(updated March 20, 2018)
Beautiful Betsy Patterson. Considered “the Notorious Belle of Baltimore.” Headstrong, ambitious, smart. She attracted many a suitor and turned them all down until she met Jerome Bonaparte, brother of France’s Napoleon. When he met this beautiful and charming young woman, he fell in love immediately.
And then the drama started.
The couple were determined to marry and so they did, married in 1803 by John Carroll, the Archbishop of Baltimore. Betsy’s father, William Patterson, wasn’t happy about the marriage and left her very little of his large estate. And Jerome’s brother, Napoleon, refused to allow his sister-in-law into France. He even instructed his brother to give her up or lose all his titles and wealth. And, so he did, divorcing her in 1815, — but not before they had a son, whom Betsy named Jerome and called Bo.
It’s a great story — and it gets better and better.
Exhibit about Betsy tells a great story
Once famous, remembered by many but forgotten, I fear, by a great many of us Baltimoreans, Betsy will get the attention due her with the new Maryland Historical Society exhibit “Woman of Two Words: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy.”
This popular and engaging exhibition was extended through June 2015—and there are currently no signs that it is going away. There’s still time to see it. I’ve been back several times; I definitely recommend it.
Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch, who is responsible for mounting this extraordinary show, found a complicated woman, one who was well-educated, smart about the important things (including how to amass a fortune), ambitious and well-disciplined for her son, sentimental about her mother.
“She is timeless,” said Deutsch, noting she was a single mother who defied society, controlled her own finances and created security for herself and her son on her own terms. “What she became is of her own making.”
Who was Betsy Bonaparte? asks the chief curator
Deutsch has written about Betsy in her fascinating blog, describing who she was through her own words, talking about her peripatetic life and recalling her relationship with her mother. It’s the stuff of romance writers.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary things about this exhibition is that much of the collection was in Baltimore all along. There are 600 pieces in the collection, including written records, dresses, turbans, lace trim, jewelry and household items left to the Maryland Historical Society. Betsy, a member of the historical society, took advantage of a membership perk and would leave her things in the society’s care when she took off for Europe, as she did many times in her life before settling at last in Baltimore in 1864.
Deutsch pointed out three of her favorite mementoes of Patterson, things that help reveal her true personality. Her motto was written in French in the margins of a memoir of a princess: “Always move forward, never rest.” “It’s how she lived her life,” Deutsch said.
Betsy had a treasure trove of beautiful jewelry but a small garnet tiara was the one she chose to wear for a portrait sitting. Originally her sister Caroline’s, it came to her after the death of Betsy’s beloved older sister. A sentimental woman at heart, Betsy also traveled with her mother’s embroidered dress — and it’s also on display.
Deutsch chose another of Betsy’s quotes as a peek into her personality. In her letters, Betsy often comes off as, well, not nice. She must have known this. She once wrote: “My words are severe and designed to be severe.” Deutsch noted that she could be witty and was a delightful dinner partner. She was smart, shrewd and all business when necessary.
The exhibit is part of Baltimore’s commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The Maryland Historical Society is partnering with Fort McHenry (where Francis Scott Key watched the “bombs bursting in air” that would inspire his “Star Spangled Banner”), as well as the Maryland 1812 Bicentennial Commission and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. The original manuscript of our national anthem is housed here.
Continue the tour in Baltimore’s High Society
While you are in the neighborhood, stop into the Walters Art Museum farther south on Charles Street. This array of art and artifact were largely collected by William Walters and his son Henry. Admission is free. The collection is priceless.
Nearby, on the other side of the Washington Monument, is the George Peabody Library, a “Cathedral of Books” given in gratitude to the city of Baltimore — even though George Peabody was a Massachusetts native who lived most of his life in London. Peabody’s gift created the great Peabody Conservatory of Music as well as this architectural masterpiece housing 300,000 mostly rare books.
The whole walk is about a half mile.
If you haven’t been to the Maryland Historical Society’s museum in a while, this will be the time to go. If you’ve never been, plan to stay awhile. There’s so much here to see, from the original manuscript of the “Star Spangled Banner” to jazzman Eubie Blake’s baton to Iron Man Cal Ripken’s bat. I’m partial but I always like seeing Tench Tilghman’s uniform. There’s plenty of stuff to interest the children, too.
© Text Mary K. Tilghman
Photos of Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte courtesy Maryland Historical Society
Other photos by Mary K. Tilghman