Tag Archives: Austrian History

Cleo

Dancer, Model, Muse – Cléo de Mérode

She trained at the Paris Opera Ballet at seven years old, made her professional debut at age eleven, became a fashion icon at sixteen, and was muse to some of the most notable artists and photographers of all time—but who was this woman?

Someone destined for greatness from the beginning.

Her parents, the Austrian landscape painter Karl von-Merode–who claimed to be of noble ancestry–and a former Viennese actress, must have know their daughter would rise to fame and notoriety by giving her the name of one of the most powerful women in history.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born in France, either in Paris, Bordeaux, or Bairritz in 1875. At an early age, she showed an aptitude for dance and her mother, who must have been the original “stage mom,” had her audition for the Paris Opera Ballet at seven. She trained and performed with the company at age eleven. Her talent was only outshined by her beauty, and artists clamored to have her sit for them. By the age of thirteen, French greats Edgar Degas and Jean-louis had painted her.

Cleo de MerodeAlready the toast of the Paris dance scene by the time she’d fully matured, Cleo also became a fashion icon known for her trademark hairstyle–parted down the middle and fastened into a low chignon at the base of her neck– and her impossibly tiny waistline. Before long, Cleo was the most photographed woman in France, perhaps even all of Europe. Her image appeared on postcards and playing cards, and were much sought after as collectables. She was also depicted in statuary at the waxworks Musee Grevin, owned by famous caricaturist Alfred Grevin, in his “Behind the Scenes at the Opera” exhibit. She was the late 19th  century’s European “it girl” before she was twenty years of age.

In 1895 Cleo had the honor of sitting for the renown artist, Toulous-Lautrec. A year later, the sculptor Alexandre Falguire unveiled a sculpture that would start and onslaught of scandalous and sensational press for young Cleo. He’d cast the sculpture of her in the nude. Shocked, Cleo set out to make sure the public knew she had not posed for the sculpture sans clothing, by sending a note stating as much to the editor of Le Gaulois, the French daily newspaper. Unable to bear people seeing her with the “horrid bare statue in their minds,” she retreated out of the public eye for a time. 

However, the people of Paris were hungry for news of the beautiful Cleo, so they made up their own. It was soon bantered around Paris that the reason she wore her hair in the low chignon was to hide the fact that she had no ears. To dispel that rumor, Cleo came out into the light of day again, this time wearing her hair back off her face, or up on top of her head to show the world she indeed, had ears. 

But, the most salacious rumor about Cleo came out later that year. King Leopold II of Belgiam, aged 61, who had several mistresses, came to Paris for political reasons, but mentioned he’d come to see Cleo perform at the Opera Ballet. Rumors abounded that he was completely head-over-heels about the twenty-two year old dancing sensation. Stories were told of gifts of jewelry, and an apartment in the most fashionable part of Paris, solely for the purpose of romantic trysts. 

In reality, Cleo lived with her mother in a modest apartment, but Paris would not be satisfied without their scandals. Cleo and her mother, both practicing Catholics, could not bear the rumors of her relationship with the King (which stayed with her forever) and left Paris for St. Petersburg, Russia where she again danced her way into the hearts of the populace, including the Russian nobility, dukes and princes.

Cleo in costumeBolstered with confidence from her fame in Russia, Cleo returned to Paris and accepted an invitation to be the first ballet dancer to perform at the Folies-Bergere- for a more than generous salary. Her restored confidence brought her even more popularity, and she was again the toast of Paris. In 1897 Cleo decided to spread her dancing wings and traveled to the United States with her “mom-ager” in tow, and played for a month in New York City. Although the press was not kind, stating that she could not dance or act, her short stay in the United States was worth the trouble as she made over $9,000, which in today’s money would be over $58,000.

Unable to prevent public scrutiny, Cleo decided to embrace it. Her mother died in 1899, when Cleo was twenty-four years old. Now alone, Cleo had to manage her own career, and instead of hiding from the press, she invited them into her world. Reporters sat in on her meetings with theater managers and directors, and watched her rehearse for her roles. Her insight into fame, her talent, and her beauty resulted in her becoming an international star in adulthood. She performed across Europe and the United States, and adopted the dancing styles of the places where she toured. In 1904, she toured the Scandanavian countries of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. When she returned to Paris, she turned over 3000 love letters to the editor of Le Figaro for publication.

Later in life, Cleo reduced her performance schedule and when not dancing spent her time pursuing her other artistic talents. An accomplished pianist, she spent time in solitude playing music, but never for the public, and she also took up sculpting. She crafted figurines of dancers, shepherds and shepherdess, which she sold for additional income.

In her early 50’s, Cleo retired from performing and moved to a villa in the seaside town of Biarritz where she pursued a career as a dance instructor. She worked into her eighties and died in Paris in 1966. 

Although she never married, Cleo was rumored to be engaged at various times to a Russian count, an American millionaire, a wealthy land owner, a Polish aristocrat, and of course, King Leopold. The rumors of her affair with Leopold are still alive today, but most accounts provide little proof. Cleo herself claimed to have only been involved with two men in her life, one who died of typhoid fever, and another who left her for another woman.  

While the rumors of her affairs linger, so does the legacy of Cleopatra Diane de Merode. She inspired many artists with her beauty, including her fellow countryman Gustav Klimt, whose primary artistic focus was the female form and female sexuality. Whether or not she had a relationship with the artist is unclear, but in 2006, a film titled Klimt starring John Malkovich, highlights Klimt’s relationship with a young beauty named Lea de Castro, whose character is inspired by the one and only Cleo de Merode. 

Sources: Stagebeauty.com, Wikipedia.com, Frenchsampler.com

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Empress Elisabeth of Austria – Her Own Woman

What did a woman in history do when she had no control over her life? If strong and empowered, she rebelled. Sometimes in a big way, and sometimes as a detriment to herself. One such woman was Elisabeth, Empress of Austria.

Elisabeth as Empress of Austria, empowered woman
Elisabeth 1837-1898
Empress of Franz Josef of Austria (i.dailymail.co.uk)One such woman was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as “Sisi.”

Born, Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, in Munich, Bavaria 1837, Elisabeth grew up in the Bavarian countryside far from court life, riding horses and pursuing country sports. Her parents, Duke Maximilian Joseph and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, saw little merit in rules for their four children. This liberal upbringing set the stage for Elisabeth’s constant quest for individualism in her adulthood. One that proved more and more difficult as she grew older.

And it started with marriage. Indulgent with their children’s freedom in childhood, the Duke and Princess of Bavaria could no longer defy the rules of royal life when their children became young adults. The Duke and his wife made arrangements with the Duke’s sister, Princess Sophie of Austria, for their eldest daughter, Helene, and Princess Sophie’s son, Franz Joseph, to wed. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth accompanied her older sister and their mother to Austria to meet their cousin and his mother. However, Helene did not catch the young Emperor’s fancy, but Elisabeth did. Franz defied his mother and insisted he marry Elisabeth. Their betrothal was announced five days later.

Within the year, Elisabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, Sophie. The Archduchess immediately whisked the child away from Elisabeth and put her in the control of her own nannies. The same followed suit with the next child, Gisela. The Archduchess never missed an opportunity to chide Elisabeth for not producing a son.

Eager to get away from her mother-in-law, Elisabeth implored her husband to let her and the two girls accompany him on a trip to Hungary in 1857. During the visit, both of the girls became ill with diarrhea. Gisela recovered quickly, but two-year-old Sophie succumbed to the illness, later diagnosed as Typhus. The death of little Sophie sank Elisabeth into a depression which would reoccur and haunt her for the rest of her life.

The sixteen inch waist - a woman needing to control her destiny
(foros.vogue.es)

Heart-broken, Elisabeth began a cycle of fasting, sometimes for days on end. She shunned her responsibilities at court, spent much of her time outdoors riding her horses, and also developed some disturbing phobias and obsessions. Her marriage, not a panacea to her troubles, started to show signs of stress.

Known as a great beauty, Elisabeth took much pride in her looks. Her appearance, one of the few things she had control over, became her primary obsession. Known for her elegant height of 5’8”, and her tiny waist, measuring 19 inches in diameter, Elisabeth went to dangerous extremes to control her weight. She eventually whittled her waist down to 16 inches. She weighed herself daily, and if the scales tipped above 110 lbs., the next several days called for a strict fast.

In addition to extreme dieting, Elisabeth also developed a rigorous and disciplined exercise routine.  She had gymnasiums built in every castle where the royal family resided. She had mats and balance beams and mirrors installed in her bedchamber so she could practice on them each day. She rode her horses often, sometimes three to five hours at a time.  Despite the toll on her health, in 1858, Elisabeth finally bore a son and heir, much to everyone’s relief.

Liberal and forward thinking, Elisabeth’s interest in politics grew. Having fallen in love with the Hungarian people during her visit there in 1857, she firmly placed herself on the Hungarian side in Austro-Hungarian negotiations. At one point, she demanded that her husband name Gyula Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian statesman, (and rumored to be her lover) Premier of Hungary or she would leave him. The emperor complied and Elisabeth stayed in an increasingly unhappy marriage.

In 1867, The Austro-Hungarian Compromise resulted in Andrassy becoming Prime Minister of Hungary, and  Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, King and Queen of Hungary.  The couple was gifted with a palace in Godollo, and set up a country residence there where Elisabeth built a riding school.

Elisabeth much preferred Hungary to Austria and rarely went back to Vienna. In 1868, she gave birth to another daughter, Archduchess Marie Valerie.  Determined to raise this child herself, she openly rebelled against her mother-in-law. Soon after, Archduchess Sophie died, forever losing the power to control her son, his wife and their children. But, too much damage had been done, and Elisabeth had no desire to be a doting wife. She took up a life of traveling, leaving her husband and children at home.

More sadness befell the estranged couple years later when their only son and heir, Rudolf, was found dead with his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera, in a supposed murder suicide pact. The death of Rudolf caused a lasting rift between Elisabeth and Franz, Hungary, and Austria. The line of succession  now passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, leaving Hungary out of the picture.

Elisabeth and her lady in waiting
Supposed last photo of Elisabeth one day before her death (foros.vogue.es)

In perpetual mourning, the Empress Elisabeth continued her travels. When her health prevented her from riding, she made her servants endure long hikes and walks with her. At fifty, she took up fencing with the same intensity as she had other sports. She also threw herself into writing, became an inspired poet, and wrote nearly five hundred pages of verse. She despised court life and would often travel in disguise, without her entourage, to avoid being recognized. Unfortunately, this decision ultimately led to her death.

In 1898, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting left a hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch a steamship for Montreux. Wanting to avoid recognition, she ordered her servants to travel ahead by train. Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, happened to be in town to kill the Duc D’Orleans. Failing to find him, Lucheni learned that a woman traveling under the name “Countess of Hohenembs” had exited the hotel. Determined to kill a sovereign, Lucheni stabbed her under the breast with a hand-made needle file.

Defying the rules to the end, but beloved by her people, Empress Elisabeth of Austria became an historical icon. Her limited, though significant, influence on Austro-Hungarian politics temporarily soothed a troubled empire. Although unable to completely escape the binds of royal life, she will always be remembered as a liberal non-conformist who valued freedom and the rights of the individual above anything else.