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Do you love reading about royals as much as I do? If so, check out my 2021 royal reading list - all the research books I bought, borrowed, and re-read are listed here. I’m adding books as I read them, so check back to see if your picks made the list.
Just scroll down to get the info for each book, including my comments. Or use the table of contents below to jump straight to a book you’re already interested in.
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Last updated: February 26
Author: Annette Borchardt-Wenzel
Available at: Amazon
This book is a good introduction to a few ladies you probably know very little (or nothing) about. That’s both its purpose and its charm. The author herself says that it’s meant to whet your appetite and encourage you to dig further into the life of whichever woman sparks your interest.
Here’s who we’re talking about:
- Caroline Louise (born a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt). Her fiancé, Margrave Karl Friedrich of Baden-Durlach, dragged his feet when it came to marrying her. Then when he married her, he dragged his feet in acting like he was married. But once he did, he fell for her – and her intelligence. She was his sounding board for the rest of her life. They both believed in living within their means, and Caroline Louise invited men of letters, the arts, and science to Karlsruhe. She corresponded with Voltaire. As a result, the city’s prestige increased during their reign. Also under their reign, Karl Friedrich inherited the Margravate of Baden-Baden to add to his Baden-Durlach. She died on a visit to Paris at age 59 in 1783.
- Amalie Friederike (born a princess of Hesse-Darmstadt). When her mom died, she made Amalie promise to marry Karl Ludwig, the heir to Baden and the son of Caroline Louise. She obeyed and they married in 1774. She had a tense relationship with her mother-in-law, whom she felt nitpicked her and harassed her. She bided her time, waiting for the day when she’d be Margravine. But that day didn’t come. Her husband died before his father, and she focused on building Baden’s relationships through the marriages of her six daughters.
- Louise Caroline von Hochberg (born Geyer von Geyersburg). At the age of 19, lady-in-waiting Louise was recruited by Amalie to become a morganatic wife and companion for her aging father-in-law (the widower of Caroline Louise, above). Louise accepted. But over time, as she and Karl Friedrich had kids, she grew ambitious for them. He got her a title (countess), but hesitated when it came to adding their kids to the line of succession. But when Karl Friedrich’s only son died, leaving one grandson as the only legitimate male heir, he changed his tune. She begged Napoleon to enforce the right of her sons to succeed, but he put her off. Finally, in 1806, Karl Friedrich made it official: her sons would succeed if there were no more legitimate male heirs. When Karl Friedrich died in 1811, his grandson Karl asked her to leave Karlsruhe. She came back, and died there in 1820 – never knowing that yes, her son would later inherit the throne.
- Stephanie de Beauharnais (yes, a relative of Josephine’s first husband). Born in Versailles in 1789, Stephanie was the daughter of Claude de Beauharnais, a cousin of Empress Josephine’s first husband. She went to Madame Campan’s Paris school with Josephine’s daughter, Hortense. Napoleon later used her as a bargaining chip to secure Baden’s loyalty, marrying her off to the heir to the throne, Hereditary Prince Karl. The marriage was a disaster at first. No one in Baden wanted an upstart relative of Bonaparte’s, and Stephanie – now an imperial highness after being adopted by Napoleon – thought Karl needed to work harder to win her affection. Eventually, after Napoleon’s fall, Stephanie and Karl found more common ground and their relationship deepened. Two of their daughters survived, but both of their sons died in infancy, leaving Karl’s brother as the last legitimate heir to the throne.
- Sophie (born a princess of Sweden). Sophie’s mother was one of Amalie’s daughters. When it became obvious that the legitimate line of Baden’s heirs would die out and Hochberg’s sons would inherit, someone – Tsarina Elizaveta, Sophie’s aunt – had the genius idea to marry Sophie to Leopold von Baden, Louise von Hochberg’s son. At first, the marriage was blissfully happy. But the Caspar Hauser scandal rocked Baden, changing them forever. The rumor was that one of Stephanie de Beauharnais’s children hadn’t died young after all – he’d been swapped for a dead or dying baby, spirited away to a prison from which he escaped as a young man, with no clue who he really was. When Hauser was murdered in 1833, rumor also had it that Sophie had arranged it, desperate for her husband to keep his throne and her children to inherit it. That suspicion destroyed Leopold and Sophie’s marriage.
- Louise (born a princess of Prussia). The only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Louise was proud to be Prussian – and this didn’t always go over well in her adopted country of Baden. She married Sophie’s son, Friedrich, and their marriage was a happy one. Louise is a dominant figure in Baden’s history. She was extremely active as an unofficial advisor to Friedrich, as well as in charity work. When she read what Henri Dunant had written about the horrors of the Austro-Italian War of 1859, she took it upon herself to create a group of nurses that would function like a standing army – trained and ready to deploy *before* a war was declared. When the Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, Baden was the first state to sign and join. Two years later, she helped form the first Central Committee of the Red Cross in Baden. Her women’s organization formed the backbone of the Baden Red Cross.
- Hilda (born a princess of Nassau). Hilda married Louise’s son, Friedrich. But because both Hilda and Friedrich were shy, they were happy to let their parents stay in the spotlight. But when Friedrich became Grand Duke in 1907, Louise remained the first lady of the land. Was it because Hilda was too timid to take center stage? Was it because Louise was too used to the spotlight to give it up? It was some of both. Gentle Hilda did what she could behind the scenes to keep Louise happy and boost Friedrich’s confidence. She and Friedrich had no children, which was a major source of heartbreak for her (and disapproval from her mother-in-law).
