Pauline Bonaparte was born on 20 October 1780 as the daughter of Letizia Ramolino and Carlo Buonaparte She was thus the sister of the future Emperor Napoleon. She was known as Paoletta in the family and was just four when her father passed away. She received very little education.
At the age of 15, she became engaged to a man named Stanislaus Fréron, who was 25 years older than her. Her mother was vehemently against the marriage because although Stanislaus lived like a King, not all were sure he was a good match. In addition to his age, he also had two illegitimate children with an Italian, and one more on the way. However, Pauline insisted that she was in love with him. Around this time, Napoleon’s star was on the rise, and he had just married Josephine de Beauharnais, and he expected the rest of his family to marry up. Stanislaus eliminated himself when he was denounced for embezzlement. Pauline did not give up so easily, but at the end of the year, she was summoned to Napoleon’s headquarters in Milan and Stanislaus ended up marrying his mistress.
While in Milan, she met one of her brother’s officers, Adjutant General Emmanuel Leclerc, who was nicknamed, “the blond Napoleon.” Their engagement was announced on 20 April 1797 after Napoleon caught them having sex in his study. The sooner she was married, the better. A friend of her future husband described her as a “singular mix of all that was complete in physical perfection and most bizarre in moral qualities” and “the prettiest and worst-behaved person imaginable.” Pauline and Leclerc were married on 14 June 1797 in a civil ceremony at Mombello, outside Milan. Pauline soon fell pregnant, and she gave birth to a son named Dermide Louis Napoleon Leclerc on 20 April 1798. The birth was very difficult, and Pauline was left with health problems for the rest of her life. Several years later, she was diagnosed with an inflammation of the fallopian tubes, which may have stemmed from the birth.
Her husband too suffered from ill-health, and he was transferred to Paris, to the delight of his wife. However, he was soon posted abroad again and left his wife behind who, according to the daughter of a family friend, was soon juggling three lovers. “Madame Leclerc treated her husband despotically, and yet she went in fear, not that her husband would rebuke her, but that the first consul (Napoleon) would.”
In 1801, Leclerc was placed in command of a fleet whose mission it was to retake the island of Saint-Domingue. One of Pauline’s lovers reminisced, “There were five of us sharing her favours in the same house before she left for Saint-Domingue… she was the greatest hussy you can imagine, but also the most tempting.” Pauline and Leclerc set sail on 14 December 1801, and the rebellion was crushed in 40 days. The glory was shortlived, and rebellion flared up once more. On 22 October 1802, Leclerq fell ill with yellow fever. He died just ten days later, on 1 November, at the age of 30. Pauline returned to Paris in widow’s weeds.
In April 1803, Pauline was introduced to Prince Camillo Borghese, who was apparently unable to carry on a conversation. The wedding was set for November, to complete a full year of mourning for her first husband, but Pauline consummated the relationship in July. She then proceeded to secretly marry him on 28 August. She immediately regretted her second marriage, despite the title of Princess that came with it. She was soon taking lovers again. While Pauline and Camillo were in Tuscany, news arrived that her six-year-old son Dermide had died of a fever. Pauline blamed Camillo for his death, “Without you, I never would have been separated from him, and he would still be alive. What will the Emperor have to say? And my family? Leave, monsieur, I cannot bear the sight of you. You, the butcher of my son!” She began to refer to her husband as “His Serene Idiot.”
The Emperor gave Pauline Guastalla, making her Duchess of Guastalla and she was delighted until she learned that it was “just” a village. She eventually sold the duchy to the Kingdom of Italy. Her physical condition began to deteriorate at this point, and the abdominal pain was often so bad that she insisted on being carried around. The doctors prescribed abstinence and medicinal baths. By 1812, she was in so much pain that doctors advised the application of leeches to her genitals, in addition to purgatives, douches and bleedings. Applying leeches to the genitals was also used to treat the effects of gonorrhea.
In 1814, her brother was forced to abdicate, and he was exiled to Elba, and Pauline insisted on joining him there. The following year, as Napoleon made his daring escape, Pauline sought sanctuary in Italy, but she was placed under house arrest upon arrival. Just 100 days later, he was again out of power and exiled to the island of St. Helena. Pauline was granted refuge in Rome. Camillo began divorce proceedings against her, but she was determined to hold onto her title. By 1824, the Pope urged them to resume cohabitation, but for Pauline, the end was already near. She had begun to suffer from pulmonary tuberculosis.
On 9 June 1825, 44-year-old Pauline received the last rites and dictated her will. She died later that same day, probably from a tumour of the stomach. 1