Betsy and Jerome

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:23

    Though inexperienced, Betsy was far from naive. 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 Jerome Bonaparte for one hour than of any other man for life.

    As for Jerome, 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, Jerome borrowed money from the French charge d'affaires for the wedding expenses. On Christmas Eve 1803, they were married by Bishop Carroll, the United States' ranking Roman Catholic ecclesiastic. Betsy, who considered her bust a challenge to all her sex, made the most of her advantages: the wedding gown was so flimsy and so sheer one might have folded it up and popped it into one's pocket.

    Napoleon learned of the happy event through a British newspaper. He ordered Jerome home immediately, but Jerome waited a year, hoping time would weaken Napoleon's rage. In March 1805, Betsy and Jerome embarked for Europe on the Erin, a ship commissioned by her father. At Lisbon, the French ambassador informed them that "Miss Patterson" would not be allowed to enter France.

    "Tell your master," Betsy replied, "that Madame Bonaparte demands her rights as a member of the Imperial family."

    Jerome 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 Jerome without an unconditional submission. Even then, Napoleon threatened him with court-martial, destitution and imprisonment. Napoleon had already decreed Jerome's marriage null and any offspring from it illegitimate. When Betsy gave birth to a son, Jerome 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 to annul it.

    But Jerome 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 Aug. 8, 1807, Prince Jerome (his brother had made him a prince of the Empire for Christmas, 1806) became its king. Later that month, he married Princess Catherine of Wurttemberg, an intelligent, sweet-natured and very shy girl. She fell in love with him immediately.

    Jerome 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 that 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 Jerome, Betsy directly negotiated a settlement with Napoleon. The strength of Betsy's intelligence and character is shown in that she squeezed from him an annual pension of 60,000 gold francs.

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

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

    Oddly, during the One Hundred Days, his conduct was exemplary: perhaps he wanted to show something of the man he might have been. At Quatre-Bras on June 16, 1815, Jerome commanded a division with efficiency and courage; he was wounded, dressed his wound in the saddle and did not dismount. Two days later, at Waterloo, he personally stormed the walls of Hougoumont chateau at the head of his command and did not break off the engagement until late afternoon. While the Emperor escaped, Jerome remained with the Imperial Guard to receive a British cavalry charge, and only then rode off the field.

    Jerome escaped to Wurttemberg, somehow believing his father-in-law would welcome him. It was a failure of communication: King Friedrich loathed Jerome. 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. 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 Jerome by special act of the Maryland legislature, and 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 Jerome and Catherine walked in. Betsy had not 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 could not meet her eyes. He momentarily stared at the carpet, murmured to Catherine, "That is my American wife," and walked away.

    On her deathbed in 1834, Catherine took Jerome's hand, kissed it and said, "All that I loved in the world was you, Jerome." His greatest concern was losing her income, which stopped upon her death. He managed to scrape by until 1848, when his fortunes revived with the sudden rise to power of his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. Jerome was commissioned a major general and became president of the Senate. 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 and the last brother of Napoleon I, Jerome died on June 24, 1860. He rests in the 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, at age 94, and left millions to her grandsons. 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. Nonetheless, he barely escaped proscription by the Commune, and, resigning his commission, 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," noted Joseph Bucklin Bishop?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 grandnephew of the Little Corporal head the United States 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 Dec. 17, 1906, to March 4, 1909, made him famous. The press called him "Crook-Chasing Charlie"; he won eight major antitrust suits, including the Standard Oil and American Tobacco cases, and personally argued more than 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 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 in 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 multimillionaire oilman. One historian called his "a singularly unspectacular life."

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