Frau Sacher of Sacher's
‘DISMAYED and exhausted,’ writes Prince Ludwig Windischgrätz in his Memoirs, ‘I went to the Hotel Sacher to dine.’
It was the beginning of October 1918, a fortnight before the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Italian front. The Monarchy of the Hapsburgs had already entered on its agony; and Prince Windischgrätz, whose grandfather had saved the Monarchy seventy years before, was just returned from the imperial and royal hunting box at Reichenau, where he had refused the Emperor’s request to form a Hungarian Government.
It was dinner time and all the rooms at Sacher’s were full. I had arranged to meet a General and a mutual relation, and was looking for both. I met Frau Sacher in the passage between the two dining rooms.
‘It is dreadful!’ she said with a flushed face.
My mind was full of the Hungarian crisis, and I replied: ‘Yes indeed! It is dreadful.’
‘Even the waiters won’t obey any longer,’ said Frau Sacher comfortably. ‘I’ve given one of them a good box on the ears.’
I found my friends at supper in one of the séparées. They greeted me with the words: ‘People here are saying you are to be Prime Minister.’
‘Foolish rumors!’ said I.
‘As you don’t give the Viennese enough to eat,’ said my guest dryly [Prince Windischgrätz was the Food Minister at the time], ‘they must live on rumors.’
‘What did the War Office want with you?’ I asked.
‘I am to go to Poland to collect information as to the conditions there. The Polacks are getting out of hand.’
‘Who is not getting out of hand? Ask Frau Sacher! Even the waiters are refusing to obey any longer. Perhaps the head waiters will also refuse to obey soon,’ I said, looking at old Wagner, who was just filling my glass.
‘How will all this end, Highness?’ said the old man, bowing. ‘How will it end?’
‘Who is here?’
‘Exzellenz Tarnowsky is dining next door,’ said Wagner.
‘Good! I will speak to him.’
I found Tarnowsky with a few Polish gentlemen. He told me he had just been recalled from Warsaw, and that His Majesty thought of appointing him Foreign Minister, which I already knew. Between ourselves, he said, with the passive attitude we had maintained and the perpetual postponement of the Polish solution, the Polish distrust of the Monarchy and the dynasty had become pretty general, and naturally the radical elements were gaining the upper hand.
D. and fat IC. came down the corridor arm in arm. When they saw me, they made me come with them and took me into the large tapestried room, where I found a number of old comrades from the front. This was a cheerful party. Kutschera, the Vienna star, was at the piano playing Ich möchte noch einmal in Grinzing sein, beim Wein, bcim Wein, beint Weinl The women were singing, and wine and champagne were flowing. I think no one was sober but Kutschera. I only stayed a few minutes to take leave of my comrades, who had to go back to the front. As I was going along the corridor, a waiter opened the door of one of the séparées, and in it I saw my friend Michael Karolyi sitting with the Hungarian journalist Diner-Denes and some other men unknown to me.
I asked old Wagner whether Count Karolyi often dined there with these gentlemen.
‘Oh yes, Your Highness! Often.’
Vienna society was at supper in the public rooms. Financiers, bankers, successful profiteers, military men, the Chief of Police, the oldest families of Europe and the newest Barons, sat side by side. Here a Polish Minister conferred with fellow countrymen how best to increase and uphold the power of the Throne. There a Hungarian magnate conspired with leaders of the most radical Labor elements to overthrow throne and dynasty. Here jeunesse dorée feasted and made merry before going back to the war. There ministerial posts were being told off, or the rate of exchange was being discussed. News and history were being made by word of mouth in these public and private rooms. Here Austrian policy took birth and shape, served in characteristically Austrian fashion between the Beinfleisch and the Apfelstrudel.
There has been more than one pen picture of the end of the Hapsburgs. Novak, Emil Ludwig, and Prince Windischgrätz himself have all given the world vivid presentations of the last days of Karl and Zita at Schönbrunn. But the above description of the Hotel Sacher on the eve of the Collapse is to the writer’s thinking the most dramatic of them all. The séparées at Sacher’s form a screen against which the march of events toward the catastrophe is projected and magnified, just as the best literary description of a battle is Thackeray’s famous narrative of the twenty-four hours in Brussels on the eve and day of Waterloo. The tragedy is viewed from the indirect angle — most effective of all angles of approach. If only scenario writers would learn that lesson!
