Aug 13, 2020, 05:57AM

Betsy and Jérôme

Marriage to the brother of the most powerful man in Europe was a brilliant investment.

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Gilbert Stuart’s triple portrait of Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson was painted in 1804, just before her 20th birthday. He portrayed a strikingly beautiful woman, impish, elegant, and flirtatious: only the profile betrays determination. Apparently, it was a true portrait.

In July, 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon’s younger brother, bored by a junior naval officer’s career, arrived in New York from a Caribbean tour of duty. His brother’s fame opened every door to him. He called on President Jefferson in Washington and went to Baltimore. There he met Betsy, whose father had made his fortune as an arms dealer during the American Revolution. They danced at a ball, and her gown was snagged by a chain on Jérôme's tunic. Contemporary accounts, like her portraits, describe her extraordinary physical appeal, with delicate features, exquisite skin, pink and white complexion, and a full-bosomed, wasp-waisted figure.

Though inexperienced, Betsy was far from naïve. Marriage to the brother of the most powerful man in Europe was a brilliant investment. Speaking with more prescience than she knew, Betsy declared she would rather be the wife of Jérôme Bonaparte for one hour than of any other man for life.

As for Jérôme, his infatuation was immediate, importunate, and passionate as only that of the shallow can be. When Betsy made clear the path to her bed ran through the chapel, Jérôme borrowed money from the French chargé d'affaires for the wedding expenses. On Christmas Eve, 1803, they were married by Bishop Carroll, the ranking Roman Catholic ecclesiastic in the United States. Betsy, who saw her bust as a challenge to all her sex, made the most of her advantages with a gown so flimsy and so sheer one might fold it up and pop it into one’s pocket.

Napoleon learned of the happy event through a British newspaper. He ordered Jérôme home immediately. Jérôme didn’t return for a year, hoping time would weaken Napoleon’s rage. In March, 1805, they embarked for Europe in one of her father's ships, the Erin. At Lisbon, the French ambassador informed them that "Miss Patterson" wouldn’t be allowed to enter France.

"Tell your master," Betsy replied, "that Madame Bonaparte…demands her rights as a member of the Imperial family." Jérôme persuaded her to continue traveling while he went to talk with his brother. He promised to return soon, and as she wept prettily, he swore love was eternal.

She would not see him for 17 years.

Napoleon’s rage was terrifying. He refused to see Jérôme without an unconditional submission. Even then, Napoleon threatened him with court-martial, destitution, and imprisonment. Napoleon had already decreed Jérôme’s marriage null and any offspring from it illegitimate. When Betsy gave birth to a son, Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte, on July 7, 1805, Jerome hoped the news might soften the Emperor’s heart. Napoleon responded, "Your union with Miss Patterson is null and void in the eyes of both religion and the law." This was not quite true: the marriage was valid in the United States and the Holy Father refused its annulment.

But Jérôme surrendered. He rejoined the navy by July and would be a rear admiral within months, though barely 21. He wrote to Betsy advising her to go home to Baltimore. Then he returned to serial fornication.

As Napoleon dictated the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, he ensured its terms created a new kingdom, Westphalia, out of several German principalities. On August 8, 1807, Prince Jérôme (his brother had made him a Prince of the Empire for Christmas, 1806) became its King. Later that month, he married Princess Catherine of Württemberg, an intelligent, sweet-natured, and very shy girl. She fell in love with him immediately.

Jérôme immediately went to work—on party after party, ball after ball. An observer wrote, "He played at being king as little girls play at being grown-up women." Playing with grown-up women, in fact, was his real interest. He even invited Betsy to Westphalia. She replied Westphalia was too small for two Queens. The Kingdom became insolvent while he spent millions on the opera and the theater: he even appeared in the title role of The Marriage of Figaro, and produced an opera buffa, The Comic Shipwreck, which the entire cast sang in the nude.

