The life you had imagined

From Imperial Vienna to Hollywood, the mystery of Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s secret daughter.

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As far as she can remember, Nelly Alard has always been fascinated by Elisabeth of Austria, the legendary Empress Sissi. In parallel with her very literary passion for queens, princesses and royal secrets, Nelly is training to be an actress. After a promising career debut in several Parisian theatres, she catches the eye of an American independent film director, Henry. In the 1980s, thanks to their collaboration, Nelly discovers Hollywood, meets Orson Welles, Bruce Willis and Susan Sarandon, and even auditions for a Godard movie…

While her career in film and theatre goes through ups and downs, Nelly never forgets Sissi. Her true adventure begins when she discovers the apocryphal story of Sissi’s hidden daughter, an illegitimate child whose birth, in Sassetot (Normandy, France), was supposedly camouflaged as a hunting accident in 1882. In 1908, the Countess Karoline Zanardi Landi publishes an autobiographical book where she claims to be this hidden daughter of the Empress, put into a foster family and frequently visited by her birth mother during her childhood. Several sources, including the Memoir of Elisabeth’s niece Marie Wallersee, corroborate this story. Other sources, such as the journal of one of Sissi’s ladies in waiting, categorically repudiate it.

Trying to find out who Karoline Zanardi Landi really was, Nelly soon discovers the fascinating story of Karoline’s daughter—and Sissi’s possible grand-daughter—Elissa Landi, one of classic Hollywood’s shooting stars whose biography has yet to be written. In 2012, Nelly manages to find Elissa’s daughter, Caroline Thomas, who lives in New York. With Caroline’s help, Nelly plunges into a long study of Elissa’s and her mother Karoline’s personal archive, a treasure containing the two women’s correspondence, diaries, photos, and much more. More importantly, Nelly finds two unfinished academic manuscripts whose authors were persuaded that Karoline was telling the truth. As she confronts all kinds of first-hand sources, Nelly convincingly pinpoints strong and weak aspects of Karoline’s affirmations, and outlines several possible scenarios that could have led to the “Sassetot child” story, which are no less captivating for want of definitive proof…

In addition to this thorough research, Sissi’s, Karoline’s and Elissa’s stories inspire Nelly to write. First, she cherishes the idea of writing a play, then begins a documentary about her quest. But first, this idea becomes a novel—“Elissa’s novel” (which constitutes the book’s Part III). Here, we follow Elissa between 1930 and 1935, the highest point of her Hollywood success when she stars in films by Cecil B. DeMille and Raoul Walsh next to Bogart and Clark Gable. Bright and strong-willed, this talented actress was also the author of several novels, an accomplished musician… and an unquestioning believer of her mother Karoline’s royal ascendance tale.

As we follow Nelly’s account of this life-long quest, we become aware of an intricate web of coincidences and echoes between her own existence and the lives of these amazing women—Elisabeth, Karoline, and Elissa—, echoes that seem to suggest that reality and fiction are never too far apart.

Nelly Alard’s third book is as brilliant in its formal aspects as it is thought-provoking and surprising in content. In spite of the book’s rich and complex historical subject matter, Alard’s narrative always remains effortless, intriguing, and agreeable to read. It is with elegance and fluidity that she intertwines different epochs and different characters—and does it so masterfully that Elisabeth, Marie Wallersee, Karoline, Elissa and Caroline all come to life, and vivid and authentic.

This novel is also an artist’s workshop : while writing “Elissa’s novel” and recounting her investigation, Alard allows us to discover the process that led her to writing these pages at the very same time. This is the reason why Alard’s own personality, imprinted in every paragraph, is so essential to the book. Along with the quest’s progress, it is the author’s own coming of age that we follow, subjugated by her caustic sense of humor, her wit and her mild self-mockery. Navigating between New York, Los Angeles, Sassetot, Vienne, Budapest, and Possenhofen, Alard has been chasing her own mysterious connection to the “Empress’ hidden child” legend, torn between her desire to believe and her cartesian logic. The account of these hesitations shapes Alard’s self-portrait, an actress who has always dreamed of writing, literary-minded but good at maths, and forever haunted by the feeling of playing a role, in life as well as on stage.

Anna Khatchaturova