The Remarkable Rise of Eliza Jumel: A Story of Marriage and Money in the Early Republic

Margaret A. Oppenheimer. Chicago Review, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-1-61373-380-6
Art historian Oppenheimer (The French Portrait) vibrantly recreates Eliza Jumel’s rise from poverty to affluence, skillfully peeling away generations of rumors about this intelligent and resourceful woman. Born in Rhode Island in 1775, Betsy Bowen, as she was originally known, grew up in a brothel and was later placed into indentured servitude. After a series of family deaths, 28-year-old Betsy moved to burgeoning New York City and transformed herself into Eliza Brown, working as a stage extra. There she attracted a wealthy French merchant, Stephen Jumel, whom she married in 1804. They spent time abroad among the Parisian elite, where Eliza amassed an art collection—an almost unthinkable act for a woman of the time. She returned to the U.S. alone and arranged lucrative property deals that gave her control of land rents. Soon after she was widowed, Eliza married scandal-prone former vice president Aaron Burr, divorcing him when it became clear he intended to drain her finances. Oppenheimer demonstrates a faculty for describing places, particularly New York and Paris, where Betsy took control of her life. This fascinating story could have benefited from stronger connections with early 19th-century women’s history, but Oppenheimer does well in presenting a woman who should not be forgotten. (Nov.)
Reviewed on: 09/21/2015
Release date: 11/01/2015
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