Friday, June 1, 2012

10 Betsy Bonaparte: Bored in Baltimore

Quilt made in Baltimore by Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1854), inscribed
“A. G. Wilkins 1820 / M. D. Davis 1890.”
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution

Betsy Bonaparte may never have heard of Achsah Wilkins but you can bet Achsah, a decade older, was familiar with Betsy. Everybody in Baltimore knew her name. She provided some rather frivolous drama in a city in high alarm though the War of 1812. Baltimore's 50,000 residents eyed British ships sailing at will in the Bay with very little American defense.

Baltimore, north of Washington City on the Chesapeake Bay
was the third largest city in the U.S.

Invasion anxiety was accompanied by cabin fever as the enemy closed sea traffic. With the tiny Federal Navy offering no help, citizens organized militia patrols and dug armed batteries along the hills east of town, now Patterson Park, on land donated by the second richest man in town (Baltimore kept careful track.) William Patterson had risen from a poor Irish immigrant to a wealthy merchant by successful gambles in the shipping business.

Earthworks battery in Patterson Park remained for generations.

A Pagoda observatory, recently restored,
 was built about 1905 on Hampstead Hill on the site of the batteries.

Wartime life at the Patterson's was full of drama far beyond British naval threats. Eldest daughter Betsy was back at home with her son, confined to the city by the War and her own personal battle with Napoleon. "I hated and loathed a residence in Baltimore so much that when I thought I was to spend my life there, I tried to screw my courage up to the point of committing suicide. My cowardice, and only my cowardice, prevented may exchanging Baltimore for the grave," she remembered. 

Triple Portrait of Betsy Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart.
Dark curls, ivory skin and "black eyes" were
the standard for beauty a the time.

Betsy at 28 was still was America's Princess. She'd been a willful girl, described by Rosalie Stier Calvert as " most extraordinary..., given to reading Godwin on the rights of women, etc., in short, a modern philosphe." In 1803 she caught the eye of Napoleon's youngest brother Jerome Bonaparte. He was nineteen; she a year younger. Despite family disapproval in Paris and Baltimore, Betsy married Jerome. Delighting in her celebrity honeymoon she flaunted the new French fashion, filmy drapes of muslin over uncorsetted charms.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (1785-1879)

"Madame Bonaparte ... wears dresses so transparent and tight that you can see her skin through them, no chemise at all," wrote Rosalie, whose friend Thomas Law was given to writing topical poetry. She recorded a verse.
"Well! what of Madame Bonaparte
Why she's a little whore at heart.
Her lustful looks, her wanton air.
Her limbs revealed her bosom bare."

English china deriding Napoleon
Betsy's hopes of dazzling Napoleon were dashed when he refused to allow her to land in France. Jerome left her on the ship, promising to persuade his brother of their destiny. But Napoleon won that argument and she did not see Jerome again for decades. Pregnant Betsy landed in England, France's worst enemy, and gave birth to Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte. Jerome, a puppet on the Napoleonic stage, married the Princess of Wurttemberg despite his American wife.
Jerome as King of Westphalia,
a kingdom that dissolved in 1813
Betsy brought the baby back to her parent's house in Baltimore, obtained a divorce and---to put it in today's terms--- did not get on with her life. "After having married a person of the high rank I did, it became impossible for me ever to bend my spirit to marry any one who had been my equal before my marriage, and I repeat, that I would have starved, died, rather than have married in Baltimore."

Baltimore with its Washington Monument in the center

"Madame J. Bonaparte is in great distress at Jerome's divorce," British consul Augustus John Foster wrote his mother, "The ill-natured Americans don't pity her. They say she deserved it for her vanity... When Jerome first landed she declared she would have him, and that she had rather be Madame Jer. B. one year, though she was to be nothing afterwards, than marry anyone else."

The British burned the town of Havre-de-Grace, Maryland in 1813---
 an American view of Redcoats plundering baby bedding and other textiles.

Betsy's father had the last words about Betsy.  "Her folly and misconduct... has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together," he wrote in his will, leaving her very little.
The war-enforced house arrest, her "vegetation in Baltimore," was over in 1815 and Betsy sailed for Europe. "It became impossible for me ever to be contented in a country where there exists no nobility." She published her letters many years later so one can get to know her and develop some sympathy for her father. Clover Adams, reading those letters in 1879, wrote her own father, "Finished yesterday Mrs. Bonaparte's letters, just published; do read it. Such a waspish old cat, I never imagined."

Baltimore's Battle Monument commemorates the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, which ended with the defense of Fort McHenry, an event also commemorated by Francis Scott Key in his Star Spangled Banner.

The image of this monument (one of several in the "Monumental City") is seen in the Baltimore album quilts of the 1840s and '50s.

Hollywood filmed the story of Betsy Bonaparte twice. Both times she was a blonde. I haven't seen the silent version but the 1936 Hearts Divided with Marion Davies as a plantinum blonde and Dick Powell as the Frenchman may be one of the worst historical movies ever made. (I may, like Betsy, be prone to overdramatizing.)

Look for this one on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

I just can't buy him as French.

Read Betsy's letters for yourself. The life and letters of Madame Bonaparte, editor,  Eugene Lemoine Didier, 1877:

In June we'll look at early Maryland quilts and other applique as well as clothing fashion.
Read more about Achsah's quilt in the Smithsonian here:


WoolenSails said...

Fun history and interesting people, especially for those times, lol. I haven't been to Gilbert Stuart Museum in ages, it is just down the road.


Denniele said...

Love the Achsah Wilkins Quilt! Betsy sounds like quite a woman! Thanks for the lesson this morning.

Susan said...

In the A&E mini-series Horatio Hornblower, Betsy and Jerome are portrayed in one of the episodes. They didn't bring out all of her "charms" but they used the fact that Napolean would not receive her.

suzanne said...

Marion Davies was the mistress of William Randolph Hearst who pressured the movie studios "to cast her in historical dramas to which she was not suited", according to Wikipedia. I haven't had the pleasure, but this movie does sound almost deliciously dreadful.