- In 1772, Amalie and her two sisters (Wilhelmine and Louise) went to Russia. Catherine the Great wanted to choose a bride for her son, Paul. Amalie didn’t get the golden ticket. Paul chose her sister, Wilhelmine.
- Amalie Friederike’s daughter, Louise, married Tsar Alexander I of Russia. It was not a happy marriage, and she avoided discussing politics with him so she was never quite the ambassador and advocate for Baden that her mom had hoped she would be.
- It’s widely believed that Sophie’s youngest child, Cecilie, wasn’t Leopold’s daughter, but the illegitimate daughter of Moritz von Haber, Sophie’s rumored lover. Depending on when Leopold and Sophie stopped sleeping together, It’s also possible that Sophie’s next youngest, Marie, also wasn’t Leopold’s daughter.
- On her first visit to Germany in 1845, Queen Victoria befriended Sophie and Leopold’s daughter, Alexandrine, who had married Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, making her Victoria’s sister-in-law.
- After the revolution of 1848, which left Leopold deeply shaken, he took to drinking frequently, earning the nickname “Champagne Leopold.”
- Always mindful of her husband’s reputation (and lineage), Louise did her best to sweep the Caspar Hauser scandal under the rug. She reportedly searched the Baden archives and moved or hid information she didn’t want tarnishing the royal house’s reputation.
- Hilda was an outdoor girl – she loved to ride, hike, and swim. Swimming was her favorite sport! I don’t know about you, but I never picture Grand Duchesses swimming.
- It’s not footnoted. The author clearly acknowledges this isn’t meant to be a scholarly work, and you can’t fault her for delivering a very readable introduction to these women. Still, if you’re interested in any quotes or tidbits, you have to do the legwork to go find them yourself.
- Because each chapter is strictly chronological, you meet the next Grand duchess of Baden during her predecessor’s chapter. Why is this a problem? Because each chapter tries to look sympathetically at the woman being portrayed (yes, even Louise Caroline von Hochberg). That means that if a woman didn’t like or understand her successor, your introduction to her is from a woman who’s not seeing her good points. In the next chapter, the author glosses over the narrative of the next woman until we get to the point where her predecessor died. There would be too much overlap otherwise and I totally get that, but it does a disservice to the next subject. Her argument for doing this is that it’s exciting to see the same events viewed through different lenses. YMMV.
- Coverage of each woman varies in length. Because this book is based on already published sources, it’s not breaking new ground. If there’s not much out there on one of these women (Sophie and Hilda), their coverage here is dramatically shorter than the coverage of, say, Louise of Prussia. It’s an inevitable consequence of this being a popular history, which is fine. Just know that going in.
- The style might take some getting used to. True, I read this via AI translation. But there was still a definite literary style, with lots of sentence fragments and internal thoughts of the characters—er, historical figures. Here’s an example: “After all, Karl was only the hereditary prince of an insignificant German country - but Stephanie was an ‘imperial highness,’ the adopted daughter of the most powerful man in Europe. She was an important figure now, even higher in rank than Napoleon’s sisters. Karl had better consider it an honor that she would marry him. He should seek her out, should woo her, prove his adoration to her. But there he was, smiling awkwardly and acting as if he were deaf and dumb. Stephanie wrinkled her pretty nose.”
Should You Read It?
If you read German, yes. It’s entertaining, and I like the way it takes you through the entire history of early modern Baden. You’re not going to get a female-centric survey of Baden anywhere else that I know of.
If you don’t read German – and aren’t already researching one of these women – this is probably more effort than any normal human being should invest.
Author: Georg Markus
Publisher: Ariadne Press
Available at: Amazon
In 1991, a man named Helmut Flatzelsteiner opened Mary Vetsera’s grave and stole her coffin. After pretending the bones, hair, and fabric inside belonged to his great-grandmother in order to get some forensic tests, he decided to then shop his story around to see who wanted to publish it. Most places turned him down. Georg Markus’s paper, Kronen Zeitung, put the story on the front page in 1993.
There have always been conspiracy theories about the Mayerling incident of 1889, during which Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary shot his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then shot himself. As if the incident weren’t dramatic enough, conspiracy theories flourished for a number of reasons. Eyewitness accounts don’t 100% line up. The official cover-up confused the issue by coming out with multiple versions of what happened. The official paper trail vanished. Rumors flew, and were garbled and changed over the generations. Some people changed their stories years later. Put all this together, and you have a recipe for a relatively straightforward incident to become a nexus for worldwide conspiracy theories.
The grave robbery story reignited interest in Mayerling, which led Markus to publish this book.
What I Liked
- The chapters on Rudolf and Mary were good summaries of what’s generally known and accepted about their lives as it pertains to Mayerling. Markus gives you what you need to know without overwhelming you.
- Although there are no footnotes, Markus does a good job of explaining where most of his quotations come from (which isn’t always the case with the King/Wilson book I recommend below).
- Markus includes a brief chapter on his visit with Rudolf’s great-grandson, Guillaume Windisch-Graetz, who believes the murder-suicide version of events.
- Markus includes the results of his talk with Otto von Habsburg, about the contents of a mysterious box he was given (which supposedly contains the gun used at Mayerling). There are no bombshells here – Otto declines to answer the direct questions Markus asks. Still, it’s an interesting inclusion that, as Markus notes, only adds fuel to the fire as far as conspiracy theories go.
