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Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

Mayerling “Love Deaths” Still Haunt

mayerling
Mayerling Lodge as it appeared in 1889. Photo: Public Domain

One of Sergei Polunin’s greatest roles is that of Crown Prince Rudolf in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Mayerling.”  He drew rave reviews for his pristine ballet technique and innate talent, but even more so for his emotional torching of the stage.  Many fans, while adoring the ballet “Mayerling,” are a bit lost when it comes to understanding the story.  It is a tragic tale that is based in fact.  The Mayerling deaths were real, and happened to real people.  

The Mayerling deaths

For more than 100 years, the mysterious “love deaths” at Mayerling, a village just southwest of Vienna.  They have gripped the imagination of the world and provided the raw material for many a play, film and even a ballet by Sir Kenneth MacMillan for The Royal Ballet.
The year 1989 marked the centennial of the Mayerling tragedy.  It was observed with the publication of books and articles analyzing the incident, the details of which were purposely obscured at the time the events occurred.

On Jan. 30, 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, archduke of Austria-Hungary and heir to the Hapsburg crown, was found dead in the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, in the Vienna Woods, about 15 miles from the capital. Beside the body of the 30-year-old prince lay that of his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, 17.  Both had been shot.

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Prince Rudolf

Rudolf was the son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and the famously beautiful and infamously melancholy Empress Elisabeth. Young Rudolf seemed to be a very different type than his cold and calculating father.  He developed an early passion for the natural sciences, liberal politics, and a somewhat more delicate sensibility in general.

By the time Rudolf was wed to Princess Stephanie of Belgium in 1881, he had already established the other habit that would appear to be his undoing.  He had a certain weakness for the ladies.  In fact, he allegedly brought a lover with him to his wedding.

Within a few short years, the marriage devolved into a relationship of mutual tolerance. Rudolf’s womanizing, drinking, and more recently acquired drug habit took over his life, apparently leading him in a downward spiral.

Seventeen year old Mary

Mary Vetsara on the other hand, appeared to be a young woman very much smitten with the prince. The 17 year old baroness, however, was not Rudolf’s first choice for his suicide pact. He actually attempted to convince another woman, a prostitute named Mitzi Caspar, to die with him. She declined his offer.

Mary and Rudolf left Vienna for the hunting lodge in Mayerling on January 29th, 1889.  The prince claimed he wanted to do a bit of hunting the following morning. Sometime in the night, Rudolf shot and killed Mary, and then turned the gun on himself. When the staff came to the door in the morning, the bodies were discovered.

A massive cover-up operation followed.  The royal family attempted to pass off Rudolf’s death as one of natural causes.  They tried to hide Mary’s body entirely.

Suicide?

A finding of murder was out of the question.  Rudolf, after all, was heir to the throne. At first there was even no mention of suicide, out of fear that the church would not permit a proper burial. Rudolf’s death was attributed to poison at the hands of his enemies, or to natural causes.

Because Rudolf was unhappily married to Princess Stephanie of Belgium, no public mention was made of the teen-age baroness. Her body was spirited away and secretly buried.

Finally, the emperor informed the Pope that Rudolf had committed suicide in a “deranged state of mind.”  The Pope then allowed Rudolf a Catholic burial in the imperial vault in Vienna.

Mayerling mystery

The mystery gave rise to much speculation about the circumstances surrounding the deaths. Much of it emphasized the romantic aspects of Mayerling. Not until years later did the details became widely known.  But because the incident had been so shrouded in secrecy and deceit, conflicting versions endure.

For instance, Clemens M. Gruber, an author and opera archivist, published an account called “The Fateful Days of Mayerling.”  In Gruber’s view, Mary’s angry relatives forced their way into the lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver, accidentally shooting the baroness. He is then said to have been killed by one of her enraged relatives.

Another writer, Gerd Holler, who is also a physician, says in his book, “Mayerling–New Documents on the Tragedy 100 Years Afterward,” that Rudolf had arranged an abortion for Mary, who was reputedly three months pregnant. Holler contends that she died in the process and that Rudolf committed suicide.

Attempts to exhume the body of the baroness for examination have been blocked by members of her family.

Murder?

Empress Zita, who died at the age of 96 in a Swiss convent, argued that Rudolf was murdered by French political enemies of his father. She was the consort of Karl I, the last emperor and grand nephew of Franz Joseph.

Most scholars now prefer the version offered by historian Brigitte Hamann in her book, “Rudolf, Crown Prince and Rebel.” Hamann, who took part in a recent international conference on the incident at Mayerling, said in an interview:

“He was a poetic young man and brooded a lot. He was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife. They had no children. The reason for all the confusion was the cover-up by the Imperial Court…  The fact is that Rudolf was a very nervous, sensitive man who flirted with suicide more than once.”

According to Hamann, the Baroness Vetsera, who was in love with the increasingly despondent Rudolf, was more susceptible to the love-death idea.

“There is no question,” she said. “Rudolf shot the girl and then himself.”

Their end brought about the end

Rudolf is buried in the Habsburg family crypt in Vienna, and Mary’s body lies in a modest grave in Heiligenkreuz, Austria.

Rudolf’s death left Franz Josef I without an heir, leading to the succession of Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 kicked off the hostilities of WWI, and effectively led to the end of the Hapsburg dynasty.

After the deaths, the emperor ordered the hunting lodge at Mayerling razed, and the area was transformed into a Carmelite church.  A small museum houses artifacts related to the deaths.  The Carmelite nuns there still pray for the souls of Rudolf and Mary.

This is a blog post by Pam Boehme Simon that includes excerpts from a March 19, 1989 article by William Tuohy, a Times staff writer, and a atlas travel article featuring the Mayerling Hunting Lodge.




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