A romantic young prince, involved with a woman his family disapproves of, takes his own life in a violent act that rocks the country, despite the stunned survivors' efforts to hush up the scandal.
It sounds like what has been happening in Nepal, where Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly massacred nine members of the royal family and then fatally shot himself after a quarrel over the woman he wanted to marry.
But more than a century ago, the heir to the throne of Austria and his teenage mistress died in a murder-suicide pact that altered the future of an empire.
Because of the bizarre circumstances of the deaths, and the imperial family's frantic efforts to hide the scandal, a lot of questions still surround the tragedy at Mayerling.
"The whole thing has never really been solved," says Theo Aronson, a historical royal biographer based in England.
A Troubled Young Man
The most obvious question, of course, is Why? Crown Prince Rudolf, as the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I, could expect to one day rule over a vast territory with a multi-ethnic population that included Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians.
Rudolf and his father did not get along. "There was a clash of generation," says Aronson. "He and his father didn't see eye to eye politically. He was more liberal, more open-minded, more progressive."
And it appeared that Rudolf would have a very long time to wait before he got out from under his father's thumb. Franz Joseph ascended the throne in 1848 and stayed firmly upon it till his death in 1916.
"There was this idea that the heir apparent was never going to come into his own," says William Bowman, a professor of history at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
While he was waiting to inherit, Rudolf spent his time drinking, dabbling with drugs and disporting himself with the ladies of Vienna. He also struggled with psychological stress and perhaps mental illness.
"He was a highly emotional young man," says Aronson. "There was instability in the whole family."
Rudolf may have inherited this tendency from his mother, the beautiful but self-obsessed Empress Elisabeth, whose family, the Wittelsbachs, included the "Mad King" Ludwig of Bavaria.
The crown prince was also unhappy in his marriage to Princess Stephanie of Belgium. He was not a faithful husband, and in the fall of 1888 the 30-year-old prince took up with a girl of 17 named Mary Vetsera.
A Romantic Girl
Mary came from the petty nobility, but she would never have been considered a suitable bride for Rudolf, even if he had been free. The prince made the pretty teen his mistress, but he never showed signs of being in love with her.
"He used her in order to make this grand gesture," says Aronson.
Mary, on the other hand, was dazzled.
"She was thrilled," says Aronson. "One doesn't realize nowadays what being the son of an emperor meant then. She was so thrilled and flattered."
For Mary, says Aronson, "this was a romantic thing. They would have a love pact. They would die like Romeo and Juliet."
There is a grim hint that Rudolf had been shopping around for the right girl to take with him to the afterlife. In December 1888, an ex-dancer named Mitzi Kaspar went to the police with a story that the crown prince had tried to interest her in a suicide pact, according to The Lonely Empress, by Joan Haslip (World Publishing Co.). She was sent away with a warning that she would be prosecuted if she ever again uttered a word about this.
In any event, it was Mary who accompanied the prince to the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling. On Jan. 30, 1889, their bodies were found in his bedroom.
Rudolf shot Mary first, then waited some time before taking his own life. "He sat for several hours with the body there, then turned the gun on himself," says Aronson.
A Royal Cover-Up
The only thing the horrified Hapsburgs could do was to try to hide the truth. Certainly it would never do for the world to know that the heir to the throne had been a murderer who then took his own life.
Various explanations for Rudolf's death were given: It was a heart attack; it was an accident; perhaps he was even poisoned.
As for Mary, all traces of her had to be gotten rid of, at once.
"Poor Mary Vetsera," says Aronson. "They pretended it didn't happen. They dressed the corpse up, put a hat on her and drove her back to Vienna" with the girl's unfortunate uncles sitting in the carriage beside the propped-up corpse.
"They buried her in the dead of night," says Aronson.
Mary was fairly easily disposed of, but the questions about Rudolf were harder to deflect. The imperial family didn't do a very good enough job at hiding their tracks. "They did it in such a poor fashion, there were stories that kept circulating," says Bowman.
Within a week, he says, the story was being reported in places like Britain, where newspapers, anxious to lure a mass readership, were always in search of sensational stories. The public, and royal families throughout Europe, were shocked and titillated.
"Queen Victoria couldn't get enough of it," says Aronson.
Inevitably, conspiracy theories began. It became, says Aronson, "one of the great royal mysteries."
Still, says Bowman, today "most people agree that he shot her and then himself."
A Threat to the Monarchy
The death of Rudolf was not only a tragedy for his family; it was a huge blow for his dynasty. The crown prince was dead, with no son or brother to follow him. The new heir apparent was a cousin of Rudolf, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, precipitated the First World War.
"When he dies, it's a blow to the old monarchy," says Bowman. The grisly events of Mayerling provided fodder for anti-monarchists, and "the whole institution of monarchy is under further stress."
In the 20th century, the sad, sordid tale of Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera took on new life. It became the basis of several books and movies, including a 1968 film, Mayerling, which starred Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve.
Mayerling itself is now a popular destination for foreign tourists, says Bowman. But, he adds, some Austrians find it strange that the place and the events that took place there have become so sensationalized and commercialized.