DESPITE THE PIQUANT title, Joan Haslip's The Emperor and the Actress2 is not a strudel-mit- schlag romance but an intelligent popular biography of three remarkable people in the last years of the Hapsburg Empire. Society sparkled still, but by the time of his Diamond Jubilee in 1908, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary had lost almost everything that mattered to him. His armies had been driven out of his lands in Italy and Germany, and he had been forced to grant virtual autonomy to Hungary. What remained of the six-century-old empire was a restive assortment of Germans, Poles, Magyars, Czechs and Slovenes. They had been held together by policies like that of his former minister Count Taaffe: "Keep all the nationalities in a balanced state of dissatisfaction." But dissatisfaction led to dismemberment, and only his death in 1916 spared Franz Josef the fireworks of the Hapsburg Gotterdammerung.

By 1908, moreover, the emperor's charming but only son Crown Prince Rudolf was long dead, by his own hand and with a murdered mistress, at Mayerling. His most gifted brother, Maximilian (the subject of another book by Haslip) had been assassinated by a Mexican firing squad. In 1898 the Empress Elisabeth was stabbed by an Italian anarchist, ending her beauty, her bravery, her melancholy and her compulsive wanderings, but not her neglected husband's adulation of her. For all these deaths and land losses Franz Josef could believe himself in part responsible. Finally he had even alienated his nephew and heir by rigidly opposing the prince's choice of a bride. The compromise, a morganatic marriage, embittered everyone. Some years later the emperor was to answer coolly, "Do as you please," when Franz Ferdinand expressed misgivings about his scheduled trip to Sarajevo.

Despite the jewels plucked or fallen from his crown, the emperor had three gems still to console him, his city, his people and Katharina Schratt. To the extent he had earned them, it was not by war or even diplomacy, the weapons of his youth, but by drudgery at his desk, tact, generosity and stiff courtesy. Even by his white hairs. The imperial city of Vienna, however turbulent the empire or the country, was at its splendid zenith. His people, forgiving him his youthful cruel autocracy, welcomed his mild paternal autocracy. He was an iconic father figure, parallel to the matriarch on the British throne who had already celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. But he had mellowed as Victoria toughened; her tart letters are one of the pleasures of this book. His main consolation though was Katharina, the adorable warm-hearted actress who with her loving letters, March violets, useful presents and rare but precious visits still provided what historian Edward Crankshaw calls "his sole truly human relationship."

The leading actress of the imperial Burgtheater for decades, she was "essentially frivolous and essentially good." She charmed everyone, from the stray dogs she sheltered, the palace servants she treated kindly, her fellow actors whom she helped, to the European ambassadors and Balkan princes whom she entertained so delightfully. She even captivated somber Empress Elisabeth who commissioned Kathi's portrait as a gift for the emperor. The romance began with his letter to Katharina with "grateful thanks" for this "cherished gift." Katharina was touched and awed by the letter, amazed by the magnificent emerald ring that came with it.

The great beauty of both the empress and the actress, and their polarity in all other respects, made them resemble archetypes, heroines of myth, fairy tales and men's dreams. The dark Elisabeth was regal, tall and slender, haunted, hypersensitive. Blonde Kathi was cosy, plump and vivacious and affectionate. Back from sailing the Ionian sea or hunting in England, at her rare court appearances Elisabeth in her dark robes and mournful visage, especially after Rudolf's death, was a symbol of tragedy. The fine stage curtain for the Ringstrasse's new Burgtheater bore a painting of Comedy, for which Katherina was the model. Little Miss Sunshine and the Queen of the Night, Diana and Venus--in relation to the emperor one is tempted to see them as Sacred and Profane Love. But as Joan Haslip depicts them here and in her earlier biography of Elisabeth (The Lonely Empress, (1965) this concept is a little simplistic. Franz Josef did worship his wife, but she was a Byronic heroine rather than the angel he called her, at best a saint seriously manqu,e. His love for Katharina was surely sensuous yet it was paternal too and appears in his letters as more tender than passionate. And while it seems that historians have sorted out the important facts in the sensational Mayerling "mystery," it is unlikely that anyone will ever solve all the mysteries of the relationship between and among the Emperor, the Empress and the actress.

Among those mysteries are the nature of the shock that so alienated the empress from the most devoted of husbands, and the explanation for his extreme indulgence of her neglect, as a wife and as a queen. What drew the proud empress to the actress so that she called her her "adopted sister," treated her like a daughter, and with Franz Josef always referred to her as The Friend? And of course what was the relationship between the emperor and Katharina? It seems likely that she was not his mistress, yet neither was he merely the "fatherly friend" he calls himself in his letters. Haslip suggests a platonic romance, an amiti,e amoureuse. This seems supported by contemporary opinion, Elisabeth's magnanimity, Katharina's independence, and most particularly by the emperor's devotion to his wife and his noble sense of civic duty. Further evidence for a courtly love affair emerges in his letters (hers were destroyed) and nowhere more touchingly than in a letter written in anticipation of a walk with her in the snowy gardens of Schoenbrunn palace: "Perhaps the ground will be sufficiently slippery to permit me to hold your arm."