People are Talking: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the Gossip

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Firmin Massot, 1823, MdHS, XX.5.69

In 1814, Elizabeth wrote to Dolley Madison, her friend and confidante, “[the] Public are so malicious & so much pleased when people meet with disappointments that I wish to avoid gratifying them again at my expense.” Since her marriage in 1803 to Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoléon’s brother, Elizabeth’s life had gratified a gossip hungry public. The glamour of her union, followed by the devastating annulment of the marriage by Napoléon in 1805, provided perfect fodder for a public who found a famous person’s “disappointments” titillating.

As Charlene Boyer Lewis pointed out in Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic (2012), Elizabeth craved the celebrity that came to her. Never content with Baltimore, she had long sought a bigger stage for her beauty, wit and ambition. Late in life she reflected to her friend, Martha Custis Williams Carter, “I suppose no one ever lived who was more ambitious than I was unless it might have been Napoleon & Alexander the Great.”

To enhance her celebrity, Elizabeth dressed in a manner that won her attention, both negative and positive. Blessed with a beauty that captivated men and women alike, Elizabeth was among the first women in American to adopt the French fashion.

Her thin muslin gowns, though not scandalous by modern standards, provoked comments. A female observer remarked on one of Elizabeth’s gowns commenting, “Madame Jerome was there as handsome as ever but, a little more in the fashion of uncovering.” The unstructured, high-waisted gowns of the early nineteenth century revealed women’s figures in a way previously unknown. Arms and chests were bare, loosely cut muslins gave view to the outlines of a woman’s legs, and undergarments, once rigidly structured, softened to accommodate the new, Classically-inspired styles.

Even today, one of the first questions I am asked about Elizabeth is “How see-through were her gowns?” During the creation of her mannequin, this question came up again and again. Did she really appear “naked?” The answer, much to most people’s disappointment, is that she was never “naked” in the modern sense of the word. The mere fact that the outline of her figure and the movement of her hips and legs were visually evident was enough to send tongues wagging. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the wealthiest men in the country, remarked on Elizabeth’s “no dress” as opposed to her “dress.” To him, a man of the 18th century who recalled women wearing torso-length corsets and skirts full enough to conceal the movement of their legs, Elizabeth’s choice of dress was in fact an absence rather than a presence. In fact, Elizabeth’s inventories document the numerous shifts or slips she wore under her gowns as well as the “stay laces” she purchased for her corsets. With the addition of these underpinnings, the sheerness of her gowns was minimized.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of speaking about Elizabeth is that even today the aspect of “gossip” is central to the discussion. Assumptions are made about Elizabeth based on the same stereotypes of celebrity we embrace today. She was beautiful therefore no one thinks of her intelligence and business acumen. Her figure was stunning therefore she must have flaunted it as a celebrity would today. Men adored her therefore she must have had a romantic life worthy of comment.

Despite the fact that she lived her life without scandal in the modern sense, it is still viewed as scandalous. Yes, she defied American conventions of “proper” womanhood. She remained unmarried, traveled alone and never succumbed to society’s prescribed role for a single woman. Forever focused on achieving an imperial legacy for her son, Bo, Elizabeth never entangled herself publicly with any man after Jérôme. Although her male admirers were many, there is no record of her private life beyond her associations with the Bonapartes, her travels, and her beauty. She had suitors, but never allowed herself to enter into any permanent entanglement. As one of her European acquaintances remarked, “You are a severely virtuous woman.” She did not mean it as a compliment.

Despite this, people were always talking about Elizabeth and conjuring stories about her life. In 1873 before her death, the hunger for details about her private life had not abated. W.T.R. Saffell seized upon the public interest and published The Bonaparte Patterson Marriage, a book based on a large group of letters that had come into the author’s possession. Although Elizabeth had spent most of her life caring deeply about public sentiment, in later years she cared little. In the preface to Saffell’s book he wrote that he contacted “Mde. Bonaparte” about the book and she told him, “the publication of the volume was a matter of perfect indifference to her.”

Even today, “people are talking” about Elizabeth and, I suspect, they will never stop. As Lady Sydney Morgan, her friend, remarked, “there is about her a perpetual curiosity and romance.” Just as Elizabeth often wrote “true” in the margins of her books when she agreed with what she read, I say, “true,” to Lady Morgan’s sentiment.

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