- The book feels rushed. The chapters detailing Markus’s own story about his meeting with Flatzelsteiner feel like notes, not a narrative. It’s not fleshed out, and there are lots of sentence fragments, which bugged me. A couple examples:
- A call to Mr. Flatzelsteiner, second meeting, this time in the editorial office. It was December 9th. The informant again had brought his red case. “Tell us Mr. Flatzelsteiner, tell us! These two people from Burgenland, how was that exactly? When did you make contact with them and where?” It just came out with a gush. Flatzelsteiner was glad to finally get rid of his story. I knew that this man from Lintz was a bit nervous. But it was also quite an adventure he had to report, if it is true… (14)
- Thursday, December 17, 1992. Two meetings, one after the other. 2:30 PM. Mr. Flatzelsteiner arrived at the editorial office and opened his red case. He took out all kinds of papers, photographs – I was already acquainted with all of that. And suddenly: a death’s head. “That is Mary” Flatzelsteiner said. (19)
- The book feels disorganized. It jumps back and forth between the present-day story of the grave robber, Markus’s behind-the-scenes investigation prior to and after the story broke, and chapters on Mary and Rudolf. The historical chapters are much better than the chapters detailing his own investigation. But there are also random chapters that feel thrown in as an afterthought, like song lyrics Rudolf wrote and lyrics referencing the 1993 grave robbery scandal that appeared in Viennese theater farces (which are not translated from German).
- The German edition was published before the official forensic reports were complete. Why not wait to publish the book until those results were complete? Doesn’t that make a more logical conclusion to the story? What if those results offered new angles for follow-up with regard to one of the many Mayerling conspiracy theories? The obvious answer is that this book was rushed to print to cash in as quickly as possible.
Should You Read This?
Unless you’re super interested in Mayerling, probably not. I’d rather go with (1) Fritz Judtmann’s Mayerling, and then (2) Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Twilight of Empire, which came out after Markus’s book and incorporates details from his story. The King/Wilson book isn’t perfect – they use a LOT of partial quotes that are always footnoted, but would benefit from an explanation of who said that particular thing (and when, and what their biases are) in the text itself. Still, I think it will serve you better than Markus’s book, if you only want to read one. Or you can be a total dork like me, buy them all, and spend weekends poring over footnotes.
Author: Karina Urbach
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Available at: Amazon
The first third of the book introduces the concept of a go-between and explains how they functioned prior to and during World War I. A go-between is a civilian working as an unofficial diplomat thanks to their connections, linguistic ability, and ability to move in high social circles. Obviously, aristocrats and royals fit the bill perfectly. They were ideally suited to float ideas and ask sensitive questions to high-ranking enemies during wartime, when ambassadors and rulers were unable to do so officially. Their conversations kept these dangerous subjects off the books – making this an admittedly hard subject to research. Mad props to Urbach for taking on such an elusive subject.
As a primary example for the pre-Hitler period, Urbach selects Prince Max Egon II zu Fürstenberg, who served as a go-between for the imperial Austrian and German courts. Other go-betweens covered include Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and her four daughters: Queen Marie of Romania, Grand Duchess Victoria Melita of Russia, Infanta Beatrice of Spain, and Princess Alexandra of Hohenlohe-Langenburg.
Next, the book looks at a few more examples of go-betweens in the inter-war and early WWII years: Carl Eduard, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Princess Stephanie Hohenlohe, and Prince Max Egon zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg. All three of them worked on Hitler’s behalf to further the relationship between Germany and Great Britain. Urbach shows how Carl Eduard’s sister Alice whitewashed his Nazi career in the post-war aftermath, how Stephanie Hohenlohe blew her cover leaving Lord Halifax’s home, and how Max Hohenlohe overstated his influence with decision-makers in the Third Reich.
These stories are fascinating, but in the end, Urbach asks and answers the inevitable question: did these go-betweens make a difference? Unfortunately, in every case but one, the answer is ultimately no.
Most online reviews of this book are glowing. I hate to say it, but I feel like I’m missing something. Although I respect the hell out of the research that went into this book, its organization and follow-through felt patchy and incomplete. It’s missing a lot of context, background information, depth, and points of comparison and contrast.
Let's start with the title. Is this book a comprehensive look at Hitler's go-betweens? No. It only covers a select number of German aristocratic go-betweens largely focused on Great Britain. Surely there were go-betweens for other Axis enemies, but they're not covered.
Urbach barely mentions Prince Philipp of Hesse (maybe because Jonathan Petropoulos’s Royals and Reich covered his story in depth?). While Hesse was mainly a go-between for the Italian royal family, he also had substantial contact with British royals, including George, Duke of Kent. This book feels flat without incorporating him into the narrative because he fits the bill so precisely. Why exclude him from the analysis? Why not compare his efforts to those of her chosen subjects?
As another example, despite Hitler being in the title, he barely figures in the book. Although Carl Eduard and Stephanie met and socialized with Hitler, we’re not given much information about what Hitler said or thought about them. The notable exception is Hitler’s statement that Carl Eduard must not be captured (i.e., he should be killed first, if it came to that). Carl Eduard was one of his earliest supporters, and may have been involved in unsuccessful attempts to influence Edward VIII, but had largely receded in importance by the end of the war. If Hitler spoke further about Carl Eduard, we’re not told. Much of the go-betweens’ work seems focused on Goering, Ribbentrop, and Himmler instead. That begs the question...how much did Hitler know what they were doing? We’re not told. And because Hitler is at best a distant presence in the book, the title feels like click-bait.
