She spent decades fighting for recognition from a jerk, his brother, and their empire.
Picture this: You’re in the Pitti Palace in Florence, admiring the artwork. Then, at the end of a long gallery, you see him — the man who broke your heart 20 years ago. The man who abandoned you because his brother told him to.
But that’s not all.
There’s a woman on his arm. The woman he married after his brother declared your marriage invalid — the mother of his three legitimate children. She looks old beyond her years, tired and overweight.
What do you do?
In this story, you stand up straight, let your cloak flap open to reveal your still-drop-dead-gorgeous figure, and breeze by them with a casual smile that hides years of heartbreak.
Then you cry afterward, because even though he looked tired, she looked dumpy, and you looked amazing, he’s still the only man you’ve ever loved. Through the grey hair and the dadbod, you can still see that young, handsome man you fell in love with.
That’s what happened to Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.
“The Color and Shape of Her Thighs”
In July of 1803, Napoleon’s youngest brother Jerome was headed from Martinique to France. Spoiled and willful, he was a naval officer being sent home in disgrace after ordering his ship to fire at a friendly British vessel.
The British, mad as hell, planned to capture him at sea. He avoided their trap by making a pit stop in America.
To kill time, he stopped to see an old friend in Baltimore. There, probably at a horse race, he first saw 18-year-old Elizabeth Patterson, better known as Betsy.
She was the belle of Baltimore, one of the wittiest and most beautiful women in America. The daughter of a rich banker, she dreamed of a grander life on a European stage. She read Germaine de Staël and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She had opinions and could hold a conversation worthy of a French salon.
When Jerome met Betsy at a dinner party, she captivated him.
Swept away by a rush of passion, they married on Christmas Eve. “You’re making a big mistake,” her dad said. “I don’t trust this guy.”
“We’re in love,” Betsy said. “And love conquers all.”
On their honeymoon, they went to Washington, D.C. There, Betsy wore the 19th century version of Sarah Jessica Parker’s “naked dress” from Sex and the City: a sheer white dress, sleeveless and backless, that a society woman described as “so transparent that you could see the color and shape of her thighs, and even more!” ¹
Betsy’s French clothes scandalized Washington society, but she didn’t care.
She’d married an emperor’s brother, and her royal future seemed assured.
When Jerome wrote to tell his family, Napoleon freaked out big time. He ordered Jerome to return to France — alone. But Betsy was six months pregnant, and Jerome refused to leave her. Her dad chartered a ship to take them both to Europe.
When they landed in Lisbon in April of 1805, they realized Napoleon wasn’t playing around. He had left orders for Jerome to come to Italy alone or be arrested. Jerome promised to win his brother over and send for Betsy when it was safe.
When he’d gone, a messenger from Napoleon told Betsy that if she left now and stopped using the name Bonaparte, Napoleon would give her an annual pension, enough to support herself and her son back in America.
Betsy told him to shove it.
She was confident Jerome would win over his big brother. She kept the hastily scribbled pencil notes he sent her from the road, later tracing the faded graphite with ink. He called her “my dear wife” and promised they “will soon be reunited.” ²
But weak-willed Jerome was no match for Napoleon.
When Napoleon threatened to disinherit and court-martial him (for marrying Betsy while AWOL from the navy), Jerome gave in and agreed to give Betsy up.
But Betsy didn’t know any of this had happened.
She’d sailed to England to give birth to their son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. Having heard nothing, she wrote to Jerome, his brother Lucien, ambassadors and their family members, and anyone who might be able to help. She got radio silence as her answer.
Newspaper articles said Jerome had made up with Napoleon. But were they true? If so, why hadn’t she heard from him?
Meanwhile, reinstated in the navy, Jerome wrote to Betsy and promised he wouldn’t abandon her. From Italy, he sent boxes of presents and cash to her in London via Lady Elgin, who sent the boxes to her lawyers.
But they didn’t reach her in time.
Alone and depressed, Betsy sailed back to America.
Back at home with her very disapproving father, Betsy clung to the hope that Jerome would send for her. In late 1805, his letters and presents finally arrived in Baltimore. In early 1806, more letters — some written the previous year — arrived for her. But eventually, the letters got shorter. Instead of signing off as “your loving husband,” he signed off as “J. Bonaparte.” ³
Finally, sixteen months after saying goodbye in Lisbon, the letters stopped altogether.
“Told you so,” said her dad.
“The Beak of a Goose”
Why did Jerome’s letters stop?
Because Napoleon had big plans for his little brother.
That October, French courts declared Jerome’s marriage invalid. By French law, no one under the age of 25 could marry without parental consent. Not only did Jerome not have consent, but he’d only been 19 when he married Betsy.
Once Jerome was legally single, Napoleon created a new kingdom in present-day Germany and gave it to him. Then he ordered the new king of Westphalia to marry Princess Catherine of Württemberg, the daughter of an ally. The wedding took place on August 12, 1807.
