'Nature never intended me for obscurity,' Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte to her father in 1815.
Although little known today outside her native Baltimore or to Napoleon scholars, Elizabeth Bonaparte Patterson was a well-known beauty in her day. Her marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte's younger brother, made her a well-known celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, and allowed her entree into the highest echelon of society.
Elizabeth or Betsy as she was known was the daughter of William Patterson, who emigrated from Ulster in Ireland and grew to be the second richest man in Baltimore after Charles Carroll, making his fortune in business, finally ending up as the owner of a line of clipper ships (Patterson Park is named after him). She met Jerome Bonaparte at a ball given by Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence in the fall of 1803. Joseph fell for her immediately. Although his English was limited, she spoke French fluently.
Jerome who was born in 1784, was a lieutenant in the French navy, second in command of the warship Epervier in the Caribbean, when he decided while he wanted to visit the fledgling United States. He wrote to his brother for permission which was promptly denied. Jerome decided to ignore his brother and go anyway. Leaving the warship in Martinique, he set off with his doctor, secretary and several servants. While he was gone, his ship was captured by an enemy vessel. Arriving in Virginia, Jerome traveled to Washington DC where he introduced himself to the French ambassador. He also made the acquaintance of a man named Joshua Barney, a naval officer, who introduced Jerome to Baltimore society.
Although they had not known each other for very long, Jerome proposed soon after they met, and the wedding was scheduled for November 3d. Although he was initially for the idea, her father changed his mind when he received an anonymous letter detailing Jerome's somewhat unsavory past. The letter claimed that Jerome had 'ruined' many a young lady and he would marry Elizabeth only 'to secure a home at your expense' until he returned to France, after which time, he would 'laugh at your credulity.' As any decent father would have been, William Patterson was alarmed by what he had read, and withdrew his support for the marriage. He sent Elizabeth away to stay with relatives in Virgina.
But the love birds were not to be denied. Elizabeth declared as only the young can that she 'would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for life.' She had no idea how prophetic that statement would turn out to be. Her father only gave his consent when Elizabeth threatened to run away with Jerome and elope. Instead they were married on Christmas Eve 1803 by the Mayor of Baltimore as well as John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States (to make sure the marriage was doubly legal!). The bride's dress was so flimsy that one of the guests declared that it would fit in his pocket.
The newlyweds settled down in Baltimore where they were feted by society. Their every movement was recorded in the papers of the day, while people clamored to get a glimpse of them. Elizabeth continued to dress in a risque manner, wearing gowns that were so transparent that her body could be seen through the material. While such fashions were not unheard of in France, they were positively scandalous in Puritan America. Elizabeth ignored the warnings that her unorthodox fashion sense might ruin her social standing, declaring that the bold styles made her stand out. She was right.
Historian Charlene Boyer-Lewis writes that 'Elizabeth never shrank from attention, as well-mannered ladies were supposed to do, and she always carefully dressed for them. Her clothing helped to maintain the celebrity status that she not only loved, but also considered a necessary part of her life." Clearly Elizabeth knew the any press is good press and dressing like a star long before such behavior became commonplace.
Meanwhile back in Europe, the news of Jerome's marriage to Elizabeth gave Napoleon severe agita. Napoleon had plans for his siblings and they did not include marrying upstart Americans, no matter how rich they might be. He refused to acknowledge the marriage and insisted on referring to Elizabeth as 'Miss Patterson.' He ordered his brother to come home immediately, without his wife. He made it quite clear that Elizabeth was not to set one dainty foot on French soil. Jerome, as stubborn and willful as his brother, refused his summons.
The United States government got involved when President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison assured the first consul that they had no control over the marriage of American citizen. Jefferson had just entered into negotiations with France over the purchase of the Louisiana territory, and he didn't want anything to screw up the deal.
While Napoleon was displeased, the rest of the Bonaparte family was not. His brother Lucien assured her father that 'the entire family fully and unanimously approved of Jerome's marraige,' that they 'were highly pleased and proud of the union.' Napoleon's was the 'only dissenting voice.' And it was a loud one. He was already displeased that Lucien had married the illiterate sister of an innkeeper and Caroline's husband Joachim Murat, was the son of an innkeeper. As far as Napoleon was concerned, marrying for love was for other people, his brothers and sisters were his to command, and he needed to them to ally himself with Europe's reigning monarchs.
