Elisabeth has gone down in history as an empress of eternal youthfulness and beauty. For more than three decades she was regarded as the most beautiful queen in Europe. She expressed hardly any political opinions in the final decades of her life, and she had withdrawn almost entirely from public life. When she was murdered in Geneva, it was not simply the fact of her assassination that was the focus of reporting.
The monarchy's newspapers expressed their commiseration with the emperor, to whom fate had dealt yet another severe blow. It was soon recognised that the subject of the lonely emperor and above all that of the beautiful, unhappy, assassinated empress could be exploited for purposes of monarchist propaganda. Commemorative images and coins, postcards, all sorts of objects for everyday use bearing the likeness of the empress together with a whole range of other memorabilia invaded the souvenir shops in Austria and abroad. In the countries Elisabeth had frequented during her last years committees were formed to oversee the erecting of monuments to the late empress. A life-size statue of Elisabeth designed by Hermann Klotz was executed for St Matthew's Cathedral in Budapest, while two copies were owned by Ida Ferency, the empress's companion and confidante, and her daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie.
This image of the empress was so popular that Emperor Franz Joseph commissioned small copies in biscuit porcelain to give as special gifts to members of the family and guests of state.
Empress Elisabeth continued to exert a fascination on posterity even after the collapse of the monarchy. The 1930s saw the publication of serial novels about her life which were to form the basis of the Sissi filmtrilogy made by Ernst Marischka after the Second World War. The first film about the empress's life had been made in 1919 and was directed by Elisabeth's niece, Marie Larisch. Further films followed in which the life of the empress was interpreted, culminating in the trio of films starring Romy Schneider in which the cultivation of Elisabeth's mythic aura reached its height.
But what was the historical Empress Elisabeth really like?