The Princess in the Asylum
Was Louise of Belgium a victim, as she claimed, or her own worst enemy?
Born in 1858, Princess Louise of Belgium was the eldest daughter of King Leopold II and Queen Marie Henriette. As parents, these two were not stellar examples, albeit for different reasons.
Leopold, far more concerned with his cash than his kids, was uninvolved at best. Marie Henriette loved her children dearly, but love didn’t mean telling her teenage daughter about the birds and the bees.
Two weeks shy of her seventeenth birthday, Louise was married to her 31-year-old second cousin, Prince Philip of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
The morning after, Louise slipped away to cry in one of her father’s greenhouses. A sentry found her sobbing in her nightgown and slippers. Later, she wrote that her wedding night left her “bruised and mangled in her soul”; after they hauled her back to the palace, she was “more dead than alive.” ¹
According to Louise, Philip tried to transform her from a scared teenager into a pleasure-loving sybarite. He plied her with alcohol and gave her a belated sex education through erotic art and books.
At the same time, he controlled nearly every aspect of her daily life. He refused to allow her to drink her coffee black, for example and nixed her birthday request to go outside and drive a sledge.
This tight-fisted control only made Louise more determined to rebel. She became a self-absorbed party girl, the talk of Viennese society.
Not even the birth of two children could bring Louise and Philip back together. In 1881, she hid the fact that she’d gone into labor with their daughter because she didn’t want him around. She hid it so well that she gave birth before the midwife could get to her.
Not surprisingly, their marriage descended into a state of “open war” that would last for decades. ²
Love on the Run
In 1895, while out for a drive in Vienna, Louise locked eyes with a handsome young lieutenant. The moment was electric. He later wrote:
“…my whole being underwent a transformation…glimpses of her became vital to my existence.” ³
Louise was 37. He was ten years younger.
Louise and her lieutenant, Geza Mattacich-Keglevic, didn’t hide their attraction. When the relationship developed into an affair, Philip ratted her out to Emperor Franz Josef. The emperor banished Geza and forbid Louise to appear at court all winter.
The couple fled Austria, ignoring everything but their need to be together.
Louise also ignored anything that looked like a bill, spending money like water. She blamed her extravagance on Philip, calling it “a way of revenging myself for the constraints and pettiness of an oppressive avarice.” ⁴ Plus, she was sure she’d inherit millions from her father, who personally owned the Belgian Congo and would overlook any atrocity committed there as long as it made him money.
What did her husband make of all this?
According to Louise, Philip couldn’t let her — er, her inheritance — go. In 1898, he challenged Geza to a duel. But Geza won and returned to life with Louise in the south of France.
So Philip went back to the drawing board.
This time, he accused Geza of forging signatures on a promissory note to pay for their rock-and-roll lifestyle. Geza sent Louise to his mother for protection, but Austrian spies soon found them both. They arrested Geza on the forgery charge, but Philip had something else in mind for Louise.
His men broke into Louise’s room and gave her an ultimatum: return to Philip or be locked up in an asylum.
Louise chose the asylum.
Anticipating her response, Philip had sent along with a lawyer, doctor, nurse, and a pre-written diagnosis of insanity. They grabbed Louise, put her on a train, and locked her into a cell at the Doebling Asylum, just outside Vienna.
Later, Geza said that if he’d known what Philip had in mind, he’d have defended her with his life.
One Flew Out of the Cuckoo’s Nest
Like any public figure, Louise saw her life story play out in the newspapers. The whole world knew that she’d run away from Philip, been dragged back to Austria, and was interned at Doebling.
Louise’s Belgian family cut ties with her, embarrassed by her behavior and the diagnosis of insanity. But Louise interpreted their distance as proof she’d been railroaded:
“I was either mad or I was not mad. To abandon me thus showed that I was not.” ⁵
And she had a point. Someone truly insane couldn’t be held accountable for their actions. That person deserved care and sympathy; Louise received neither.
Four years later, Geza’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. He tracked Louise to a mental institution in Saxony, where she lived in comfort but was guarded by policemen and spies.
For three long years, he watched, waited, plotted, and planned.
One day, while out for a drive, a cyclist almost crashed into Louise’s carriage. She met the man’s eyes, and recognized him instantly — it was Geza.
For months, they arranged incognito meetings in the park and nearby woods. Once, Geza paid a boy to pass her a note that said only, “HOPE.” ⁶
When her doctors decided to send her to a spa in Bavaria, Geza knew this was his chance. He and Louise brought waiters, strangers, a night watchman, and Louise’s lady-in-waiting in on the plot.
