On Mayerling

The best laid plans, blah blah blah. Yesterday’s idea that I might take as my daily topic the subject of the Wikipedia’s random featured article has hit the buffers even before it has begun. Quite frankly, I cannot be expected to spin out a thousand words on Ahalya, the wife of the sage Gautama Maharishi in Hindu mythology. I’m afraid I have always found Hindu mythology, and Eastern religions in general, unbearably tedious. I suspect I would have had a hard time of it in the hippie sixties. George Harrison and I would have had little to talk about.

Instead, let us turn our attention to Mayerling.


Mayerling is a tiny village in Lower Austria on the Schwechat River in the Wienerwald. It was in the hunting lodge at Mayerling, on the evening of 29 January 1889, that Crown Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera, met their deaths. He was thirty, she just seventeen. He shot her, and then, some hours later, shot himself. Or he poisoned her and then shot himself. Or she poisoned herself and then he shot himself. Or she died accidentally in the course of a botched abortion, and he then shot himself. Or they were both killed by three intruders, muffled up to the eyes in greatcoats. One bashed the Crown Prince on the head with a full champagne bottle, crushing his skull, another shot the Baroness. Among the three may have been the brother of the Baroness, though it is unclear whether he wielded the bottle or brandished the gun, or did neither, the murders being committed by his companions.

Indeed, the entire episode is unclear, as is apparent from the various possible scenarios outlined, all of which have at one time or another been claimed as the truth. All we know for certain is that on the following morning the bodies of both Rudolf and Mary were discovered by Loschek and Hoyos, valet and hunting companion respectively, who smashed the locked door of the lodge with an axe to gain entrance after knocking and knocking and knocking to no avail. We know, too, the seething passions bubbling beneath the rigid, stultifying protocol of the imperial court. Sex and death.

Oh, and we know something else. Always, in tales of imperial courts and aristocrats and the ruling classes, there lurk in the background the valets and factotums and servants. We have met Loschek. But a Crown Prince and a Baroness, in that world, would not have swanned off to a hunting lodge with a single valet. There would have been a retinue, an entourage. This is where the memoirs of Graves come in. Though Graves sounds like the name of a valet or butler, in this case we are dealing with a German spy who claimed to report directly to the Kaiser. Writing in 1916, Dr Armgaard Karl Graves introduces the brothers Max and Otto, trusted attendants of the Crown Prince. Probably a step up from valet status, but not by much. It is Max who opens the door to the three intruders, while Otto is down in the cellar fetching the champagne. In all the subsequent kerfuffle, not only do Rudolf and Mary lie dead, but Max, too, shot with the popular Alpine firearm the Stutzer, already used on the Baroness. Otto, meanwhile, gets knifed between the shoulders with a Hirsch-fanger. He survives, however, and when the intruders have fled into the freezing Austrian night, he scribbles an account of the events with pencil and paper and pins it to his brother’s corpse. Then he too flees – though Graves does not explain why – and, nearly thirty years later, “old, gray and bent.. is living the quiet life of a hermit and exile not five hundred miles from New York City”.

Well, maybe. Graves sounds like a nutter peddling a conspiracy theory, a Mayerling “truther”. I like that detail – or lack of detail – in “not five hundred miles from New York City”. There must have been untold Austrians, many of them old and gray and bent, living within such a radius in 1916. “Money would never make Otto talk,” adds Graves portentously, “but some day the upheaval in Europe may provide an occasion when this old retainer of the House of Habsburg may unseal his lips; and then woe to the guilty”. Guilty woe was something Graves already knew about by the time his memoir came out. In 1912, as the so-called “Glasgow Spy”, he was convicted under the Official Secrets Act in Scotland, having been caught in possession of telegraphic codes relating to the British navy. At his trial, he claimed to be a medical doctor who had practised in Australia (not Austria). He was sentenced to eighteen months. He later turned up in Washington DC (charged with blackmail, 1916) and Los Angeles (grand theft, 1929). Who knows, maybe he was Otto? That might be a theory worth pursuing.

Another, more gruesome, Mayerling obsessive was a busy bee in the 1990s, a century after the murder-suicide or suicide-suicide or double murder or triple murder. This was Helmut Flatzelsteiner, a furniture dealer from Linz. At dead of night – wolves may have been howling – he broke into the graveyard at Heiligenkreuz Abbey and exhumed from their tomb the bones of the Baroness. Two years later – and one shudders to think what he was doing with them in the interval – Flatzelsteiner paid for a forensic examination, claiming the bones belonged to a long dead relative. He later attempted to sell both the forensic report and the skeleton. The remains of Mary Vetsera were reinterred, and the Linz furniture dealer was made to pay damages to the Abbey.

The Mayerling Grave Robber Of Linz has not, so far as I know, been made into a film, but it ought to be. It might work well as a comedy. Mayerling itself – the hamlet, the hunting lodge, the Mitteleuropean murder suicide sex and death drama – now belongs, in perpetuity, to the film director Terence Young, whose 1968 costume drama starring Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve as the doomed lovers was for some reason billed on its original release as Terence Young’s Mayerling. On that basis, perhaps I should lay claim right now to Frank Key’s The Mayerling Grave Robber Of Linz, and set to work on the screenplay. I think I’d like it to be narrated by the ghost of Otto. Or by the shade of Dr Graves.

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