CARLOTA—Mexico´s Lost Empress
By Morgan Bedford
She had many names and titles, but the one that has gone down in history was Carlota, Empress of Mexico. The only daughter of Leopold I of Belgium and Louise, Princess of Orleans, Carlota was born near Brussels on June 7, 1840.
In 1857, a handsome and unattached Hapsburg Prince was rumored to be seeking a bride. That bride turned out to be Carlota, whom he didn’t love but felt she might make a suitable match. In time, however, Maximilian would virtually worship at her feet and it was Carlota, who burning with enthusiasm, talked Maximilian into accepting the tenuous position of Emperor of Mexico, a post which had been offered to him by Napoleon III of France.
But her story, sans the fickle fates of history, could have been little more than a potpourri of European titles mixed together by blood lines. Instead, it is the stirring saga of one woman´s long and remarkable stay on earth.
The year Carlota died, Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. The year she was born, the Opium Wars raged in Asia and Hong Kong belonged to China. Does this sound familiar 170 years later?
Anyone born before 1927 was a contemporary of Carlota´s. Mr. Webster defines contemporary as “existing, living or coming into being at the same period of time.” Still, it is rather shocking to realize that you may qualify as a contemporary of The Empress of Mexico.
The story of Maximilian and Carlota is also shocking, though the ill-fated Hapsburg prince did not strut on the stage of history for long. He was court marshaled and shot at Queretaro, Mexico, on June 19, 1867. Yet for fully a year before that, he knew he was beaten when Napoleon III withdrew the French troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilian to face the future with little more than confused bravado and befuddled behavior.
During this agonizing interim, Carlota took a ship for Europe in the hope of saving her husband from his helpless plight. But nary a royal door opened for her. In desperation, she sought the aid of Pope Pius IX. The Pope refused, however, to use his influence. In turn, Carlota refused to leave the Vatican until he did so. The Pope, at wit´s end, finally had a cot installed for her in his apartment and Carlota spent the night. This is the first and only time in recorded history that a woman slept in the abode of St. Peter´s Vicar.
Though Carlota had reigned as Empress of Mexico for 18 months, this did little to impress the European powers, which had her pronounced incurably insane at age 27. But was she?
Incarcerated in the Chateau de Bouchout near Brussels, Carlota refused to surrender crown and scepter, obeying something stronger than mere caprice. She knew that one did not cast aside the highest earthly rank. One died with it.
From what amounted to a high-class prison, Carlota watched the world change for the next 60 years. Yet how truly insane was she? And was she hanging onto to her last possession, her lost crown and all it represented. She wanted to be an empress until the end.
Of this last grand period of European royalty, only Carlota of Mexico would survive to view the twilight of the royalty in France, Brazil, Russia, Austria, and Germany. She watched the sunset of five dynasties: Bonaparte, Braganza, Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern.
During the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, a Prussian officer nailed a plaque above her gate: “This castle, the property of the Belgium crown, is occupied by Her Majesty, The Empress of Mexico, sister-in-law of our revered ally, The Emperor of Austria. German soldiers are ordered to pass by without singing and to leave this place untouched.”
Death came quietly on January 16, 1927, She was 86. Her long hold on life had been a monument to Maximilian, and while she lived, she would not allow the world to forget him.
Years after the fall of Maximilian, the Cuban actress/singer, Concha Mendez, appeared in Mexico City. The audience clamored for La Paloma Liberal, a parody of the song so loved by Carlota. The singer paled as she faced her public. “Never shall I do what you ask, Senores. I wear on my wrist the bracelet given to me by an unhappy princess who today weeps alone. Widowed and mad and very far from our country. Neither I nor the Mexican nation, to which I am joined by my heart and my cradle, shall insult the memory of a prince mowed down at Queretaro, nor that of a noble lady who in place of a queenly diadem wears now the martyr´s crown.”
A great wave of emotion swept across the audience. The courage Concha Mendez had shown in the face of a hostile government met with a stirring response. Never again was she importuned to render the ballad that made her famous. Today, with the possible exception of those haunts frequented by tourists, La Paloma is not heard below the Rio Grande.
“I was to blame, my beloved darling, for everything, But now I am happy. You have triumphed. You are part of God´s victory over Evil. Your eyes look down on me from every place and I hear your voice everywhere.” Such were the letters Carlota wrote during the sixty years after she had lost Maximilian, the great love of her life.
But to return to the central question. Was Carlota actually insane? Or had she been only temporarily deranged when she had failed to secure help for her beloved Maximilian, and then later realized she had lost everything but her title and her memories. There is a third, more sinister scenario. She had been placed under house arrest, a political prisoner who was the actual heir to the throne of Belgium, and a potential heir to the Hapsburg throne, as well. Yet without outside help or support, the former Empress finally resigned herself to living inside a gilded cage. There she would live for the last sixty years of her life.
Today, historians are still uncertain about the exact causes of Carlota´s fate. But one thing sure was her great love for Mexico. Even toward the very end, her nurses had only to hum a few bars of La Paloma to becalm this courageous woman who for one brief moment in history had reigned over the lyrical land of Mexico.
(Ed. Note: In 1939, Warner Bros. Studio sent a full cast and crew to the Vera Cruz area, where they toiled for some six months making the movie Juarez. The film starred Paul Muni as Juarez, Brian Aherne as Maximilian and Bette Davis as Carlota, with a screenplay by John Huston, among others. For more than 15 years, it was the second most expensive movie ever made, after only Gone With the Wind. Today, it is regarded as one of the most magnificent movies ever made about Mexico.)