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 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.”
Jerome 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. And those contestants’ affairs don’t have serious implications for U.S. diplomacy with France and Britain.
Jerome, 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 Jerome’s uniform, a sign, it was said, that their lives too would entwine.”
Betsy’s father did his damnedest to quash the blossoming romance. The couple knew enough not to tell Jerome’s brother, Napoleon. 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 Jerome’s family, Napoleon barred Betsy from living in France. 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. Jerome 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, Jerome was gone, eventually to remarry 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, 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 futile hope that the Bonaparte family would acknowledge the legitimacy of her son. Despite a bevy of suitors, she never remarried.
And relations with her father only deteriorated. In his will, her father wrote that Betsy had “caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together.”
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, Betsy 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 that was the case.Ellen McCarthy is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s Style section.