One night, at 3 a.m., the institution’s night watchman knocked softly on Louise’s door. She hushed her small dog as they tiptoed past the other watchmen, out of the building, and ran into the woods, straight to a waiting Geza. Dressed as peasants, they made their way to Paris, where they were finally safe from Philip and Franz Josef.
Louise’s seven years of captivity were over.
The Most Expensive Shell Game Ever
Unfortunately, Louise still wasn’t safe from her own bad judgment — or the bill collectors.
Her mother had died while she was a captive, so she sued her father to try and get the money Marie Henriette had left her in her will. It didn’t work. Instead, he offered her hush money to leave Geza. Louise refused.
Her sister, Stephanie, didn’t treat her any better. When Louise and Philip officially divorced in 1907, Stephanie refused to speak to her, too ashamed of the scandal.
Retail therapy remained her only outlet for stress relief. She was banking — literally—on the fact that she’d inherit her father’s fantastic wealth. But she overestimated the size of his Grinch-like heart.
“The king has but two dreams, to die a billionaire, and to disinherit his daughters,” said a former Belgian Cabinet minister. ⁷
Leopold apparently missed his calling as a money launderer. He transferred 55 million francs of cash, art, and jewels to a German foundation for the sole purpose of keeping it out of his family’s hands. Another shell company owned 58 of his properties. At least 25 million in Congo bonds were scattered in “corporate hiding places.” ⁸
His plan worked.
After Leopold died in 1909, Louise realized she’d been effectively disinherited and sued again. The Belgian government agreed to pay her an allowance, but the paperwork was so tangled up that she didn’t see a dime for over five years.
Of Leopold’s millions, she received $300,000.⁹ Four years earlier, her debts had been estimated at around $3,000,000.¹⁰ You can guess how she felt about that outcome.
With no cash on hand, Louise and Geza drifted from Paris to Germany and back to Austria. Newspaper accounts of shadowy financial transactions followed them the entire time.
In 1913 alone, Louise was sued for backing out of a real estate purchase and accused of swindling a German engineer out of $1,000,000.¹¹ Why was she acting like a high roller? Because she was counting on yet another inheritance — $30 million whenever her aunt Charlotte passed away.¹²
But that windfall would never materialize, either. Charlotte outlived Louise by three years.
When World War I broke out, the Austrian government labeled the Belgian princess an “enemy subject” and asked her to leave. She and Geza made it as far as Bavaria, where a roadblock kept them from continuing to Belgium. They struggled to make ends meet, depending on the kindness of the Bavarian royals.
Then, in 1916, Geza was arrested and deported. Louise said this was just one more persecution aimed at her :
“The order had come from the highest authority to alienate everyone who cared for me.” ¹³
By 1917, her Bavarian creditors were fed up. They seized 72 trunks of clothes and accessories, selling them for a total of $20,500.¹⁴
The day before she was to be evicted from her hotel, a messenger from Geza arrived, tasked with spiriting her out of Germany. By pretending to be a village resident walking her dogs, she crossed into Austria and then Hungary without a passport.
But when the Austrian monarchy fell in 1918, Louise and Geza fled again, settling in Paris. It was their last stop together. When Geza died in 1923, the New York Times reported that Louise didn’t have the money to bury him. They said she had to rely on a kind American tourist who gave her the money.
Just one year later, Louise died penniless in Germany, with a picture of Geza clasped to her chest.
Her memoir, published in 1921, is heavy on the blame game — her trials and tribulations were always someone else’s fault. But in the midst of the self-pity, Louise also drops some surprisingly modern gems. The one that struck me as most appropriate? “The world dislikes a woman who defends herself.” ¹⁵
¹ Louise, Affairs, 60–1.
² Louise, Affairs, 70.
³ Times, September 11, 1904.
⁴ Louise, Affairs, 171.
⁵ Louise, Affairs, 173.
⁶ Louise, Affairs, 196.
⁷ Hochschild, Ghost, 275.
⁸ Hochschild, Ghost, 276.
⁹ Times, January 18, 1914.
¹⁰ Times, January 30, 1910.
¹¹ Times, September 14, 1913.
¹² Louise, Affairs, 234.
¹³ Louise, Affairs, 237.
¹⁴ Times, June 15, 1917.
¹⁵ Louise, Affairs, 174.
Aronson, Theo. The Coburgs of Belgium. London: Cassel and Company, 1968.
Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost. New York: Mariner Books, 2020.
Louise, The Princess of Belgium. My Own Affairs. Translated by Maude M.C. ffoulkes. London: Cassell and Company, Limited. 1921.
The New York Times