Bahney (Longhairlovers: Healthy Hair Secrets Revealed, 2nd Ed., 2014, etc.) dissects the real-life theft of a spectacular jewel and the life of an Austrian empress.
The hair of Empress Elisabeth of Austria—known as “Sisi” (pronounced “Sissy”)—wasn’t quite as long as Rapunzel’s, but it did nearly reach to the floor and took an entire day to clean. As befitted a coiffure of that length and thickness, Sisi would occasionally adorn it with an accessory mounted with about 30 diamonds of various sizes and one large pearl. The result was a spectacular “glittering halo” effect that made her a sensation. (One element of the piece, the Kochert Diamond Pearl, was housed in Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace museum until it was stolen in 1998.) Famous in her prime as one of the most beautiful women in the world, Sisi and her spectacular hair stars were immortalized in a painting that became popular in Europe. Bahney details her tragic life, telling of her sadness at being in the royal Austrian court, her apparent eating disorders, and her fanatical exercising so that she could maintain her “wasp waist.” The book also covers Gerald Blanchard, the master thief who stole the Kochert Diamond Pearl, and Bahney tells his story as fully as she does Sisi’s. The book provides a fascinating peek at 19th-century thinking, such as the widespread belief that if a pregnant woman looked at animals too long, her baby would likely be born looking like one. Bahney, a journalist, populates the book with engaging supporting characters, such as Sisi’s domineering mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, and her beleaguered husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. Ultimately, however, this is a book about robbery: both of a jewel and of a lonely young woman’s life.
It would be criminal for lovers of historical nonfiction to miss this story of theft, sadness, and obsession.