In this guest blog post, historian Charlene M. Boyer Lewis talks about celebrity past and present and the public career of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the Baltimore native who became Napoleon's sister-in-law.
Americans love their celebrities. To keep up with the on-and-off-again romances, extravagant fashions, and titillating scandals of the Kardashians, Lady Gaga, TomKat, J Lo, and all the others, we rely on television shows, internet sites, magazines, and tabloid newspapers. Unlike mass and social media, this obsession is not a recent phenomenon. Celebrities have captivated Americans since the beginning of the new nation, and one of the earliest in America–Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte–was a truly fabulous one.
In the early 1800s, when young Elizabeth Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant, met and married Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of the powerful Napoleon, her celebrity was assured. For decades, even after her scandalous divorce, she skillfully cultivated her image–on both sides of the Atlantic–with great success. Today’s fleeting celebrities would envy Elizabeth’s ability to maintain an enormously popular persona for so long.
Many Americans, including military leaders and presidents, were famous in the first fifty years of the country’s existence, but few were celebrities. In the early national era, fame and celebrity were not synonyms as they have essentially become in our own time. Unlike celebrity, fame came through a person’s particularly notable public service that highlighted his honor and virtue–and it was usually men who gained fame. In contrast, celebrity came through acts that often had nothing to do with public service, but everything to do with attracting attention to oneself, with becoming popular (this should sound very familiar to us). Special talents or an especially attractive appearance could make one a celebrity. As in our own time, dramatic personal episodes that became public could transform one into a celebrity so, too, could the act of marrying someone who was famous or, better yet, already celebrated. Authors and actors could become celebrities as well in the early republic. Both fame and celebrity required an admiring audience, but those who sought fame had an eye on their historical legacy. Celebrity was about cultivating renown during one’s lifetime. And–so similar to many of today’s female celebrities–it became the central way in which ambitious women could seize public recognition and social power.
By marrying the brother of one of the most powerful men in the world, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte became a national–actually, an international–celebrity. Far from being a modest, respectable wife who, according to American social expectations, would find happiness within her home rather than in the public sphere, Elizabeth relished being in the public eye. The newlyweds captured public attention from New York City to Washington, D.C. and beyond. Newspapers kept track of their every move. Even in private correspondence, Elizabeth’s name appeared regularly as writers speculated about the couple’s future and Napoleon’s response. As the famous pair traveled west to Niagara Falls and south to Washington, people tried simply to get a look at them and maybe even exchange a word or two. Wherever they went, social leaders gave dinners and balls in their honor. Other than Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison, few American women achieved such national renown in this period.
Elizabeth also cultivated her celebrity by wearing fashionable–and scandalous–French dresses to balls and other entertainments. Initially, her clothing was the primary way in which she demonstrated her imperial French connection. In the early 1800s, dresses inspired by classical Greek design were the height of fashion in France, especially since the Empress Josephine wore them. The gowns were often white, typically made of lightweight cotton or linen. They were columnar, falling close to the body and clinging to breasts, hips, thighs, and legs. Often lacking sleeves and cut deep in the back and low in the front, the dresses exposed far more flesh than traditional American fashions. It took real courage–or immodesty, depending on the viewpoint–for an American woman to wear them. And Elizabeth, like an early nineteenth-century Madonna, wore such clothes regularly and with great flair. At a party given for the newlyweds in Washington, she arrived wearing a sleeveless, backless, white crepe dress of French design that Washington society maven Rosalie Stier Calvert described as “so transparent that you could see the color and shape of her thighs, and even more!” A “mob of boys” swarmed around Elizabeth as she entered the house of Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith. According to his wife Margaret Bayard Smith, “her appearance was such that it threw all the company into confusion, and no one dared look at her but by stealth.” Outside, crowds gathered to peer through the unshuttered windows at the “extremely beautiful” and “almost naked woman.” “Several ladies” reprimanded her for the sensation that she created, explaining that “if she did not change her manner of dress she would never be asked anywhere again.”
Elizabeth paid little heed to the warnings, counting on her celebrity–and her daring dresses–to garner an invitation to almost any society gathering. She calculated correctly and rarely spent an evening alone or missed a party. Knowing how important these public occasions were, Elizabeth never shrank from the attention, as well-mannered ladies were supposed to do, and she always carefully dressed for them. Her clothing helped her maintain the celebrity status that she not only loved, but also considered a necessary part of her life.
Like Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the mid-twentieth century, Elizabeth’s celebrity reached far beyond the United States and catapulted her into aristocratic and even royal circles. When Elizabeth traveled to Europe after the War of 1812 ended, she expertly put her talents to use and became an admired and sought-after guest among the glittering royals, aristocrats, and socialites there as well–a rare achievement for an American, man or woman. As her success on two continents proves, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte crafted her celebrity with consummate skill and great éclat. Her beauty, fashions, and manners as well as her Bonaparte connections all made her one of the leading American celebrities in the Western world.
Charlene M. Boyer Lewis is Associate Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Kalamazoo College and the author of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic.