Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pop History Moment: The Mayerling Incident


One possible explanation for the durability of conspiracy theories is that they are usually more interesting than the truth; raised as we are on made up plots, it seems only natural the human mind would want to embroider the facts a little, especially if it helps to make events suit our own agenda or prejudices, and truth be damned...

PhotobucketOne of the first events in modern times* to invite a rash of conspiracy theories is known as the Mayerling Incident, which occurred on this day in 1889. Involved were Crown Prince Rudolf (shown at left) - heir to Franz Josef I, Emperor of Austria and King of both Hungary and Bohemia - and Rudolf's mistress**, Baroness Mary Vetsera (shown below right). As the most accepted version of the story goes, when forbidden by the Emperor to see each other again - owing to the fact of Rudolf's marriage to Stephanie, mother of his daughter Elisabeth - Rudolf and his mistress stole away to Rudolf's hunting lodge in the village of Mayerling (shown, at top) where he shot her in the head before taking his own life.

The other reason for the preponderance of conspiracy theories seems to be the willingness of officialdom to lie, especially in difficult circumstances, which only seems to add fuel to the fire; in circulating the story that during a hunting trip Rudolf suffered a heart attack and died while the Baroness, a notable figure at court and the daughter of a well-known diplomat besides, merely disappeared without a trace, must have set that pack of gossips all a-twitter***. Had they simply told the truth the story might have gone away, but in lying (and in telling such a bad lie at that) officials set off every finely-tuned bullshit detector in the palace.

PhotobucketAnyway, the story went fallow for awhile, as such things will; it wasn't until the end of World War II, when the monastery where Mary Vetsera was buried in Heiligenkreuz was shelled by the Soviets, that her remains were able to be examined. No bullet hole was found in her skull...

Alas, the Mayerling Incident is among the coldest of all the cold cases, and so we may never know what really happened on that night. Certainly, their relationship had been not only an open secret but practically de rigeur for the times, and would have borne no stigma for either of them. The possibility that Rudolf might have contracted venereal disease seems quite likely, and so he may have killed himself to spare the torment of going slowly mad; he may have even killed her - by strangulation, say - and then turned his gun on himself in a fit of madness brought on by syphilis. Then again, it may have been the Austrian secret police who topped him for his pro-Hungarian sympathies. The point of the story is, we will likely never know now, although I guess the ultimate point of this post is that it's still fun to speculate.

What we do know of the incident we know from the media it subsequently inspired; the 1936 film Mayerling - directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Charles Boyer as Rudolf and Danielle Darrieux as Mary - is probably the most famous of these, although a TV version from 1957 also called Mayerling - again directed by Anatole Litvak but this time starring Audrey Hepburn as Mary and Mel Ferrer as Rudolf - has its own charms. A lavish 1968 version, once again called Mayerling - directed by Terence Young, starring Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, James Mason, and Ava Gardner - is likewise noted for its design and production elements, if not its accuracy.

*Post-Industrial Revolution.
**Or was she?
**And this in those halcyon days before Twitter!

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