When Frau Sacher died on March 1 last, one of the obituary notices in the Vienna papers said that her hotel should have been called the Hotel Oesterreich — the Hotel Austria. It was so essentially a product of the old Austria, one of the intangibly fine things that the old Austria produced, nowhere else possible, and, now that Frau Sacher is no more, impossible ever to reproduce. Happy those who knew it in the eleven years by which Frau Sacher, to her sorrow, survived the collapse of the old régime! While she lived, it was possible to recapture the atmosphere of a lost age, lingering like perfume round an empty perfume jar.
The most popular portrait of the old Emperor Francis Joseph, which every Viennese bourgeois still has hanging in his dining room, shows him as he could be seen any summer evening driving back from Vienna after the day’s work to Schönbrunn. He is sitting alone, as he used to sit, in a two-horsed open barouche with a coachman in plain livery and a Court servant in a plumed hat on the box. The carriage is just turning out of the Hofburg into the Michaeler Platz. A policeman salutes. Only one member of the public is shown in the picture — an old lady in a tightfitting bodice and long skirt of the 1880 period with a couple of pug dogs at her heels, who curtseys to the carriage as it passes. That is Frau Sacher. The artist has taken her as an epitome of the old Vienna; and that is what she was — nothing else is needed to complete the portrait.
One said, as one says of all charming old ladies, that she was a beauty in her time. She conserved the habit and custom of that time. Besides the tightfitting 1880 bodices and the pug dogs, she affected big Havana cigars, for which there used to be a vogue among the Viennese ladies in the ’nineties of the last century.
She had a small den, about eight feet square, opening off the celebrated Buffet. The walls of the den were completely covered with signed photographs like Guy’s famous hairdressing shop in Piccadilly — archdukes and archduchesses, Austrian and Hungarian aristocrats, and successive generations of the pugs. I can see her now emerging from this den into the Buffet with a fat cigar in her mouth. The Buffet was really a shop where you could buy fruit from her farms, Delikatessen, and such things. There were three or four girls to serve the shop, good-looking, sharptongued, Viennese as Frau Sacher herself, and rigidly disciplined; all the servants at Sacher’s had an unmistakable cachet. Between 12.30 and 2.30 the Buffet would be transformed into a replica of the Jockey Club. Young aristocrats of eighteen or nineteen with historic names would crowd in and stand round the counter, or sit on the uncomfortable chairs, tease the dogs, chaff the girls, and chatter till it was time to go in to lunch. The famous ‘society of cousins’! Outsiders called them the Sacherbuben; but outsiders did not as a rule venture inside the Buffet.
Beggars did. There were half a dozen regular callers, whom everyone knew and chaffed. They were not allowed to beg from the customers, but the old lady used to give them loaves of bread or cigars. They fitted into the ensemble — they were not bourgeois.
Last year the old lady turned the largest of the private dining rooms, or séparées, as they are called in Vienna, — in how many of Schnitzler’s plays is the scene ‘A séparée at Sacher’s’! — into a modem bar. It was very skillfully done; the decoration was a happy blend between the old and the new, and so on. But the Sacherbuben would not migrate from the Buffet. The bar, as someone said, ‘made excellent cocktails, but ... no longer made history!’
It was indeed in this particular séparée that Koerber and Széll negotiated one New Year’s Eve over the Ausgleich; and it has other and more recent memories. In 1926 representatives of Hungary and Rumania all but reached a settlement here over the question of the Optants. It is a room full of history.
The two public dining rooms, of which Prince Windischgrätz writes, are not less celebrated. But there is, or was till the day of the old lady’s death, a dividing line between the two as unpassable as a color bar and not less intangible. The first dining room is a small old-fashioned room, furnished in the style of an English country hotel of the worst type, a pure museum specimen of its period, which must be about 1880. Only the chairs are comfortable, and the food the best in Central Europe. When it had any comfort at all, 1880 was much more comfortable than 1930; and to a discerning eye Sacher’s is really the most luxurious hotel in Europe. But it does not look it.
The second dining room is a much better room than the first, but the ‘best people’ do not dine in it. They love the old and ugly Teddy Bear better than the new, good-looking one. So they crowd into the first dining room; and no one else is allowed in. ‘Paul,’ the head waiter in charge of it, assures the observance of the protocol, as the French say; and it is an education in diplomacy to watch how he separates the sheep from the goats. Jews, with a very few exceptions, such us the Rothschild family, are relegated to the second room. Similarly with the demi-monde. The old lady had an unerring eye, and so has Paul, for the subtle boundary that in Europe divides the distinguished demi-monde from the rest. Count —, who is or was so well-known in America for his athletics and his matrimonial adventures, once brought in a lady who was not the right side of the boundary. That was bad form on—’s part, like so many things that — does; but it passed. Later the lady came in alone. Frau Sacher glared, but said nothing. A third time the lady brought in a lady friend. This was too much; and Frau Sacher made her an intimation to that effect in the following sentence of characteristic, untranslatable Viennese : ‘ Eine meinethalben; aber zwei kann i net brauchen.’
