but she proved more elusive than her royal paramour. Next up, Johann Salvator, but beyond an entertaining conspiracy theory that connected the Archduke to François Bérenger Saunière, I found myself at a dead end. Third on my list, Katharina Schratt, which is how I came to Joan Haslip's The Emperor & the Actress.

Beginning with Katharina's humble origins, Haslip chronicles her early interest in acting, the energy she put towards honing her skills on the stages of central Europe, and of course, her enigmatic and much speculated 'friendship' with Emperor Franz Josef.

Katharina Schratt
For the record, I knew very little about Schratt going into this piece, my understanding of her being limited to three facts. One, she was an actress. Two, her affair with the Austrian Emperor lasted much of his marriage. And three, upon the death of their son and heir, Empress Elisabeth summoned the younger woman to the Hofburg to comfort her grieving husband. Needless to say Haslip's examination of Schratt's background, career, friends and relations brought Franz Josef's lover into focus, shedding light on both her public and private personas. 

Haslip's portrayal of the Austrian political arena is equally fascinating, the author having gone out of her way to describe the impact Franz Josef's responsibilities and obligations had on his relationship with Schratt. Being familiar with the history, I can't say whether Haslip's work is a good introductory piece, but that being said, it is noteworthy for its emphasis on lesser known players and their associated social network.

The glamour and intrigue of the court is contrasted in Haslip's representation of Vienna's theater culture. Through it, Haslip brings the city to life, painting a dynamic and alluring account of upper and middle class life at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Bottom line folks, The Emperor and the Actress is a must read for anyone interested in the twilight of the Austrian Hapsburgs and the affair that came to define one of its longest reigning monarchs. 

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It was only after Elisabeth's death that Katharina Schratt was to realize how much she owed the Empress when, bereft of her protection, she found herself exposed to all the calumnies and petty humiliations of which a jealous court was capable.
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Melinda Ott said...

I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy of this book! I remember visiting Vienna and hearing just a but about this and I'd love to know more!

Anonymous said...

It's a fairly easy one to come by and well worth the effort. :)