Of Anarchists, Empresses, and Dieting

Empress Sisi and dog circa 1864
Empress Sisi and dog circa 1864, from gogmsite.net

Only those who work are entitled to eat!

Such was the statement made to police by 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni when asked why he had just stabbed Elisabeth Amelie Eugenie, the Empress Consort of Franz Joseph I of Austria. He intended the act as a “great deed” to redeem the ignominy of his hard life. Born an orphan, he had gone from foster home to foster home, and then, as he grew older, from job to job. Shortly before his crime, he had lost his position as a servant in the home of an Italian duke. Homeless and half-starved, with little prospect of getting another job, he avenged himself on someone he thought knew no such suffering.

The irony of Lucheni’s statement to police, however, was that the empress, known popularly as “Sisi,” was no regal glutton of the type made famous by, say, Henry VIII of England or Emperor Elagabalus of Rome. She worked little, yes, but she ate little, as well. In fact, she kept herself on a starvation diet to observe a vogue then sweeping Europe, one which put paid to the swells and contours expected of the well-to-do of earlier periods and exalted in their place a wasp-waisted waifishness. In service to this new physical ideal, Sisi had her hairdresser measure daily her 18-inch waist and equally diminutive wrists and ankles. Sisi was tall, measuring five feet eight inches in height, but she weighed a scant 105 pounds. These proportions made for a silhouette deemed by the Prince of Hesse as “almost inhumanly slender.” For Sisi, no higher compliment could have been paid.

To maintain such an inhumanly slender silhouette, she subsisted solely on milk and assured herself ample supplies by keeping her own dairies on the grounds of Schönbrunn palace and in the thickly forested Lainzer deer park — the same park where her only son, the Crown Prince of Austria, would meet his mistress for trysts on golden autumn evenings. (The two would eventually commit suicide together.) When Sisi traveled, she took along two milch cows and a goat over which her attendants endlessly fussed, for without these animals their fickle lady would starve.

Sisi did vary her diet at times. She nibbled fresh orange sections or wet her lips with beef bouillon made from a powder. Such occasions were rare, however. For the most part, her’s was an austere and disciplined life. As if doubtful that dieting alone would keep her free of the fat she abhorred, she exercised regularly, subjecting her slight form to daily exertions on balance beams and gymnastic rings she had installed in her castles and palaces. Her efforts were lavishly rewarded: The Empress of Austria was celebrated as the most beautiful woman in all of Europe. Her breath, however, was nothing so fair as her person. Her physician remarked that it smelt of acetone. Today we know this as a tell-tale sign of starvation.

As Sisi grew older starvation left its mark on her in other ways. Another physician observed “pronounced swelling” here and there on her body, “especially in the ankles.” He identified this as “Edema of hunger,” a rare condition among the elite in those days. Rather than be chastened by her deteriorating condition, Sisi intensified her regimen by adding to it sweat cures, mountain hikes, and baths in frigid water. She now drank much black coffee and nibbled eggs and cold meat.

The new rigors drained Sisi of whatever measure of vigor her earlier rigors left her, and the effect often drew alarm from her attendants. “Her Majesty always looked so exhausted!”, they would later recall themselves saying. Her Majesty remained heedless of such alarm. Slenderness represented her sole vanity. And she remained focused on it to the sacrifice of nearly all other matters of deportment. She thought nothing, for example, of removing and rinsing her dentures in public. She was oblivious to the public’s regard for the mourning attire — veils, broad-brimmed hats, high-necked dresses — she favored. Graceless quirks mattered little so long as she remained slim.

Sisi remained slim, indeed, although it could not be said that she remained happy. Her husband Emperor Franz Joseph complained of her “overstressed nerves, her increasing restlessness, her extravagances, her very sick heart.” Her heart sickness owed to a beauty that was fading with age, and it so occupied her that she was blind to the protests that flared throughout her empire. When her husband had to declare martial law in response to unrest in Prague, she treated the news as boring gossip. More important by far to her were any treatment and exercise that promised to restore her health and comeliness. In pursuit of these she visited the great spas of Europe and her estates in Greece and the French Riviera, accompanied always by a sympathetic train of family and friends.

In 1898 Sisi arrived in Geneva, Switzerland. There she encountered Luigi Lucheni. On a Saturday afternoon he waited for her to emerge from her hotel and stroll along the lakeside promenade. When she came abreast of him he slipped a sharpened, four-inch needle file into her chest directly above her heart. “What did that man actually want?”, the startled empress asked as her assailant melted back into the crowd. A few hours later she lay dying, still unaware that she had been stabbed and believing that the mysterious young man had only wanted her watch.

Lucheni spent the first ten years of his prison sentence trying to explain what exactly he wanted his great deed to accomplish. But the manuscript of his memoirs was destroyed — an act which caused Lucheni to hang himself — and so his vision remains a mystery. Still, had circumstances allowed him to eat more heartily and regularly, perhaps he would have enjoyed this recipe for a Swiss omelette from Das neue Kochbuch für das deutsche Haus, published in 1879. It’s a heavy, fattening dish for those who have to work and thus are entitled to it.

Swiss Omelette

Mix together one carton sour cream, 6 egg yolks (reserve the whites and beat them until stiff) and three spoonfuls flour. Then add 1/2 carton cream, six lumps sugar, and the beaten eggs whites. From this you can make six omelettes. Feel free to fill them with what you wish and sprinkle them with sugar.


Baumgarthuber, Christine. Fermented Foods: The History and Science of a Microbiological Wonder. Reaktion Books, 2021.

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