This last is a good example of the old lady’s causticity. But much of the savor of the innumerable Frau Sacher stories lies in the Viennese dialect. Her comments were her own, unmistakably her own; but they took on some of their color from the language in which they were couched. The charm of the Viennese dialect is subtle as the charm of Vienna itself. Its raciness is due to the fact that it is at once the language of the common people and of what used to be the governing class. The Jewish bourgeoisie, who now rule in the latter’s place, have never been able to get their tongues properly round it. But the Schönbrunner deutsch, which Francis Joseph and the Imperial Family spoke, was only the language of the cab driver in bocca toscana. Frau Sacher’s own diction oscillated between Schönbrunner deutsch and the purest cab-driver dialect. She also spoke French well, — the Austrian upper class in her youth used to speak French, — but not much English.
She was more entirely sure of her position than anyone the writer has ever met; and that was no doubt the secret of her success with her aristocratic clientèle. Frau Sacher was the hotel, and the hotel was Frau Sacher. She had no life outside the hotel, and no wish for any. She was without pretensions and without pose.
I first came to her hotel with introductions from English friends who had lived there for a long time. I presented them with timidity, but they were graciously received. I said I was glad the gnädige Frau remembered my friends.
’I remember them very well,’ said Frau Sacher with a kindly smile, ‘though it’s a good while since they left Vienna. I hope they’ll come back soon. The wife’s clever; he’s a fool. (Die Frau is’ g’scheit; der is’ a Narr.)'
These pungent remarks were even more disconcerting when made, as they sometimes were, to one’s face. One of the stories is of a newly married archduchess, very much in love with her husband, who brought him to the hotel to introduce him to Frau Sacher.
‘Well! how do you like him?’
‘Halten S’ihn ein bisserl gerader, Kaiserliche Hoheit! (You want a tighter rein with that one, Your Imperial Highness!)’
At lunch or dinner time the old lady would drift into the dining room and stand watching her guests. There was a screen at one end behind which she could stand without being seen, and watch who was there. If there was too much noise, she would make a peculiar hissing sound from behind the screen, at which everyone would look up and laugh; they knew what that meant. When she saw someone she liked or a member of the Imperial Family, she would go over to that table, and then all the men at the table would spring up and kiss her hand.
From time to time she would box the waiters’ ears. Toward the end of her life in particular this became a ritual which had to be gone through once at least at every meal. Everyone expected it, and laughed when it came. But the younger waiters did not like it; and eventually one of them complained to the Betriebsrat (Works Council), and the Betriebsrat brought an action against Frau Sacher for assault. Frau Sacher made a characteristic appearance — with the pugs — in court, paid her fine, and was of course photographed by the moving-picture men on entering and leaving the court. The same evening, when she came along to the dining room, the waiter who had been responsible for the action dropped a plate. Without a moment’s hesitation the old lady caught him a box on the ears. He sprang round furious; but all the other waiters and all the guests were rocking with Homeric laughter, and he saw no one was on his side. There were no more actions for assault, though Frau Sacher went on boxing ears up to the last.
Not long after this episode the Republic made amends for its interference with her patriarchal jurisdiction. It became known that for years she had been providing anonymously a mensa academica or free table daily for a number of students at the Vienna University. The volume of her charities indeed was unbounded, and many of them are only beginning to become known since her death. One day the students appeared without any warning at the hotel, put the old lady into a carriage, and drew her to the Kunstakademie, where the Minister of Education, who was in the plot, was waiting to present her with the Verdienstkreuz, a decoration awarded by the Austrian Republic ‘for distinguished services rendered.’ The old lady did not quite know what to make of this, and was with difficulty persuaded that it was not a hoax.
Fearless of people, she was equally fearless of crowds. On December 1, 1921, when the hungry mob broke into the big hotels on the Ring and sacked them, they left Sacher’s untouched. Frau Sacher came to the door as they
passed, and called out to them in her broad Viennese that they were ‘a pack of lumps.’ They laughed and passed on. Half an hour later every room in the Grand, the Bristol, and the Imperial had been wrecked.