Here are a few more of my issues - YMMV:
- Not all quotations are cited. As just one example, Urbach mentions a quote from Kaiser Wilhelm II where he “ranted that Jews should be ‘erased’.” (233) No citation.
- There are generalizations with no support. I get it – no book can cover every aspect of a topic. But this happened often enough that I noticed it, which means it happened too often. For example, Urbach tried to make a point about aristocratic bloodlines being devalued in the post-WWI period. She argues that “purists” believed highborn bloodlines “transferred negative qualities. Being ‘mongrels’, whether dogs or human beings, implied imperfection.” (61) Okay, but can we get an example of who, precisely, felt this way? A quote from a reputable writer of the time making this point? Because if we're going with the dog metaphor, inbreeding - always a problem for royals, if not aristocrats - produces the opposite of mongrels. A more likely common viewpoint about royals and aristocrats might be that they were inbred and weak, not strong hybrid mongrels. In the next paragraph, Urbach does provide an example - but it's indirect and ineffective. That example is the Talleyrand-Perigord family, but the one newspaper article Urbach cites doesn’t ding them for their “impure” bloodline. It talks about how hard it is to figure out how to treat property owned by people who split time between countries that are now at war. A much better example of this would have been the Bourbon-Parma family. Prince Elias’s ownership of the historic Chateau de Chambord was contested by the French government for decades because he was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army. So not only did she *not* support the bloodline point, she didn’t have the most effective example of the point she digressed into. As a second example, Urbach mentioned Hitler making fun of the “degenerate aristocracy.” (168) But we’re not given any examples or quotations to support this. Wouldn’t that seem like a natural inclusion?
- Some important threads are not followed up. On the next-to-last page of her conclusion, for example, Urbach mentions Hess (the Nazi who flew to Scotland, attempting to use back channels to investigate options for a separate peace with Great Britain). Why only bring him up with two hundred words to go? Who were his back-channel contacts in Britain? Were they his contacts or Hitler’s?
- There is not enough background information on the circumstances that prompted the go-betweens’ work. Unless you already know exactly what happened to the Sudetenland, for example, you’re going to be confused during the Stephanie Hohenlohe chapter.
- There are some random value judgments that felt out of place. I’m all for including personality in history writing. But I’m not sure I’m okay with value judgments on a person's appearance or intentions. Here, Urbach describes King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenie of Spain: “Looking at photographs of Victoria and Alfonso, even their visual differences are striking. While she had an intelligent face with inquisitive eyes, her husband looked like the cliché of a shifty gigolo (a cliché he tried to live up to by producing a multitude of illegitimate children).” (73) She also refers to Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha's sister Alice as “devious” for whitewashing her brother's Nazi past. Possibly. But consider the fact that Alice’s memoir was also called For My Grandchildren. Would you tell your grandchildren every sordid detail of your brother’s past, especially in a public forum like a published book? Before I condemn Alice as devious, I’d need an analysis of what she wrote elsewhere, in material not intended for said grandchildren. Did she cover up Carl Eduard’s past everywhere? Or just in this one source, which was never intended as a tell-all?
Should You Read It?
If you can get it from a library, yes. Despite my caveats, I recommend this as an introduction to the people mentioned and the diplomacy of the time.
Author: Princess Ileana of Romania
Publisher: Rinehart & Co.
Available at: Amazon
The book opens in New England, where Ileana lived with her kids following her flight from Romania after the Communists took over. When she flashes back to tell you about her life, she starts by selecting an object – a sapphire and diamond kokoshnik tiara – that she inherited from her mother.
She tells us about Sonnberg, the schloss she and her husband, Archduke Anton of Austria, bought in 1934. They lived there, 30 miles outside of Vienna, through the Anschluss and the first part of the war. Anton was conscripted during the Sudetenland crisis, and remained in the Luftwaffe for years. In May of 1944, Ileana and their 6 kids left Austria for Romania, and stayed there until 1948. Her decision to move was based, at least in part, on the knowledge that shit was about to get real. If the Russians were going to invade Austria and Romania, she preferred her family to be “where every man was my friend.” (107)
The family stayed in Romania through the end of the war, and until the Communist regime made life untenable for her after King Michael’s abdication. All her property was seized, her castle sealed and put under guard. The book ends when she and her family are exiled and forced to leave Romania. We’re told briefly that she next went to Switzerland and then Argentina, but she doesn’t detail anything that happened there.
As we learned in the first chapter, because of her bad health (arthritis and bursitis), she came to the U.S. in May of 1950 for medical treatment. She later moved there, since two of her kids had already gotten scholarships to schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. She fell in love with Newton, Massachusetts and settled there. That brings the book full circle with the opening chapter, where she describes learning to cook in her new American kitchen.
What You’ll Find
- A lot of detail about nursing and hospital work in Romania during the war. While still in Austria, she visited a hospital for Romanian soldiers in Vienna. That led to her helping them with paperwork, cheering them up, raising money for their care, and advocating for their needs in Vienna and Berlin. This led to nursing and caring for them herself, and later – in Romania – to setting up a hospital and running it with more energy than I’ve ever had in my whole life. There are plenty of anecdotes about the joy and horror of nursing, including a soldier who came to them with frostbite. When they began to peel off his trousers, frozen and caked with blood and dirt, his frostbitten flesh – as brittle as if it had been burned by fire – broke off above the knee.