Ignoring Jérôme, Betsy directly negotiated a settlement with Napoleon. The strength of Betsy's intelligence and character is shown in that she squeezed the Emperor for an annual pension of 60,000 gold francs.

In 1812, Napoleon insisted Jérôme command an army group in the invasion of Russia. By July, the King of Westphalia was bored and, despite direct orders from the Emperor, resigned and rode home. As the Westphalian army froze in Russia, the King danced.

But thereafter, even Jérôme understood the game was up. He’d contemplated divorcing Catherine; now, with her father, the King of Württemberg, among the victorious allies, he clung to her for dear life. The Allied armies drove Jérôme from Westphalia in January, 1814, and the Kingdom vanished as if it had never been.

Oddly, during the One Hundred Days between Napoleon’s escape from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo, Jérôme’s conduct was exemplary. Perhaps he wanted to show something of the man he might’ve been. At Quatre-Bras, the preliminary engagement to the Battle of Waterloo, he commanded a division with efficiency and courage; he was wounded, dressed his wound in the saddle, and didn’t dismount. Two days later, on June 18, 1815 at Waterloo, he personally stormed the walls of Hougoumont chateau at the head of his command and didn’t break off the engagement until late afternoon. While the Emperor abandoned his troops and rode for safety, Jérôme remained with the Imperial Guard to receive a British cavalry charge, and only then rode off the field.

Jérôme escaped to Württemberg, somehow believing his father-in-law would welcome him. It was a misunderstanding: King Friedrich loathed Jérôme. He jailed him and repeatedly ordered Catherine to divorce him. Only after two years of prison and then house arrest did the King realize Catherine would never leave her husband. Then he granted them a tiny pension and the titles of Count and Countess of Montfort, and exiled them to Italy.

Betsy remained in Baltimore throughout the Napoleonic Wars, making a fortune through real estate speculation. In 1815, she divorced Jérôme by special act of the Maryland legislature. She then returned to the Continent, where she largely remained until 1840. Talleyrand praised her wit; Madame de Stael, her beauty; Wellington, her spirit. She befriended Chateaubriand, Humboldt, and Canova.

In 1822, while touring Florence, Betsy was in the Pitti gallery when Jérôme and Catherine walked in. Betsy hadn’t seen him since they had parted in Lisbon 17 years before, when he had declared his undying love and promised to return. She looked into the King's face, and he couldn’t meet her eyes. He momentarily stared at the carpet, murmured to Catherine, "That is my American wife," and turned away.

On her deathbed in 1834, Catherine took Jérôme’s hand, kissed it, and said, "All that I loved in the world was you, Jérôme." His greatest concern was losing her income, which stopped upon her death. He managed to scrape by until 1848, when his fortunes soared with the sudden rise to power of his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, first as President of the Republic and then as the Emperor Napoleon III. Jérôme was commissioned a major general and became President of the Senate. His elegant, old-fashioned manners at receptions contrasted with those of the nouveau riches. He grew distinguished with age, and the crowds watching the great military reviews always wildly cheered the handsome old man.

Marshal of France, Prince of the Empire, King of Westphalia, and the last living brother of Napoleon I, Jérôme died on June 24, 1860. His heroic bronze tomb, surmounted by his statue uniformed as a general, a cloak draped over its left shoulder, is in les Invalides, among the crypts surrounding Napoleon’s sarcophagus, “among the chosen few, among the very brave, the very true.”

Betsy sued for a share of his estate. It was a lost cause: the French courts denied the validity of her marriage, denied her son's legitimacy, denied her claims, and obliged her to pay heavy legal costs. Her six decades’ work to take her place among the Bonapartes was for naught. She died in 1879, aged 94, and left millions to her grandsons. Her tomb, in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery, bears an inscription paraphrasing Macbeth’s line on King Duncan’s death, After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well. Talleyrand had said she was the only member of the Imperial family to look and behave like a queen. Perhaps he was right.

