Elssler, Fanny (1810–1884)

views updated

Elssler, Fanny (1810–1884)

Austrian dancer. Born in Vienna, Austria, on June 23, 1810; died of cancer in Vienna on November 27, 1884; father was a professional musician and copyist; sister of Thérèse Elssler (1808–1878); cousin of Hermine Elssler (a dancer); studied ballet under Jean Aumer and Philippe Taglioni; never married; children: (with Leopold, prince of Salerno) Franz (b. 1827); (with Anton Stuhlmüller) Theresa von Webenau (b. 1833).

Fanny Elssler was trained for the ballet from her earliest years and made her appearance at the Kärnthner-Thor theater in Vienna before she was seven. She almost invariably danced with her sister Thérèse, who was two years her senior. They were born into a family of musicians: their father, two uncles, and one brother were all professionals. Before Fanny and Thérèse were born, Herr Elssler had been a copyist and valet to Haydn, and the family lived in comfort, but after the composer's death in 1808, the family fell on hard times. They lived over a public laundry where Frau Elssler did laundry to help feed her five children; all the children were launched into early careers in hopes they would soon become self-supporting.

After some years' experience together in Vienna, in 1827 the sisters accompanied Domenico Barbaja, manager of the Kärnthner-Thor, to Naples. Their success there—due more to Fanny than the less-gifted Thérèse (who tended to restrain herself in order to heighten the effect of Fanny's more brilliant powers)—led to an engagement in Berlin in 1830. This was the beginning of a series of triumphs for Fanny's pre-Raphaelite beauty and lively dancing.

While in Naples, Maria Carolina and Ferdinand IV's son Leopold, prince of Salerno, sought her favors. Fat, self-indulgent, 20 years Fanny's senior and married to his own niece, Leopold had little to offer, but it is conjectured that, after the misery of her childhood, his opulence might have held some attraction. Whatever the case, the 17-year-old Fanny became his mistress, was soon pregnant, and had to return to Vienna. Since the Kärnthner-Thor had a strict rule that mothers could not perform there, the birth of Franz on June 4, 1827, was hushed up, and the boy was placed in a foster home.

Fanny then incurred the passion of the aged and brilliant statesman Friedrich von Gentz, councillor to Metternich. An intellectual, Gentz was determined to educate his paramour, perfecting her German and teaching her French; he also provided her with advantageous introductions to further her career. Elssler, still shy and unspoiled, was devoted to him. But when the Berlin Opera offered the sisters a contract in Autumn of 1830 and Gentz proposed, Elssler preferred to dance in the Prussian capital. Gentz died in June 1832; Fanny was at his bedside.

Though they had captivated the hearts of Berlin and Vienna, the sisters still lived humbly. Alphonse Royer remembers watching them trudge home through the snow after a performance, carrying a basket. Having grown very tall by 19th-century standards, and having earned the sobriquet la maestosa, Thérèse had her last great triumph as a dancer in Berlin. The Germans prized statuesque dancers. When Thérèse became the male half of an Elssler pas de deux called adagio, Fanny's future rival, Maria Taglioni , bristled: "We owe the beginning of this bad taste to the Elssler sisters. The elder, Thérèse, who was big, too big, wore male costume. She was extremely deft at turning her sister Fanny. The ensemble produced a great effect; but no one could have called it art." Thérèse would go on to choreograph and restage La Fée et le Chevalier (July 1833) and Armide.

Fanny, however, had turned her attentions to dancer and fellow student Anton Stuhlmüller who was now premier danseur in Berlin, and she was soon pregnant again. In February 1833, she paid a visit to London, where she was taken in by George and Harriet Grote ; three months after her arrival, Fanny gave birth to a daughter Theresa. At a time when "ladies" did not associate with "theatricals," Harriet Grote, a historian and friend of Gentz's, ignored such prejudices and took in Fanny and her baby. George Grote was a banker and Member of Parliament. Except for 18 months in Paris with her mother, Theresa lived with the Grotes until she was nine.

In September 1834, with much trepidation, Fanny Elssler appeared at the Opéra in Paris, very aware of Maria Taglioni's supremacy on that stage. The result of her appearance was another triumph and the temporary eclipse of Taglioni, who, although the finer artist of the two, could not compete with the newcomer's ability to enchant. Mlle Taglioni was a "Christian dancer," while Fanny was "quite pagan," said Théophile Gautier.

By this time, Fanny had developed her staccato, or taqueté, style, in contrast with Taglioni's floating, ballonné method. In Elssler's performance of the Spanish cachucha, while in the role of Florinda in Le Diable boiteux (June 1936), she outshone all rivals. She was the German girl who became Spanish, and she caused a sensation. In her pink-and-black lace costume, Fanny Elssler graced snuffboxes, fans, prints and statuettes. Maria Taglioni accepted an engagement in St. Petersburg.

The Marquis de La Valette, who seemed to prefer dancers, having fathered children with Pauline Guichard and Pauline Duvernay , entered Elssler's life for a short while. From him, Elssler moved on to Henry Wikoff, an American diplomat who was a little too Philadelphia for Europe's taste. Wikoff arranged for Fanny to tour America, though Thérèse decided to forgo the chance to meet wild Indians.

In March 1840, when Fanny sailed for New York, her retinue included Wikoff and her companion Kathi Prinster . Upon arrival, she was greeted by "Elssler mania," received at the White House, and enjoyed two years of unblemished success. Then the press began to question her private life with impresario Wikoff, especially after a long shared holiday from Louisiana to the Canadian border, but her fans could have cared less. In July 1842, with the tour over, along with her relationship with Wikoff, Elssler sailed for England. During the following five years, she appeared in Germany, Austria, Italy, England and Russia. In France, however, Carlotta Grisi had replaced her in the hearts of a fickle public.

In 1845, having amassed a fortune, Fanny Elssler retired from the stage after her farewell performance with Perrot in his Faust at La Scala. In 1848, she traveled to St. Petersburg and appeared as an actress in Giselle; the play ran over two years. She then settled near Hamburg for three years, before spending her last days in Vienna with her son Franz and her companion Prinster. Her son Franz committed suicide in 1873, at age 47. Theresa, who remained devoted to her mother, married Baron Victor Weber von Webenau and named her daughter Fanny (she also continued to visit Harriet Grote).

Fanny's sister Thérèse contracted a morganatic marriage with Prince Adalbert of Prussia and was ennobled under the title of Baroness von Barnim. When Thérèse was left a widow in 1873, she moved in with her niece Theresa where she died on November 19, 1878. Six years later, Fanny Elssler died in Vienna of cancer on November 27, 1884. The sisters Elssler share with Haydn a small museum at Eisenstadt near Vienna.


Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas: From the Court of Louis XIV to Pavlova. NY: Macmillan, 1972.

About this article

Elssler, Fanny (1810–1884)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article