- What it was like in Romania when the Communists took over. In a word, terrifying. Russian patrols could shoot first and ask questions later, or commandeer your vehicle and then shoot or arrest you if you annoyed them. Education changed, becoming a narrow agenda of Party politics and altered or heavily edited history. Almost every aspect of life for normal people, from the food supply to civil rights, got worse. Ileana also mentions a touching moment with a hospital inspector who was a Party member. He was so disillusioned because the Party had done nothing to help the working class with all the money pouring in from taxes (“social insurance”). “I cannot understand it; I really cannot! And I have lived for this day!” the man told her. (279)
- Houses in Austria were taxed according to the number of rooms. Ileana’s Schloss Sonnberg had 35 rooms.
- Immediately after Hitler annexed Austria, Ileana called her mom, Queen Marie of Romania, to let her know she was all right. They normally spoke English with each other, but the German phone operators now insisted they both speak German. A few weeks later, Hitler’s aide-de-camp sent Queen Marie flowers and an apology for forcing her to speak German just to have a phone conversation with her daughter.
- Ileana did not join the German Red Cross because “to do so involved swearing fidelity to Hitler, and this I could not do.” (57)
- During the war, the Kunsthistoriches Museum of Vienna used Ileana’s mother’s old rooms in Schloss Sonnberg to store period furniture that had belonged to Maria Theresa – her cradle, a chair, and writing table, among other items. When the Russians later occupied the castle, she reports, they destroyed the furniture.
- After caring for a couple of soldiers who had been blinded, she helped found a school for seeing eye dogs at Sibiu.
What You Won’t Find
- Much detail about her husband or their marriage. She keeps pretty quiet about him. We’re not told, for example, that the marriage was encouraged by her brother, Carol II, and he refused her husband permission to live on Romanian soil, hence their move to Austria. He’s not mentioned as being with them in America, which come to find out, he wasn’t. They divorced in 1954.
- Much detail about her difficult brother, King Carol II, or her nephew, King Michael. She wasn’t in close contact with Michael, and only managed to see him a few times. Everything was perfectly friendly when they did, but at one point, Ileana’s public efforts on behalf of her hospital led to tension with the government.
Should You Read It?
Absolutely, if for no other reason than to understand how much people sacrificed during World War II. Also, her shining and selfless love for her country and its people is a good refresher of what patriotism really means.
Subtitle: Edward VII’s Mistresses
Author: Theo Aronson
Publisher: Lume Books
Available at: Amazon
As always, Aronson’s narratives are crisp and entertaining. Here, you get the stories of the three mistresses mostly compartmentalized into their own sections, but you also get crucial updates on each woman as we’re learning about her successor. It didn’t shed much light on Edward VII, if that’s what you’re looking for, but it does give you a glimpse into three fascinating women’s lives:
- Lillie, the society beauty turned actress who had endless wit and charm.
- Daisy, the aristocratic society butterfly who later became a socialist and a blackmailer.
- Alice, the gentle wife whose daughter called Edward "Kingy."
One interesting thing this book does is explode the story about Queen Alexandra allowing Alice Keppel to see the dying Edward VII. That’s not exactly what went down…and Aronson explains how that story got started in the first place.
- County house party hijinks: Lillie Langtry told the story about that time Edward hoisted a donkey into the host’s son’s bedroom. Then they dressed it in a nightgown and put it in the guy’s bed. Wow. Just…wow.
- Battenberg baby: In 1881, Lillie Langtry bore an illegitimate daughter whose father was Prince Louis Battenberg. He later married Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine, one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters. The girl, Jeanne-Marie, didn’t learn who her real father was until she was 20!
- Rejecting Leopold: Daisy Maynard (the future Countess of Warwick) was at one point earmarked as a bride for Queen Victoria’s hemophiliac son, Prince Leopold. He was in love with someone else and so was Daisy, so it never came to pass.
- Embarrassing Rudolf: Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria was shocked and embarrassed when, during a London visit, he went with Edward, Prince of Wales to a restaurant. At 2 am, Edward asked the orchestra to play a can can, and started dancing it with the Duchess of Manchester. Rudolf shooed away the waiters, whispering, “…they must not see their future King making such a clown of himself.” (153)
- Ask Eugenie: When Alice Keppel went sightseeing in Paris with the former Empress Eugenie, a palace tour guide showed them the pen Napoleon I had used to sign his abdication. “Nope,” said Eugenie. She went over to the desk, opened a secret drawer, and pulled out a pen. “That’s the pen he used,” she said. Is it true? Or was Eugenie just messing with them? Either way, I love that story. (305)
None, really – this book does exactly what it says it will do.
I did get the feeling that Aronson doesn’t like Queen Alexandra, but tried hard not to show it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; everyone is allowed to like or dislike historical figures as they see fit. I personally like Alexandra, so it was interesting to see moments where Aronson’s exasperation with her crept into the narrative.
Should You Read It?
If you’re looking for a fun, fast historical read, yes.
If you’re looking for background on Edward VII, yes.
If you’re looking for deeper insight into his character, no.
Subtitle: The Facts behind the Legend
Author: Fritz Judtmann
Publisher: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd
Available at: Amazon
This is one of several books on Mayerling I’ve read lately, and it’s by far the best. If you’re not familiar with Mayerling, that’s the name of the hunting lodge where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary shot his teenage mistress, Mary Vetsera, and then shot himself. The crown’s efforts to cover up the murder-suicide only led to numerous conspiracy theories that have never died out.