Napoleon insisted that Jerome annul the marriage, but Jerome refused. He felt that Napoleon could meet his bride, he would be won over the way that he was. It was a battle of wills and there could be only one winner. In the fall of 1804, Jerome and Elizabeth set off for France, after learning that Napoleon had declared himself emperor. The plan was to attend his coronation, but with the bad luck that would plague them, their ship was hit by a storm as it left the harbor and sank. The couple barely escaped and all their wedding gifts and other possessions were lost, including several thousands of dollars in gold, were lost in Baltimore harbor.
Not wanting to miss the event of a lifetime, they hired another ship but it was turned back by British warships. They ended up missing the coronation, but Elizabeth's father provided them with one of his own ships to sail them across to Europe. However, when they arrived in Lisbon, an emissary from the Emperor informed them that 'Miss Patterson' was not to set foot on European soil. Elizabeth Patterson was not going to take this treatment lying down. 'Tell your master that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family," she reportedly said.
Faced with the reality that changing Napoleon's mind was going to be harder than they thought and that his arm stretched across most of Europe, the couple decided that Elizabeth would go to Amsterdam to deliver the baby, and he would proceed to Milan where his brother was crowning himself King of Rome. Jerome would confront his brother, but as he wrote to his wife, "the worst that could happen now would be for us to live quietly in some foreign country.' Elizabeth never saw her husband again.
In Rome, Jerome was given an ultimatum, either give up Elizabeth or face ruin. Napoleon not only threatened to strip his brother of all his titles, remove him from the line of succession, but also refused to pay his huge debts. He would also be banned from France and all its territories, which at the time encompassed msot of Europe. Basically he would be broke and homeless. Jerome, despite all his fine talk to his wife, agreed to abandon her. As a reward for his acquiesence to his brother's will, Napoleon made Jerome, King of Westphalia and married him off to Princess Catherine of Wurttemberg, despite the fact that the marriage was bigamous. Unable to pressure the Pope into annulling the marriage, no matter, Napoleon just decided to have the marriage declared invalid in the Frence courts.
Meanwhile Elizabeth was stuck on board her ship in Amsterdam. Fearing the wrath of the Emperor, if they allowed her into the country, officials refused to let her off the ship. Tired of bouncing around from port to port, Elizabeth set sail for England where she gave birth to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte on July 7, 1805. Jerome had the nerve to write her a letter stating that he would never abandon her, that he would give his life for her and their child.
Elizabeth decided to return to Baltimore with her son. Despite her rejection by Napoleon and her abandonment by her husband, Elizabeth still acted like a member of the imperial family. She had a coach ordered with the Bonaparte coat of arms painted on the side, and always reminded people of exactly who she was. She continued to call herself Madame Bonaparte, attending balls and other social functions as scantily clad as ever.
In 1808, Jerome wrote to her asking her to send their son to him. She refused. Several years later, he wrote again, declaring that he would set Elizabeth up in her own castle in the kingdom. Again Elizabeth refused, declaring that she would not only never give up her son, but Jerome's kingdom was not big enough for two Queens. Eventually, she would accept a yearly pension from Napoleon on the proviso that she give up the rights to the name Bonaparte.
After Napoleon's final fall from power in 1815, she went to live in Europe, having decided that America was not fit society for one such as her. She settled in England for a time where her sister-in-law, Marianne married Richard Wellesley, the older brother of the Duke of Wellington and Marquess of Wellesley in his own right. She had already sought a divorce from Jerome by a special act of the Maryland legislature in 1812. With her son, she went to visit her former sister in-law Pauline Borghese, who introduced Elizabeth and her son Jerome, to Rome society. Madame Mere, as Napoleon's mother was called, and Pauline tried to arrange a match with Joseph's eldest daughter Charlotte, who had lived in exile with her father in the United States, living for a time on an estate called Point Breeze in Bordertown New Jersey.
