It was the claim of an old sailor friend that first brought Napoleon Bonaparte’s feckless younger brother to Baltimore: The most beautiful American women, he was told, lived in that city. And the fairest of them all was young Elizabeth Patterson, daughter of a dictatorial businessman who believed that women had one place in society — at home, in service of their husbands.
So begins the star-crossed story of the Belle of Baltimore and her good-for-nothing husband, who fell for each other for all the wrong reasons, a tale detailed in Carol Berkin’s new biography, “Wondrous Beauty.” Jérôme Bonaparte liked Betsy’s pretty face and scandalous clothing. She saw him as her ticket away from her father’s control and into Europe, which she considered more cultured and exciting than the young democracy to which she’d been born in the late 18th century. Contestants on “The Bachelor” seem to put more forethought into their relationships than these two. At least their affairs don’t have serious implications for international diplomacy.
Berkin traces the couple’s romance back to its earliest spark. Jérôme, a spoiled little rich boy content to live off his older brother’s name and fortune, landed stateside in search of good times and cute girls. He met Betsy at a ball, and as they danced, her “necklace became tangled in the buttons of Jérôme’s uniform, a sign, it was said, that their lives too would entwine.” And so they did, to the great consternation of their families and the diplomatic corps of both the United States and France, whose relationship was fragile as the United States attempted to remain neutral while tensions fluctuated between France and Britain.
Betsy’s father did his damnedest to quash the blossoming romance. But as any parent of a rebellious teen could have predicted, that only drove the two young lovers closer together. The couple knew enough not to tell Jérôme’s brother, Napoleon, who was sure to disapprove. Eventually the pair wore down the resistance of Betsy’s father and married on Christmas Eve, 1803, when Betsy was just 18. But when they arrived in France to share the news with Jérôme’s family, Napoleon barred Betsy from the country . He did, however, offer to cough up some hush money if she agreed to give up her new last name and sail away.
But it was too late for all that. While waiting in England for her husband to smooth things over with his brother, Betsy gave birth to a son. Jérôme wrote a few letters assuring Betsy of his devotion — and then it became clear that Napoleon really would cut off his funding if the marriage wasn’t annulled. With that, Jérôme was gone, eventually to marry a royal woman of his brother’s choosing.
Unfortunately for Berkin, a skilled storyteller and exemplary researcher, the remainder of Betsy’s life is marked by extraordinary bitterness and one depressing domestic scene after another. Berkin shows Betsy to be a woman of great wit, intelligence and resolve, but still, she’s not exactly a heroine you can get behind. She once wrote that it was only in Paris — she was allowed in once Napoleon was out — that “the weight of existence is lightened by intercourse with the world & one’s unhappy recollections are suspended — there is no time here to reflect on a future which has no hopes to enliven it, or to deplore an experience of life which has stripped it of all illusion.”
Please, Paris, just keep her.
Unfortunately, without help from her father or estranged husband, Betsy didn’t have the funds to stay. For much of the rest of her long life — she lived to age 94 — she hopped back and forth across the Atlantic. To her credit, she became a shrewd businesswoman, eventually amassing a small fortune in real estate. But as she wrote in a letter to her father, “It is generally my luck to be cheated in every way.” She continued to hold out hope that the Bonaparte family would acknowledge the legitimacy of her son and accept him as a member of the clan, only to be jilted time and again. Despite plenty of suitors, she never remarried. And relations with her father only deteriorated.
In his will, he wrote that Betsy had “caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together.” Thus, he continued, “it would not be reasonable, just or proper that she should inherit and participate in an equal proportion with my other children in an equal division of my estate.” And as much as she disdained her father, Betsy was equally overbearing to her son, alienating him by insisting that he marry a woman of European nobility. (He did not.)
Ultimately, Berkin writes, “Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the most beautiful woman in America, summed up her life: ‘I have lived alone and I will die alone.’ ”
Sadly, after reading Berkin’s book, it’s easy to see why.
The Life and Adventures
of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
By Carol Berkin
Knopf. 237 pp. $27.95