Judtmann never intended to research or write about Mayerling. But in 1957, he inherited the “Hubertus Clock” from the only daughter of Emperor Franz Josef’s physician. But when Judtmann set out to research who’d given Franz Josef the clock in the first place, he found a box of papers relating to Crown Prince Rudolf that was not housed with the rest of Rudolf’s papers. In that box, he found a document from 1912 in which Heinrich Count Taaffe (son of the former Austrian prime minister) said that his father’s Mayerling papers had been lost.
That document sent Judtmann on a quest for information about Rudolf and Mayerling. This book is the result of years of careful research, a search for the descendants of people who played a role, and a close examination of all the facts known up to that point (the late 60s).
What I Liked
In a word, a lot.
- It’s complete. Judtmann goes through the story in chronological order – no jumping back and forth like in Markus’s book or retelling in multiple layers like King/Wilson’s. He also reconstructs carriage routes on maps, and includes a reconstructed floorplan of the Mayerling lodge. He doesn’t ask you to take his word for stuff, in other words – he shows you what you need to know to understand what’s going on. He also tells you when different versions of the same document don’t agree.
- It’s thorough. I mean, dude. This guy went to the amazing lengths of finding historical documentation on average transportation time on specific streets in 1888/89 in Vienna to verify stories about cab rides Rudolf, Mary, and Marie Larisch took. Judtmann takes nothing for granted, in other words. You might think something this detailed is dry, but I found every aspect of his research fascinating. He also built a timeline of telegrams between the various people involved to track how and when the pope learned of Rudolf’s suicide. It’s a thing of beauty.
- It’s a pleasure to read. I say this mostly in contrast to Markus’s book, which was choppy and uneven at best. This book takes its time in the best possible way.
Yes, there are a few, but they’re minor.
- When it comes to Rudolf and Mary’s relationship, older sources tend to put their first meeting in November of 1888 (including Judtmann and Morton). Later sources tend to move this date backward to either April of 1888 (Markus) or even earlier (King/Wilson). Keep in mind that this part of the story is surprisingly fluid, and I don’t think anyone has done a good comparison of the available sources on this point.
- One tiny pet peeve – in the first paragraph, he says Mary Vetsera was 18. She was still 17 (but other references in the book properly cite her age as 17).
- Because so much happened after this book was published (what with the grave robbing and such), you might want something a little more current to get up to speed after you read this. All of Judtmann’s research is still valid, and it’s the best place to start.
Should You Read This Book?
If you’re only going to read one book about Mayerling, make it this one. If you’re not interested in Mayerling, this is probably more information than you want – but it’s still worth reading as a fascinating story of how one goes about unravelling a mystery.
Author: Agnes de Stoeckl
Publisher: John Murray
Available at: Abe Books
Agnes Barron’s parents were Irish, and moved to Paris after they married. Her father inherited “the enormous fortunes of the house of Barron, Mexico,” but preferred to live in Europe. The Mexican connection intrigues me, but she doesn’t talk much about it in this book.
There are plenty of lighthearted funny moments in the beginning – she describes (in excruciating detail) the décor of her mom’s receiving room in their Paris mansion. “The taste of that time was indeed atrocious,” she writes, and boy, she’s not kidding. The room was upholstered in yellow and red, with matching poufs and curtains with pom-pom tassels.
She grew up in a very cosmopolitan family – they spent the Season in London, and summered in Dieppe. That’s where, as a young girl, she met her future husband, Baron Alexander de Stoeckl, who worked for the Russian embassy in London.
Alexander’s father had also been a Russian diplomat. Stationed in Washington, DC, he’d married an American named Eliza Howard. She was the only American-born woman in the diplomatic corps during Lincoln’s presidency. After her husband’s death, Eliza settled in Paris.
Five years after they first met, Alexander married Agnes. The couple had a daughter, Zoia.
Agnes & Grand Dukes
After a few years as a diplomat, her husband took a position attached to the household of Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich. As Agnes says, “I was thrown into the most frivolous, smart, corrupt society of the time” (56). But years later, something went wrong with that relationship. Agnes says, “…after many happy years, our relations with Countess Torby became difficult, for reason of no interest except to ourselves.” (74) Whatever the conflict was, society took sides. Agnes notes that King Edward VII took her side.
Agnes and Alexander didn’t have any trouble finding a new position. Grand Duchess George Mikhailovich (born Princess Maria of Greece and Denmark) asked that Alexander be made her chamberlain, to be paid from her private fortune. Nicholas II approved, and in early 1908, the Stoeckls took up their new positions – and were finally able to visit Russia. Staying out of Russia had been one of the conditions of working for Grand Duke Michael, since his morganatic marriage made it difficult (if not impossible) for him to return legally.
Agnes and Alexander stayed with Grand Duchess George for years, traveling with her to England in 1914 for her daughter Xenia’s health. They were unable to get back to Russia when war broke out, and because of the revolution in Russia, they never saw Grand Duke George again. The Bolsheviks imprisoned him, but he was able to write to them occasionally so they had some vague idea of what was happening to him. Agnes’s daughter Zoia even suggested someone go talk to Litvinoff, “the non-recognised Bolshevist Ambassador” to beg for George’s freedom. Agnes went, but in the end, her visit didn’t help. The Bolsheviks shot George in early 1919.