Betsy’s son Jerome (Betsy called him Bo) married a girl from Baltimore. During the Second Empire, his cousin, Napoleon III, considered ennobling him. Jerome declined a title, replying that one who bore the name Bonaparte needed no other distinction. His sons, Jerome Napoleon and Charles Joseph, each proved this true.

The eldest son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in 1830. Tall, handsome, and soldierly, he briefly attended Harvard, graduated from West Point in 1852, and after two years in the Third Cavalry, resigned to enter the French army. He fought gallantly in the Crimea, Algeria, and the Italian wars of liberation. Colonel Bonaparte served with the Paris garrison during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, remaining in the city throughout the great siege, eating the common rations of hard black bread and sewer rats. Barely escaping proscription by the Commune, he resigned his commission and returned to America, where he died in 1893.

Charles Joseph Bonaparte, Bo's younger son, was a lawyer. Born in 1849, Charles entered Harvard, and took his BA in 1871 and his Ll.B. in 1874. He was Phi Beta Kappa and the first Bonaparte to be listed in Who’s Who in America.

Charles was tall, sturdy, and balding, with a generous mustache and hooded eyes. His ready smile, which he used in anger as well as joy, was famous. A fencer and boxer (a legal opponent once swung at Charles in a Baltimore criminal court: Bonaparte poleaxed him with a solid right to the jaw), he spoke with deliberate and perfect articulation, “each word falling with the ring of new-minted silver,” polished eloquence, and flippant sarcasm, and throughout his political career, crowds came to “hear Bonaparte give it to ‘em.”

His inherited wealth let him put his great legal skills at the service of the poor, often for no fee. He met and impressed Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him Secretary of the Navy on July 1, 1905. Having a grand-nephew of the Little Corporal head the U.S. Navy stirred considerable interest.  Charles privately observed that his grandfather had been an admiral, so it ran in the family. But his service as Attorney General from December 17, 1906 to March 4, 1909 made him famous. The press called him “Crook-Chasing Charlie;” he won eight major anti-trust suits, including the Standard Oil and American Tobacco cases and personally argued over 50 matters before the Supreme Court. Unusually for a Bonaparte, he was a devoted and faithful husband: after 45 years of marriage, his wife and he still held hands. He died in October, 1921.

The American Bonaparte line quietly expired in 1945. Jerome-Napoleon Charles Bonaparte, born in 1878, was Colonel Bonaparte’s only son. He was a tall, slender, lithe man with a mustache and a fondness for stiff collars. He graduated from Harvard in 1899. His inherited wealth let him live as he pleased and do as he liked, and so he never held a job or practiced a profession.

He married his wife, Blanche Pierce Strelbeigh, at New York’s City Hall on April 8, 1914, five days after her divorce from her first husband. They were childless. In 1921, he was approached to accept the Albanian crown, as was Harry Sinclair, the multi-millionaire oilman. One historian called his “a singularly unspectacular life,” marked largely by his attendance with Blanche at dog shows.

Talleyrand observed that Napoleon’s death hadn’t been an event: merely an item of news. Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte’s death was not even that: while walking his wife's lapdog in Central Park, he tripped over its leash and broke his neck.


After Attorney General Bonaparte’s death, Betsy’s personal memorabilia were presented to the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. There are her portraits, diaries, memoirs, and letters. There is her library, mostly histories and memoirs of the Napoleonic era, thoroughly annotated by one who’d been part of it and had known and charmed its great men. There are her clothes and accessories, for this material girl had saved everything she’d ever worn: the décolleté wedding gown, the fan carried to the ball where the chain on Jérôme’s uniform had first linked them; and a pair of tiny slippers in which she danced so many nights away.

There, too, is her jewelry, the glittering tributes to her beauty and charm, given her by a lifetime of admirers; and everything Jérôme had given her in the flush of desire: the engagement ring, the wedding band, and the magnificent garnet necklace he had draped about her lovely shoulders with his own hands, its delicate clasp engraved with a single word: Fidélité.


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