This is the second of my excerpts from my forthcoming novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. While on their honeymoon, Betsy and Jerome Bonaparte traveled to Washington to visit her uncle, Senator Samuel Smith, and mingle with high society:
They were also invited to dinner at the President’s Mansion. Beforehand, Uncle Smith told Betsy that in a perverse display of neutrality, President Jefferson had invited both the French minister and the new British ambassador, despite the war between their two countries.
For the occasion, which would begin at 3:00 in the afternoon and last until late evening, Betsy wore a sheer gown bedecked with gold embroidery that would sparkle in the candlelight. This would be her first visit to the home of a head of state, and she wanted to demonstrate to Jerome that she knew how to dress for such occasions.
As the Smith carriage drove up to the north entrance, Betsy stared avidly at the details of the building and wondered how it compared to the palaces she would someday live in with Jerome. The President’s Mansion was an imposing light-grey stone structure, wide enough that eleven windows stretched across its upper story. The center block of the mansion was decorated with four Doric columns crowned by a triangular pediment. A small pediment also topped each window, but Betsy was surprised to see that they were not all the same. Rather, triangles alternated with rounded arches.
Following the Smiths, Betsy and Jerome climbed the stone steps and walked through the front door into the entrance hall, a marble-floored space that was wider than it was long. On the far side of the room, four Doric columns marked the boundary between the entryway and the central cross hall.
Servants came to take their outer garments, and after Betsy handed over her cloak, she noticed that the entrance hall was cold despite having facing fireplaces on the east and west walls. She hoped that she would not be covered in goose skin by the time she made it through the receiving line into the oval drawing room where the president stood greeting his guests. As they stepped through the central columns into the cross hall, she glanced left to see if she could catch a glimpse of the East Room—infamous as the vast unfinished space where Abigail Adams had once dried laundry. Betsy had heard that, even though it was intended to be a public reception room, the East Room was still unplastered. Just last year, Aunt Margaret had written that the first attempt at installing a ceiling in the room had collapsed. Now a piece of canvas stretched across the doorway, so Betsy could not see a thing.
When she and Jerome were presented to President Jefferson, Betsy was amused to see him in the characteristically plain dress he wore on republican principle: an old blue coat, dark corduroy breeches, dingy white hose, and run-down backless slippers. “Madame Bonaparte, allow me to welcome you to Washington. I hope your father was well when you left him.”
“He was, Mr. President, and he particularly charged me with thanking you for the very kind letter of reference that you wrote.”
“It gave me great pleasure to do whatever I could to further an alliance that will cement relations between the United States and France. As you know, I spent several years as ambassador to France and I retain great fondness for our sister republic.”
From the corner of her eye, Betsy saw a distinguished-looking man in formal diplomatic dress shoot the president a frosty glare. After Mr. Jefferson moved to another guest, Uncle Smith introduced Jerome and Betsy to the irate gentleman, who was the British ambassador Mr. Anthony Merry.
“Citizen Bonaparte.” Mr. Merry gave a curt nod. “I greet you as a fellow guest of Mr. Jefferson and not as the enemy of my country.”
Betsy answered before Jerome could, “Sir, how wise you are to know that for tonight, we must draw blades against the roast and not the person opposite.”
Merry smiled grudgingly. He then introduced them to his wife, Elizabeth Death Merry, a fiftyish woman with heavy eyebrows and a long nose in a horsy face. Despite her plain looks, Mrs. Merry was dressed as a beauty with rouge on her cheeks and a chandelier necklace of sapphires around her throat. Her blue velvet gown was cut so low that her enormous bosom, restrained only by a film of lace, threatened to pop free. As soon as they were out of earshot of the Merrys, Betsy whispered to Jerome, “Law, she displays those melons as though she were a market.”
When it came time for the meal, President Jefferson further offended his English guests by leading Betsy from the drawing room into the dining room instead of following protocol and honoring Mrs. Merry. Betsy could not resist glancing back over her shoulder to grin triumphantly at Jerome.