The revolution also cut off Grand Duchess George’s appanage payments, and Agnes and her husband had to economize – fast. She spent most of what personal savings she had left on Zoia’s wedding in late 1918. Zoia married Alik Poklewski-Koziell, who had as groomsmen Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and Count Joseph Potocki. Grand Duchess George’s daughters, Nina and Xenia, were bridesmaids.
Agnes On Her Own
In 1921, the Grand Duchess remarried and Agnes and her husband were on their own. She describes the next 10 years as “the most bitter in my life.” (183) Agnes found work as a saleswoman – first for linen, then gowns. When her husband got sick, she started selling jewels to help pay for his care. He died on July 23, 1926, leaving Agnes to make her way alone in the world.
She took a job as a sort of fashion marketer for Reville, where her royal connections helped bring in new clients. She worked there for over two years and hated it. “I was so unhappy going there in the morning, crossing Oxford Street, that I often wished a bus would run over me.” (187)
In 1931, her daughter and grandkids moved in with her while Zoia’s husband relocated to Katowice, Poland, where he’d been offered a job. To help support her family, she and Zoia sold the last of their jewels. Once her daughter was settled in Poland, she visited frequently. His family’s palace, Lancut, was an oasis of luxury that reminded her of better days. The Duke and Duchess of Kent came for a visit at Zoia’s request – as Agnes notes, “the first time a member of the British Royal Family had visited that country” (204).
Agnes divided her time between London and Poland. When we get to 1938, the book changes dramatically – instead of a fluid narrative, we get selected entries from Agnes’s diary, beginning on September 14, 1938. In August of 1939, she left Poland, aware that it might be for the last time. Her diary entries give a short but interesting glimpse of how people who lived on the border with Germany saw war preparations being made even as Hitler spoke of peace. Zoia and the kids joined her in London later that month.
Continuing their friendship with the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Agnes and Zoia visit Coppins frequently. She notes that both George and Marina thought war could be prevented, as late as August 30, 1939. Agnes and Zoia both believed they were wrong – they’d seen German fortifications being built along the border with Poland firsthand. When the Germans bombed Poland on September 1, Zoia’s husband survived. He made it from Poland to the Romanian border and fled, just ahead of the Germans. He made his way to Paris and then to England, where he rejoined Agnes and Zoia.
Strangely, the book ends with the Duke of Kent’s death in 1942. It’s as if his death robbed Agnes of the strength or will to share more about her experiences during the war. Or maybe she thought that was the last event her readers would be interested in. Either way, the last diary entry we get is from August 24, 1942. The half-page epilogue is short and simple – it doesn’t mention what happened to her, Zoia, or Alik during the rest of the war. It just says her end can’t be long now.
But it wasn’t – she lived to age 94, dying in 1968.
- Baron Alexander de Bodisco, the Russian minister plenipotentiary posted to Washington, DC in the early 1850s, married an American girl named Harriet Williams. She later lived in St. Petersburg.
- De Bodisco’s replacement was Baron Edward de Stoeckl, Agnes’s father-in-law.
- One summer, there was a reception at the Russian legation in Washington. A “Monsieur Davidoff” who later became the Russian minister in Tokyo suggested to Eliza de Stoeckl that she greet a visiting Russian admiral in Russian. He taught her a phrase, which she learned and duly repeated at the party. Unfortunately, this was a prank – he’d taught her how to say, “How do you do, you son of a bitch?”
- As a child, Agnes’s husband watched Lincoln’s funeral procession.
- While in Paris in 1913, Grand Duchess Anastasia Mikhailovna (widow of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) told Baron Maurice de Rothschild she wanted a ball. But it was August, and no one was in the city. So he rounded up whoever walked into the Ritz, whether he knew them or not, and invited them to his ball. Normally, guests were allowed to wander in and out of his rooms at will, but not this time. When Agnes tried to show her daughter Zoia around, they found the doors locked. When Agnes asked Maurice why, he said it was because he didn’t know any of the guests. When Agnes asked why, he said the Grand Duchess wanted a ball, and he made it happen – even if he had to do it with hundreds of people none of them knew.
- One time, Grand Duke Michael Mikhailovich had a crush on an American girl, and wrote her love letters in English. When he showed her a couple of them, Agnes was surprised how good they were. Later, when she went to borrow a book from his library, he saw that one she grabbed and told her not to take that one – it was an anthology of love letters, the source of the suspiciously good letters he sent his crush.
- While in Russia, with Grand Duchess George, Agnes and Alexander went to a party where the author Elinor Glyn was also a guest. It was her first trip to Russia, and she asked Alexander, “When do the orgies begin?” (89)
- While in Claridge’s Hotel in London with Grand Duchess George, Agnes threw herself a birthday party with lots of activities like “potato races, three-legged races and other mad games.” The widowed Queen Alexandra “wished a high-kick trial; she said she could kick higher than anybody.” So Alexander de Stoeckl held up a toy over his head. Alexandra kicked high enough to touch the toy, but fell backward and smacked her head on the floor – hard enough to come up bleeding thanks to a tortoiseshell comb in her hair. “She said it was no matter. We were rather worried but it proved nothing serious.” (101)
- In the biggest stomach-churning WTF in the entire book, Agnes describes the beginning of her trip to England in 1914 aboard Nicholas II’s yacht “Almaz.” That yacht took them as far as Odessa, during which time her daughter fell for the captain. But that’s not the WTF part. Apparently there was also this: “There was a monkey on board who lived with a rabbit; I hated to see them together. The monkey would pull the rabbit’s eye out and let it go back with a snap – the rabbit was quite hypnotized by the monkey.” (143) I’m queasy. I’m actually queasy, this is so gross.