One is glad to have known that lost world. It seems infinitely remote now. The gulf between England before and England after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or Lancashire before and after the Industrial Revolution, is not greater than that between the Vienna of 1914 and the Vienna of the present day. In retrospect, when one endeavors to recapture the atmosphere of that old civilization, it is the sense of continuity which dominates one’s impressions of the picture. In England the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution both cut across the life and character of the Anglo-Saxon race and left cleavages which the imagination unaided can hardly bridge. But the history of the Austrian peoples was never so broken — until 1918. No one who ever saw the Corpus Christi procession pass through the streets of Vienna with the Emperor walking bareheaded behind the Host could fail to feel that Francis Joseph’s Austria was the Austria of Joseph II, of Maria Theresa, and of yet remoter Hapsburgs in ages when ‘Austria’ was only a geographical term and the Holy Roman title, which was also the pagan Roman title, of ‘Cæsar semper Augustus’ was the reality.
It was this atmosphere of unbroken continuity that pervaded the old Austria and made all other European countries seem parvenus.
The Hapsburg dynasty not only bound the present with the past. It also bound together the disparate and frequently disjunctive elements of the present; and for this reason its disappearance was a very different matter from the disappearance of the dynasties in Northern Europe. The changes after the war in Germany, though they gave rise to social readjustments which involved great misery for certain classes, cannot be said to have made any cleavage in the life and character of the German race. The elimination of the Hohenzollerns in particular made scarcely any change in the system under which Germany was governed. The German Emperor was only the First Bureaucrat of his country; the bureaucracy did not cease to function when he was removed. But the Hapsburg Emperor was very much more than the head of his bureaucracy. He was the symbol of an idea, and the pivot of a system, on which the lives and activities of ten distinct and different races from the Alps to the Carpathians and from the Danube to the Mediterranean were built up.
What idea? It was the idea which is struggling for emergence in this first half of the twentieth century — the idea that the nation is not the be-all and the end-all of political thought, that it is possible and on many grounds desirable to transcend the limits of nationality, and that political units can exist and prosper on a non-national or international basis. The idea, and the dynasty which symbolized and incorporated it, dated back indeed to the Middle and Dark Ages and the internationalism of the Catholic Church; but they had shown such power of adaptation and had survived so many vicissitudes, including the epidemic of nationalism in the nineteenth century, that many believed they were destined to bear new fruits in the twentieth century. The strain of five years of ‘world war’ was too much. Nationalism won its last victory. The dynasty collapsed, and the ten peoples — German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ruthene, Croat, Slovene, Serb, Italian, and Rumanian — who had lived together under its ægis were regrouped in six separate and competing States.
Foreign supporters of the Jugoslav Nationalist idea before the war were for the most part inclined to believe in the mission of the Hapsburgs. The chief book of Professor Seton-Watson, whom the world then knew as ‘Scotus Viator,’ was dedicated ‘to that Austrian statesman who shall possess the genius and the courage necessary to solve the Southern Slav Question.’ Wickham Steed, on the other hand, the author of the most brilliant book that ever was written about the old Austria, was always expecting the Hapsburg Monarchy to collapse from its own rottenness. It is no longer of interest to speculate whether this was in fact what ultimately happened. The system of government of the Monarchy was no doubt in many directions incredibly inefficient; but in other directions, and notably in the handling of new problems like the administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it was not fettered by past precedents, it was surprisingly efficient.
Efficiency in any case is not the last word in political science. It is of more interest to forecast the future of the new nationalist States by which the Monarchy has been replaced. In this connection there are two things to be said. No forecast is likely to be of value which does not take as its starting point the fundamental distinction between those States which were the product of the Peace Conference (Poland and Czechoslovakia) and those which made themselves and were in being before that macabre assembly met (Jugoslavia and Rumania). The second distinction that has to be drawn — and it is perhaps even more fundamental than the first — is between those States that have solved their agrarian problem (Austria, Jugoslavia, Rumania) and those that have not (Hungary, Poland). Both these considerations cut across the statistical evidences of prosperity on which bankers’ forecasts are sometimes too readily based.
When one has witnessed the submergence of an old civilization and the emergence of new factors which to all appearance represent a setback to the point at which the old civilization began to evolve, one is tempted to feel as men must have felt when Rome finally succumbed and what the historians have called the Dark Age settled down on Europe. Of what use, one asks, is political achievement? What survives? Well! There is something that survives even Dark Ages. ‘The romance of Tom Jones,' said Gibbon, ‘that exquisite picture of humor and manners, will outlive the palace of the Escurial and the imperial Eagle of Austria.’
Yes! It has outlived the imperial Eagle of Austria; and the occupant of the Escurial seems none too firm upon his throne.