Schratt, Katharina (1855–1940)
Schratt, Katharina (1855–1940)
Austrian actress who was later companion to Franz Joseph I. Born in 1855 in Baden, Austria; died in 1940; daughter of a middle-class shopkeeper; attended a convent school; studied acting in Vienna; married into the von Kiss family in 1877; children: son Anton (b. 1878).
Katharina Schratt was born in the small town of Baden, Austria, into a solid, middle-class family, in 1855, the daughter of a haberdasher. She first appeared on a stage when she was 11 years old, after persuading the father of a friend to give her a small part in a local production. Her own father was so scandalized that he sent her to a convent school. Once there, the exuberant Katharina did not abandon the theater but instead would drape herself in a bedsheet and perform plays from memory for the other schoolgirls. When the mother superior discovered her antics, she wrote to Schratt's father and requested that he remove his daughter from the school, citing her departure from the usual course of good behavior.
Despite her father's objections to the idea of a woman on the stage, Schratt was soon able to convince him to let her study acting in Vienna. In 1873, she performed for Franz Joseph I for the first time at celebrations for the 25th anniversary of his rule; she was 18 years old and would not begin her liaison with the emperor for another 13 years. In the meantime, she became a popular figure on the stage. As a member of the Stadttheater, she embodied the ideal of young Austrian womanhood, often appearing on floats at carnival time holding a cornucopia, the sign of natural abundance.
In 1877, Schratt left the stage for a time after marrying a Hungarian aristocrat named Kiss whose family had lost their fortune by order of Emperor Franz Joseph during the revolution of 1848. The Kiss family persuaded Schratt to petition the emperor for the return of their lands; she did gain an audience with him, but her petition failed. Eventually, she separated from Kiss, who had mismanaged their money so badly that the authorities at one time seized all of their property, including their clothes. Schratt's son, Anton, born in 1878, was sent to military school.
By 1884, Schratt was a member of the Burgtheater, a company supported privately by the emperor, then 53 years old and estranged from his wife Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898), known as Empress Sissi. The gossip of the period suggests that Franz Joseph had given his wife a venereal disease, a betrayal for which she could never forgive him. After this rupture, he dedicated himself to the management of the empire, while the freedom-loving Elizabeth devoted her time to her charities. At times, however, Elizabeth would have to endure her husband's company, which, as the years wore on, became more and more tedious to her. By 1886, when it became clear that Katharina Schratt had captured the emperor's attention, Empress Elizabeth saw an opportunity to free herself from her husband's
emotional needs and summoned the court actress to a private audience where an agreement was reached between them about Schratt's newest role: companion to the emperor.
Elizabeth requested the court painter, Heinrich von Angeli, to paint a portrait of Schratt as a present to Franz Joseph. Elizabeth also arranged that she and Franz Joseph would pay regular visits to the sittings to view the progress of the work. In this way, she managed the course of the affair between her husband and Schratt, even sending Schratt an emerald ring as a token of her appreciation. The accompanying letter, a clever exercise in double-entendre, thanks Schratt for her sacrifice in sitting for the portrait and expresses the empress' great joy over the cherished gift of a portrait that Schratt's sacrifice had made possible. Throughout the summer of 1886, Franz Joseph continued to meet Schratt, usually accompanied by Empress Elizabeth, who coined the phrase die Freundin (woman-friend) to describe Schratt's relationship to the emperor.
By all accounts, this unlikely affair between an autocratic ruler and a burgher's daughter was quite successful. Letters written by Franz Joseph to Schratt indicate his respect and admiration for her. Schratt eased Franz Joseph's loneliness and helped restore a degree of charm and civility to the Hofburg, the royal palace where the emperor spent most of his time. Elizabeth, however, found herself entangled in an odd relationship with Schratt—on the one hand belittling Schratt's attempts to act an aristocratic part, and on the other believing that Schratt embodied a kind of simple good luck that had eluded Elizabeth for most of her life. As the affair continued, Elizabeth began to treat her husband with more affection than she had in years.
Though the last ruler of the Habsburgs found some degree of domestic happiness toward the end of his reign, Austria-Hungary, as his empire was known after 1867, gradually was overshadowed by the Prussian-dominated German Empire. In 1889, Elizabeth and Franz Joseph's only son, Archduke Rudolf, fulfilled a suicide pact with his mistress Marie Vetsera by shooting her and then himself. In 1898, Elizabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. Finally, in 1914, the emperor's nephew Franz Ferdinand, and Franz Ferdinand's wife Sophie Chotek , were assassinated by a Serbian nationalist, precipitating the events that led to World War I. Franz Joseph died in 1916 before the end of the war and the final defeat of his empire. Katharina Schratt, the token of good luck to her empress, outlived the Habsburgs and their empire, dying in 1940.
Haslip, Joan. The Emperor and the Actress: The Love Story of Emperor Franz Josef and Katharina Schratt. Dial, 1982.
Kelen, Betty. The Mistresses: Domestic Scandals of Nineteenth-Century Monarchs. NY: Barnes & Noble, 1966.
Bonnie Burns , Ph.D., Cambridge, Massachusetts