- Before leaving Poland in the wake of the German attack in September of 1939, Agnes’s son-in-law Alik saved one tiny heirloom: “the cars were announced. The guns could be heard. Alik went into his writing room, still filled with objects dear to him. On a small table his eyes fell on a Faberge electric bell. He took a pocket knife and cut the cord: ‘At least the Germans won’t get this’, so a little silver was saved and the bell!” (235)
Should You Read It?
Yes. There are so many interesting tidbits here. They’re not always historically significant, as you can tell from my selection above, but if you’re interested in royals, they’re fun and revealing.
After reading several other firsthand accounts relative to World War II and its run-up (Bella Fromm’s Blood and Banquets, Missie Vassilchikov’s Berlin Diaries), it was interesting to add the last eighth of this book as a comparison, with its descriptions of Germany’s preparations for war from a Polish perspective.
Because of Agnes’s life, the mood of the book is a pretty consistent downward trend – we go from riches to royals to war to scraping to get by to slight recovery to war again. But if it feels depressing to read, imagine what it was like to live that trajectory. This book is well worth a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to see what that was like.
Subtitle: The Tragedy of Mayerling
Author: Carl Lonyay
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Available at: Amazon
First things first: if you’re a woman, you’re probably not going to get along with ol’ Carl here. Throughout the book, he’s disdainful toward women (Stephanie, her mother-in-law Empress Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie). He absolutely loathed Stephanie, and that hatred permeates every page she’s mentioned on. He didn’t care for Elisabeth, either, but he’s marginally more fair to her than to his aunt-by-marriage.
Here are a few examples:
- How he prefaces a quote from Stephanie’s memoir: “…Stephanie, the second daughter of King Leopold II, blazons forth with her customary lack of modesty and good taste:” (60-61)
- How he makes fun of her for things beyond her control: “Her voice was powerful and closely resembled the foghorns of the Danube tug-boats.” (110)
- In which he advocates spousal abuse: “In his wife, all those qualities were united which were repugnant to him – her hardness of heart, her aggressive contrariness, her monumental tactlessness. She was a bully, a bore, a nagger, and a fool. Having regard to Rudolf’s lack of self-control, it is indeed difficult to explain how he was able to resist the natural reaction to the nagger, namely, to perpetrate an act of violence against her.” (119)
- In which he pretends to have knowledge of female sexuality: “Now it is a fact that women, when sexually neglected, become irritable, which makes life with them very unpleasant. But when a woman is already unpleasant by nature, like Stephanie, then sexual neglect renders her utterly unbearable.” (121)
I can’t even.
In that third quote, he’s basically saying he doesn’t understand how Rudolf kept from beating the shit out of Stephanie. That is unacceptable in a book he purports to be based on “all the authentic documents known to exist. In it no place is given to romantic fictions...” (xiii)
But let’s move on. This is not a book about Stephanie. This is a book about Rudolf.
So what does it say about Rudolf? Less than one might imagine, considering his closeness to potential source material. There is not much here to differentiate the chapters on Rudolf’s early education and young adulthood from the standard biographies that had already been published by Mitis and Bibl. Lonyay himself acknowledges his debt to both these authors.
Overall, his conclusion is that Rudolf’s mental illness – which led to his later suicide – stemmed from a lack of parental love. Rudolf’s first tutor, the evil Gondrecourt, instilled a mistrust that developed into a sort of paranoia and led Rudolf to see enemies where there were none. Add to that the disastrous marriage (waaaaay overplayed by Lonyay), his lack of an heir, the never-ending reign of his father during which he held no power or responsibility, and you have a recipe for Rudolf wanting to escape it all via suicide.
Except, Lonyay notes, he was a coward and needed someone to commit suicide with him. Enter Mary Vetsera.
I agree with Lonyay in this respect – Rudolf and Mary were not participants in a great love story. Rudolf used her, and she allowed herself to be used. This conclusion doesn’t feel shocking to a modern reader, but perhaps this was the first time an author had so dispassionately disassembled the “great love story” fiction.
Aside from the non-stop sexism, you mean?
- The author’s attitude. In the preface, he has the balls to…oh, hell, just read it yourself: “As a regular soldier, courage always appealed to me. Therefore I wish to express my admiration for the courage of those who thrust upon me their uninvited advice on a subject of which they had no knowledge, and which, for the benefit of my work, I avoided accepting.” He should have boiled all that down to two words, and I bet you know which two I mean.
- The lack of much original material. As I read this, it felt like all the interesting tidbits were footnoted, having already appeared in Mitis or Bibl. Of course, Lonyay had access to Stephanie’s papers, so he’s able to add some quotes from her diary and a copy of the Hoyos statement of what happened at Mayerling, which round out the story. But for the most part, this book doesn’t add much to Rudolf’s biography in terms of what other authors have already presented. All the details about his education, early liberalism, and his unsigned articles in friend Moritz Szeps’s newspaper had already appeared elsewhere.
Should You Read It?
Only if you’re doing a Mayerling deep-dive. Otherwise, there’s nothing here you won’t find in a better examination of either Mayerling or Rudolf himself.
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