The unprecedented topless duel between an Austrian princess and a Russian countess in the 19th century

If we talk about ladies from the Viennese and Parisian courts, we can only imagine delicate beauties dressed in floriponds, languid and fragile as butterflies, in the vein of Sissi. But today we are going to look at an exception: a woman who, as is now said, set the trend in fashion, introduced her blue-blooded colleagues to the mysteries of tobacco and showed the men that she could skate as well as they did.

A woman who was a patron of some of the most important artists of her time. She is a princess of arms and literally also, because apart from all of the above, she even starred in a duel with a countess with a bare torso. We are speaking, in short, of the ineffable Paulina de Metternich.

Pauline Clémentine de Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein was born in Vienna on February 25, 1836, in a curious international context: just two days ago the Mexican army had begun the siege of the Alamo and one day that a certain Samuel Colt patented a new and promising type of revolver; in Spain liberals and carlists continued to kill each other mercilessly, while the Confiscation Law promulgated by Minister Mendizábal the previous week began to be applied; Darwin was making his momentous circumnavigation of the world aboard the HMS Beagle and in England came into force the Marriage Actwhich legalized civil marriage.

The Europe of those years was still marked by the dictates of the Congress of Vienna, held between 1814 and 1815 after the fall of Napoleon to restore the previous borders and establish the foundations of the Old Regime, which were tottering after the American and French revolutions. the commotion caused by the Bonapartist period and that Revolution of 1830 that gave rise to the nationalist movements. the absolutist powers that made up the Holy Alliance were Russia, Prussia and Austria; Paulina’s family belonged to the latter, since Hungary was under the control of the Austrian Empire as an inheritance from the Habsburgs.

Paulina’s father was Móric Sándor, a nobleman of recognized prestige as a horseman, and her mother Leontine von Metternich-Winneburg, daughter of Klemens von Metternich (one of the protagonists of the aforementioned Viennese congress and creator of the concept iron europe to refer to a continent that was reborn under the precept of absolutism); therefore, the young woman she was the chancellor’s granddaughter. She spent almost all of her childhood in Vienna, so she had the opportunity to see the Revolution of 1948 up close, the so-called Spring of the Peoples which from France spread like wildfire through several countries and put an end to the Old Regime in most of them except Russia.

In 1856, she married her own uncle, Prince Richard von Metternich (with which her grandfather also became her father-in-law), with whom she had a happy life despite her husband’s frequent love affairs, with actresses and opera singers, just like so many other blue-blooded men did, just as the canons mandated.

They had three daughters, of which only the eldest, Sophie, had a normal existence; the other two, Pascaline and Clementine, were not very lucky: the first of hers was murdered by her alcoholic husband and the youngest was disfigured as a child by an attack by a dog that destroyed her face, for which she never left. case.

Returning to Pauline, as Richard was a diplomat, they both traveled around the European courts and even settled in Napoleon III’s Paris until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 forced them to pack up again. But during that time she became a social and cultural reference, a socialite that transmitted trends and news from one capital to another. She founded a literary salon and organized amateur operas in which she herself tried to sing.

Thus, and with the complicity of Eugenia de Montijo, with whom he became a close friend, he alternated with masters of the arts and music such as the writers Próspero Merimée and Alejandro Dumas, the composers Charles Gounod, Bedřich Smetana and Camille Saint-Saëns, or fashion designers like Charles Frederick Worth. She made a special mention for Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, whom she befriended, further boosting her career; the first of hers even dedicated a work for piano to her, despite the fact that she made the mistake of attending her proposal to arrange a French version of Tannhäuser that ended up being booed and had to be cancelled.

When Napoleon III and Eugenia were forced to go into exile, it was Paulina who was in charge of saving their jewels by sending them to them by diplomatic bag. On the other hand, he did not get along so well with Elizabeth of Austria, the famous Sissí, with whom he had a terrible relationship that the whole society followed as attentively as a gossip and from 1898, when Sissí passed away, he left Paulina as the absolute protagonist. Viennese high society, perhaps in the company of Princess Eleonora Fugger von Babenhausen. And what she herself described as “the best dressed monkey in Paris” and left for posterity a phrase imitated a thousand times: «Je ne suis pas jolie, je suis pire» (I’m not pretty, I’m worse).

But much of his popularity is due to an unusual episode that he starred in a few years earlier, in the summer of 1892: nothing less than a duel to first blood with the Russian countess, originally from Bessarabia, Anastasia Kielmannsegg, wife of a German aristocrat. The cause of such extreme measure was a discussion about who would have the last word in the floral arrangements for the Vienna Music and Theater Exhibition, of which Paulina was honorary president while Anastasia was listed as president of the event’s Ladies’ Committee, although deep down they competed to be the influencers of his time. Each one brought together different supports around her on the social scale, according to the Marquise de Fontenoy: if the oldest lineage was aligned with the countess, Paulina had her popular sympathies.

The event took place in Vaduz (Liechtenstein), with Princess Schwazenberg and Countess Kinsky as respective godmothers, in addition to having the health care of Baroness Lubinska, who had a degree in Medicine. It was precisely the doctor who proposed to the duelists to fight bare-chested to prevent a piece of clothing from getting into a wound, something that at the time used to cause serious infections and even death; they listened to him and, thus, to the unheard of thing was added to do it in topless. It wasn’t really the first female duel but they were certainly rare.

This was agreed to three rounds and was settled with old rapiers following the French regulations. In the last lap, Paulina received a slight wound to her nose and the Countess another to her arm, which caused a tragicomic moment when the godmothers fainted at the sight of the blood and the men present (coachmen and footmen) ran to help them but were expelled. umbrellas by the baroness to prevent them from seeing the half-naked duelists; and that these were not exactly young, because Paulina was fifty-six years old and Anastasia forty-two. In any case, all this was considered sufficient by the restored godmothers, who recommended that the contestants end the duel and hug each other as friends.

They did so, without it being clear if either one was considered the winner, since if Anastasia had damaged her opponent first, it was Paulina who caused a more important injury. Both continued their lives without sequelae. Paulina’s was long, since she already passed away in 1921, when she was considered a character from another era because she had left behind two empires, the French and the Austrian. The two books of memoirs that she wrote and that were published posthumously attest to this.


Stealing Sisi’s star (Jennifer Bowers Bahney)/Paris reborn. Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann and the quest to build a modern city (Stephane Kirkland)/A complete bibliography of fencing and dueling (Carl Albert Thimm)/Wikipedia