Stéphanie awoke on 30 January 1889 to a gloomy winter day. She had a singing lesson as was usual, but she felt anxious. The lesson was interrupted by her chief lady-in-waiting, who privately gave her the bad news from Mayerling. Stéphanie immediately realised what happened and sobbed, “He is dead!” Not much later, she was summoned by the Emperor and Empress. They questioned her, but Stéphanie had no answers for them. It was the Empress who told her the full story. Rudolf had been found in the early hours of the morning shot in the head, with the body of Mary Vetsera by his side. They also handed her the Crown Prince’s farewell letter which read, “Dear Stéphanie, You are freed henceforward from the torment of my presence. Be happy, in your own way. Be good to the poor little girl who is the only thing I leave behind. Give my last greetings to all my acquaintances, especially to Bombelles, Spindler, Latour, Nowo, Gisela, Leopold, etc. etc. I face death calmly; death alone can save my good name. With warmest love, your affectionate Rudolf.”
Stéphanie was angry and indignant. She wrote, “True, death had relieved me from conjugal life which was full of anxieties, cares, and sorrows – but at what cost! My own future and that of the country, for which I had endured so much unfailing patience, seemed to have been shattered. Nothing remained but a burning wound in my heart. My hopes, the meaning of life, had been pitilessly destroyed. Long did it go on burning, this wound, like the bite of a venomous serpent. Nothing could close it, nothing could heal it; and I did not begin to feel relief until I found myself able, in all humility, to accept it as the will of God.”
Stéphanie’s despair was only alleviated somewhat by the arrival of her parents, and they remained for the funeral. Her young daughter was a great comfort to her. Stéphanie took her to Miramar, where she was joined by her mother and sisters. They spent four months there, and Stéphanie spent much time wondering how it had all come to this. The Empress and Emperor blamed Stéphanie for Rudolf’s death but she received a heartfelt letter from Queen Elisabeth of Romania, who wrote, “My dearest Stéphanie, My thoughts turn to your almost hourly in your solitude, and the words of your wonderful letter are chiselled deep into my heart. This letter of yours, in its devastating simplicity, made me shed warm tears, for it discloses the intensity of your suffering. Cease to torment yourself with thoughts whether you might have done this or that otherwise, and so averted the disaster – for nothing could have averted it. The poor man, for all his glorious heritage, bore the seeds of doom within him in the form of his disastrous qualities; to say nothing of the close kinship between his parents, which robbed him of the power that might have enabled him to fight the demon who destroyed him. I think that he saw himself, being a man of outstanding intelligence, saw the approach of destruction, and despairingly flung himself into the abyss, hastily seizing all life could give him before the night came. I remember some expressions used by him at Sinaia, which showed utter hopelessness, a lack of confidence in the future, but a determination to enjoy before it was too late. I was already most anxious and sad about him, while as for you, you seemed to me like a child, inexperienced and helpless, delivered over to your hard fate. Since then, alas, you have become a woman, have drained the chalice to the dregs and your life lies before you shattered to fragments. But you were vouchsafed great strength of will, as manifested in your handwriting and in your every word. You remain the widow of a notable man, the sustainer of his spark of genius, the protectress of his child, whom you must equip with your own strength of will and with great insight, though one can hardly suppose that she will have an easy life of it. For what princess has an easy life? Do not be bitter against those who now fail to understand you. They will do so in twenty years to come and will fancy that they always understood and loved you because you understand them and are kind to them and allow them to understand you as much as is good for them. You must understand and console like a saint, self-forgetful and pure. You cruel fate summons you to unheard-of deads, to tranquil joys which can no longer perturb you because they blossom in a heart from which other blooms have been plucked by suffering. Oh, child, child! How I wish I could clasp you to my heart and let you weep unrestrainedly so that the rigidity of despair should soften to a gentle melancholy. Still, you are perhaps better alone, fighting your own fight without aid, like a hero. I would fain send you rivers of love, and merely whisper: ‘I know, I know! I, too, have suffered more than anyone dreams!’ Your Elisabeth.”
Stéphanie was not allowed to accept Elisabeth’s invitation to join her at Pelesch. Stéphanie was assigned Laxenburg as dower-house, and she was granted the title of Crown Princess Dowager. She soon resumed her relationship with Count Artur Potocki and lived mainly at Laxenburg and Miramar. She had lost her position, which was perhaps what she resented the most, but she was still entirely financially dependent on the Emperor. Her daughter was used as a pawn, and the Emperor refused to let Elisabeth out of the country, for example, to visit relatives in Belgium. Count Artur Potocki died of cancer in 1890 and Stéphanie wrote to her sister, “I have lost my best friend, a man I valued so highly and loved so much.” By 1900, she had done the unthinkable and had fallen in love with a Hungarian Count named Elemér Lónyay de Nagy-Lónya et Vásáros-Namény, and they married on 22 March 1900. The Emperor considered it a further insult to Rudolf’s memory and was horrified. He stripped her of her titles of Crown Princess Dowager, and Archduchess of Austria and Stéphanie and her new husband withdrew from public life – choosing to live quietly at Schloss Oroszvár in Slovakia. Her daughter – now 16 years old – cut off her mother completely.
When the Emperor died in 1916, he was succeeded by his great-nephew Emperor Charles I, who was more friendly towards Stéphanie. In 1917, he raised Stéphanie’s husband to the rank of a hereditary prince, but the empire collapsed just one year later. The new Emperor was driven into exile, and Stéphanie lost her annual stipend and thus also her comfortable lifestyle. By 1921, she was so bereft of funds that she opened a cinema in Budapest. She remained estranged from her daughter. In 1935, Stéphanie published her memoirs which were translated into English the following year. Her daughter Elisabeth managed to have it banned in Austria and Stéphanie then cut Elisabeth completely out of her will. Stéphanie and her husband were still in Slovakia when the Second World War broke out. They managed to remain there until the advance of the Soviet army forced them to flee in 1945. They found refuge in the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma in Hungary where Stéphanie died on 23 August 1945. Her husband died the following year, and they are both buried in Pannonhalma.1