Did you ever have a dream where you’re walking through a closed-up wing of a crumbling palace and then you come to a door and you know you’re not supposed to open it but you do anyway? Well, no neither did I, but if you did, can’t you just imagine this wraith-like vision turning slowly towards you like something out of Poe as you’re too stunned and shocked to close the door again – ja? Can I help you?
The lugubrious, mildly terrifying young man returning your startled gaze is Archduke Ludwig Viktor – youngest brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph – who was born on this day in 1842. Thanks to inbreeding the Habsburgs generally found themselves on a physical attraction scale sliding from homely to hideous and Ludwig, bless him, fit right in among the portraits of his fugly forefathers.
It was a face only a mother could love and love him she did. After having produced an heir and two spares, Ludwig’s mutti ignored the fact that he wasn’t the girl she had longed for and dressed him like one anyway. If (and it’s a big if) you believe nurture trumps nature, the fact that this mama’s boy grew up as gay as a tree frog would offer you a satisfying narrative. Indeed Ludwig seemed determined to fulfil every quality the common person might ascribe to an “invert”: he was a flighty, pleasure-seeking reprobate who loved the theatre, collected art and antiques, wore women’s clothing, bitched incessantly and couldn’t be trusted with a secret. The imperial double-headed eagle was an apt symbol for the two-faced archduke. His sister-in-law Sissi was initially warmly disposed to him, until things she told him in confidence came back to her; finally, she refused to have a conversation with him unless a third party was present to verify it. Nonetheless the empress’s sister Sophie was picked out as a possible bride for Ludwig, but she rejected him (poor hapless Sophie would be engaged to and then dumped by another gay Ludwig, the so-called Mad King of Bavaria, and would eventually die in a fire).
The 21-year-old hedonist archduke about town needed a new crib, not least for his notorious parties, noted for both their extravagance and their low female turnout. He commissioned an Italianate palace on the new Ringstraße, the grand boulevard which sprang up on the site of Vienna’s recently razed city walls. It was the kind of ostentatious pile thought proper for a member of the imperial family, with statues of the great and good gracing the façade. The observant passer-by might have noticed among them a representation of 18th century Franco-Austrian military commander Prince Eugene; a butch choice at first glance until you learn that Eugene was as fond of frocking up and man-love as Ludwig.
Though Ludwig’s own military career foundered, he always had an eye for a comely soldier, a weakness which triggered his expulsion from Vienna. His inclination had always been an open secret, and Franz Joseph had even joked that he should be given a ballerina as an adjutant to ensure nothing untoward would transpire. But Ludwig was getting reckless and had a reputation for spending hours in the Centralbad, a prestigious complex of Orientalist steam baths, where his (no doubt pruny) hands were apt to wander. The decisive incident came when Ludwig hit on an officer who, instead of removing the Imperial and Apostolic hand from his leg and uttering a polite but firm nein danke, gave the archduke a black eye. To avoid further scandal the emperor sent Ludwig into internal exile in his provincial bolthole, Schloss Kleßheim in Salzburg.
There, away from the strictures of court, he had a grand blue and white pool installed and would invite army officers to use it but – ach how silly of me! – forget to provide them with swimming costumes. But it wasn’t all pool parties and arrant campery; over time Ludwig became the embodiment of noblesse oblige, his charitable efforts for the Salzburgers making him the people’s archduke of hearts. And in the end the pink sheep of the Habsburgs outlived the empire – ha! – dying in 1919 on the first day of the conference in Versailles which would definitively abolish the old order of which Ludwig Viktor was one of the most entertaining representatives.
Ludwig’s Salzburg digs had a strange afterlife. A dance school run on Isadora Duncan’s pedagogic principles operated there in the 1920s, while the Nazis later took it over as a guest house and it was the scene of a number of meetings between Hitler and Mussolini (it was also riddled with listening devices). It now serves as Salzburg’s main casino.
Which, oddly, was what initially happened to the palace back in Vienna; before the First World War, Ludwig handed it over to the military for use as an officers’ casino. These days, if Ludwig’s ghost were to return he would have to make his way through – ugh – a TGI Friday’s on the ground floor but would be delighted to find much of the rest of the building given over to the city’s main theatre company.
And his ghost would feel right at home in the Centralbad; it is now Kaiserbründl, one of Europe’s most luxurious gay saunas.