Elizabeth was a bit of a snob, cynical and ambitious for her son, her main interest in life seemed to be money and rank. During her twenty-five years in Europe, she wrote numerable letters to her father about how loathsome America, and her hometown Baltimore was. 'I hated and loathed a residence in Baltimore so much that when I thought I was to spend my life there I tried to screw up my courage to the point of committing suicide.' She felt that in Europe she had found her rightful place in the world. She wrote to her father that in Europe, 'Here I am completely in my sphere and in contact with modes of life for which nature intended me.' The only time she sent foot in her native city was to attend to financial matters.
She never married again, preferring her status as the former Mrs. Jerome Bonaparte, sister-in-law to the late Emperor. During her time in Europe, she became more regal than royalty, much admired for her beauty and wit. Although Jerome turned out to be a weak jerk, she was proud of the fact that she had married the brother of the Emperor. Their paths crossed but once in a museum in Florence in 1822. Jerome quickly hustled away his wife before they were seen, telling her,'That is my American wife.' Betsy never knew he was there. Her son, Jerome Napoleon, met his father for the first time in 1826, who wanted him to remain in Europe but Jerome declined, writing to his grandfather Patterson, 'I cannot think of settling outside of America. I am too attached and accustomed to its government, manners, and customs to find pleasure in those of Europe.'
Her son, Bo, proved to be a true Bonaparte by defying her wish that he marry into royalty by marrying an American woman, Susan Mary Williams, an heiress worth $200,000. She was the daughter of Benjamin Williams, the founder of the first railroad company in America, the Baltimore and Chesepeake. Betsy was incensed that her son would marry an American, when she was still holding out hopes that he would marry royalty. She wrote to her father, 'You and the son of Prince Jerome Bonaparte had been told so often by me that I considered a marriage between him and any American woman so much beneath him that I would never, for any consideration, consent to it. I can only repeat that if it takes place I shall declare publicly that I was not consulted, that my consent was not asked, that my opinion always was and always will be that he ought to live single unless he marries suitably to his connections in Europe.' Fortunately for young Bo, his grandfather did not receive the letter until after the wedding.
They were married in 1829. William Patterson gave the newlyweds a plot of land on which Jerome built a manion to live in. Although he had graduated from Harvard Law School, Jerome never practiced, prefering the life of a country gentleman. A year later, his mother still wasn't reconciled to his marriage, her father continued to try and console her, telling her not to be bitter. Eventually she came to terms with it, writing that her son , 'not having my pride, my ambition, or my utter abhorrence for to vulgar company' had the 'right to pursue the course he prefers.' Napoleon III eventually restored Jerome's right to use the name Bonaparte, much to his father's dismay, but he was denied any title, nor was he ever added to the line of succession.
Elizabeth eventually moved back to Baltimore where she died in 1879, extremely grumpy but rich at the age of 94. She left and estate of one and a half million dollars to her grandsons, her son having preceded her to the grave by nine years. She is buried in Greenmount Cemetary in Baltimore. The epitaph on her grave reads 'After life's fitful fever she sleeps well.' As for Jerome, he and his second wife Princess Catherine had two children, Napoleon and Mathilde. He later moved to Italy and remarried after his wife died to an Italian noblewoman. When his nephew Louis Napoleon became President of the French Republic in 1848, Jerome was made the governor of Les Invalides in Paris, the burial place of Napoleon. After Louis Napoleon became Emperor Napoleon III, Jerome was recognized as his heir presumptive until the Empress Eugenie gave birth to a son. He later became Marshal of France and President of the Senate. He died in 1860, and is also buried in Les Invalides, having left no provision for his eldest son in his will. Of course, Elizabeth, feisty as always, filed a lawsuit against the remaining Bonapartes, as she tried to have Bo declared a legitimate heir, which she lost.
Jerome and Elizabeth's two grandsons served the United States with distinction. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law. Her served in Theodore Roosevelt's cabinet as the United States Secretary of the Navy as well as Attorney General. Later on he helped to found the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), the precursor to the FBI. His older brother, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, studied at West Point and served in Texas with the Mounted Rifles. He later resigned his commision with the U.S. Army to serve in the army of Napoleon III, seeing action in the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War.
In the early part of the twentieth century, her story was the basis for a play written in 1908 by actress and playwright Rida Johnson Young (a native of Baltimore) called Glorious Betsy which was filmed twice once as a silent film in 1928 and the second time in 1936 as Hearts Divided starring William Randolph Hearst's mistress Marion Davies.