Jerome wrote to his brother Lucien, “You know the feelings of my heart and you know that the well-being and benefit of my family alone forced me to make other ties.” ⁴
Betsy saw all this unfold in newspaper headlines.
Her love for Jerome turned to a deep and lasting bitterness. She blamed him for abandoning her and failing to support his son once he became a king. Jerome did express interest in having their son, called Bo, sent to him in Westphalia. But Betsy didn’t trust him. Would he turn Bo against her?
She decided to ask Napoleon for the pension he’d originally offered her. Jerome was pissed when he found out. After all, he was a king now — why not come to him first? Betsy replied, “I would rather be sheltered under the wings of an eagle than dangle from the beak of a goose.” ⁵
As it turned out, Betsy’s pestering paid off. In 1809, the French government began paying her pension in monthly installments of about $500. ⁶
Back in Westphalia, Jerome betrayed both his wives by taking a mistress who looked surprisingly like Betsy.
“My American Wife”
As king, Jerome was a joke — selfish and spendthrift. In 1813, Napoleon’s enemies took back Westphalia. Jerome and Catherine fled to her father’s court in Württemberg.
Two years later, it was Napoleon’s turn to fall.
After Waterloo, friends told Betsy to ask the restored Bourbon monarchy to continue paying her pension. She declined. Despite everything, she still wanted recognition from the Bonapartes, not the Bourbons.
Napoleon’s fall did make it possible for her to go back to Europe, which she’d been dying to do. Her third trip lasted nine years, from 1825 to 1834. That’s when she bumped into Jerome at the Pitti Palace in Florence.
That chance encounter was the last time she ever saw Jerome.
He didn’t say a word to her as they passed. Afterward, she heard him whisper to Catherine, “That was my American wife.” ⁷
Dialogues in Hell
Betsy never remarried, despite numerous flirtations and platonic relationships.
Henry Lee Jr., Robert E. Lee’s half-brother, wanted to marry her. John Jacob Astor gave her money advice. And in Europe, she befriended wealthy and influential Russians, including Prince Alexander Gortchakov and Nicholas Demidov, rumored to be the richest man in Europe.
Her son, Bo, did eventually meet his father.
In 1826, he went to Italy to meet Jerome, his second wife, and their three children. He didn’t have a great time — he was bored, and annoyed at how easily his father spent other people’s money. He wrote to Betsy’s father that “America is the only country where I can have an opportunity of getting forward.” ⁸
Later, Betsy tried to contest her father’s will when he made her brothers millionaires and left her a few crappy rental properties. His reason? Because her “folly and misconduct has occasioned me a train of expense.” ⁹ That lawsuit alienated her from her remaining family, and she eventually dropped it.
Then, in her 70s, she sued to have Bo’s legitimacy recognized in French courts. The case pitted Bo and Betsy against Jerome’s legitimate son, Prince Napoleon. It didn’t go her way, and ended up costing her about $50,000. ¹⁰
The world, it seemed, was never going to give her what she wanted.
That knowledge made her hard and bitter.
Betsy never understood how groundbreaking her life had been. She traveled to Europe alone when this wasn’t considered proper behavior. She became a celebrity. She refused to remarry and live a settled but boring life in Baltimore. She wore what she wanted. She read what she wanted. She paid her own bills. Hell, she got Napoleon and the French government to cough up a pension without giving into their terms. But it wasn’t enough for her, and she couldn’t let go of the feeling that the world owed her something for her pain.
One of her grandsons, Charles Bonaparte, became Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt. Her other grandson, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte Jr., served in the French army and married the granddaughter of famous senator and orator Daniel Webster. Betsy thought he could have done better.
Her great-grandson, Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte, fell in love with an American heiress — I introduced you to her in this post. But the Bonaparte name carried so little weight after the turn of the twentieth century that Mathilde Townsend’s mom preferred her daughter look elsewhere to find a husband.
Betsy outlived her son, Bo. In old age, she wrote a book called Dialogues between Jerome and My Father in Hell, which tells you how she felt about the men in her life. I had no luck finding this book, but would love to get my hands on it.
Betsy died at age 94 on April 4, 1879 and is buried in Baltimore.
¹ Boyer Lewis, “Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte,” 33.
² Burn, Betsy, 91.
³ Burn, Betsy, 118.
⁴ Burn, Betsy, 127.
⁵ Burn, Betsy, 138.
⁶ Berkin, Wondrous Beauty, 70.
⁷ Berkin, Wondrous Beauty, 117.
⁸ Burn, Betsy, 198.
⁹ Burn, Betsy, 211.
¹⁰ Burn, Betsy, 239.
Berkin, Carol. Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014.
Boyer Lewis, Charlene M. “Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: ‘Ill-Suitted [sic]for the Life of a Colombians Modest Wife.” Journal of Women’s History 18, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 33–62. Project MUSE.
Burn, Helen Jean. Betsy Bonaparte. Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 2010.