The Belle of Baltimore. That’s Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte—daughter of William Patterson of Patterson Park fame and first wife to Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte of trying-to-conquer-the-world fame. If Betsy’s name is new to you, all you really need to know is that she was one of the femme fatales of the War of 1812 generation. As an 18-year-old, she set the gossipmongers atwitter (analog style) with her revealing empire dresses that she wore to local society events. With her jet-setting lifestyle (pre- jets, of course) and devil-may-care approach to life as a woman in the 1800s, Betsy caused a stir wherever she went, and kept it up until her death at age 94. Her father, William, is quoted as having said, “Betsy has caused me a great deal more trouble than all my other children together.” Now there’s a role model! Am I right? Just skip the parts about trying to capitalize on your in-law’s delusions of grandeur and empire, and you’re good to go.
Kudos go out the Maryland Historical Society, who continually do an amazing job at digging up Maryland’s history and putting it on display in ways that are engaging, exciting, and can really drive home how much of American history happened right outside our doors. Its upcoming exhibition, on the notorious Elizabeth Patterson (or EP as she referred to herself after her marriage was annulled) opens June 9th. “Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the Quest for an Imperial Legacy” will be replete with collections of silver, porcelain, paintings, textiles, jewelry, manuscripts and furniture associated with EP and her descendants. Of particular note are her pearl and garnet tiara and other jewelry, and one of her “scandalous” dresses in the French-style (showing a little too much ankle, we’re sure). Also of note is that this exhibition will mark the first time that the Maryland Historical Society has featured an exhibition exclusively devoted to a historical female figure. Tres bon! And for those feeling particularly inspired by EP’s story—or if it’s just been too darn long since you attended a proper ball, the Historical Society will be hosting the Bonaparte Ball on the eve of the exhibition’s opening. There will be dinner and dancing, and the promise of bringing EP (and her raucous spirit) into the 21st century. Of course, black tie or period dress are required—since we’ll all be preparing for our futures as higher-ups in the growing empire. And ladies, if you need to show a bit of ankle or collarbone, we’ll let that slide. After all, we’re sure EP would approve.
For more information about the exhibition “Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the Quest for an Imperial Legacy” or the Bonaparte Ball, please visit www.mdhs.org.
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