EVALYN WALSH McCLEAN AND THE CURSE OF THE HOPE DIAMOND
Posted June 18, 2015on:
I suppose, for many, there is something darkly satisfying about someone being born to great wealth, who then has a life of misery. On the grounds that you can’t expect happiness as well as money, that would be just rubbing everybody’s noses in it. For that reason the tales of the Poor Little Rich Girls, like Barbara Hutton, Doris Duke, Christina Onassis etc, exert a grim fascination.
With the story of American heiress Evalyn Walsh McClean came the added Curse of the Hope Diamond. In fact Evalyn was to be the last private owner of this notorious gemstone. The Hope Diamond (named after one of it’s many owners, Thomas Hope 1769-1831), was discovered in the Andhra Pradesh area of India in the mid-17th century. A greyish-blue in colour – which makes me think of the Blue Carbuncle in the Sherlock Holmes story – it could also appear to glow red in some lights. A French merchant, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, brought it home to Paris in 1642, and sold it to the Sun King, Louis XIV. The Curse doesn’t seem to have affected him unduly, as he had a long and prosperous reign, but one of his successors, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, were less lucky, both losing their lives at the guillotine. One of Marie Antoinette’s closest friends, the Princesse de Lamballe, had borrowed the diamond sometimes, and was to suffer an appalling fate when she was torn to pieces by a revolutionary mob, and her head paraded outside Marie Antoinette’s prison on a stick.
The diamond was to change hands many times over the following decades, (including at one time belonging to King George IV, although that’s in dispute), and the legends around it seem to have been born from trashy tabloid articles in the early 20th century, which liked to harp on about how every owner had suffered terrible misfortune, usually ending in fatal accident or suicide. More than 20 people closely associated with the diamond were said to have met with disaster in one form or another. A lot of the dark stories seemed to emanate from May Yohe, an American musical actress, who had married Lord Francis Hope in the 1890s, and had blamed his bankruptcy, and her own bad luck, on the diamond.
In 1908 a Russian nobleman, Prince Kanitovski, had presented it as a gift to his mistress, Mademoiselle Lorens Ladue, a star of the Folies Bergere. Within two days Mlle Ladue had been shot by a spurned lover, and the Prince was stabbed in a Paris street. The Diamond passed to Sultan Abdul Hamid, who shot dead his favourite wife in a rage. It then went to a Greek broker, who perished, along with his wife and child, when his horse and carriage bolted over a precipice.
To be honest, even if you’re skeptical about curses, the Diamond’s blood-soaked history would probably have made many people wary at this point. Not Evalyn. She laughed at such nonsense, even claiming “bad luck objects are lucky for me”. The Diamond was presented to her in her Paris hotel by no less than Pierre Cartier. He took the trouble to warn her of it’s curse, but Evalyn wasn’t having any of that. She was made of tougher stuff.
Evalyn had been born on 1 August 1886, the only daughter of an Irish miner and prospector, Tom Walsh, who had left Ireland to escape the Famine in the 1840s, and had struck gold in the mountains of Colorado. Evalyn had had a lavish upbringing. Privately educated in Paris, and given a cool $10,000 allowance, plus credit at all the best shops. Her fiery father though didn’t like her preference for hobnobbing with Bohemian types and ordered her home. Evalyn returned with 8 trunks full of dresses and fur coats. The next time she returned to Europe, her father insisted on coming with her.
Back in America, in 1905, Tom Walsh brought a house in Newport, which had once belonged to William Waldorf Astor, and which was said to “reek with bad luck”. The Walshes weren’t going to take any notice of such baloney. Tom had presented his daughter with a red Mercedes, as a reward for dumping an Italian prince he didn’t approve of. Evalyn was mad about cars, and had gone out driving with her brother Vinson. The car blew a tyre as it was crossing a bridge, and landed upside down in the river below. Vinson was killed. Evalyn was pulled from the wreckage, but she became addicted to the morphine that was prescribed for her fractured leg, and the accident left her with a permanent bald patch on the back of her head.
The Walshes vacated their Newport home. In July 1908 Evalyn married Edward Beale McLean, heir to a publishing fortune. The couple embarked on a whirlwind tour of exotic travel and stupendous extravagance. They travelled extensively in the Middle East, and whilst in Turkey, they met the Sultan Abdul Hamid. It was there that Evalyn made the acquaintance of the Hope Diamond for the first time. She spotted it round the neck of Salma Zubayaba, one of the Sultan’s favourite women. Evalyn privately expressed a yearning to her husband that “I’d give the world to have it, Ned”. Her turn would come.
The Curse seems to have been a slow-burner at first. Edward and Evalyn returned to America, and lived like royalty. They entertained lavishly at their homes on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, and Black Point Farm, Newport. She gave birth to a son Vinson, named after her dead brother. Vinson was nicknamed “the one million dollar baby”, for his pampered lifestyle. Nothing was too much for him. But by some terrible quirk of fate, Vinson was to go the way of his namesake and uncle, killed in a car accident.
Evalyn seemed to seek solace in spending money. She became even more extravagant, and hated being alone. She never went to bed before six AM, and her parties were legendary. On a trip to Russia she became immortalised in the Cole Porter song Anything Goes, with the line “When Mrs Ned McLean (God bless her) / can get Russian reds to yes her / then I suppose / Anything Goes”.
Times were a-changing though. The 1930s brought the Great Depression, and Evalyn’s antics must have seemed obscene to ordinary people. Her love of jewellery continued undaunted though. When Cartier presented her with a ruby-and-emerald bracelet, Evalyn said she automatically felt like a new woman when he put it on her. Her spending was catching up with her though, and her husband felt pursued by creditors. The family newspaper, the Washington Post, went bankrupt. The strain of it all got too much for Ned, and he ended up in a mental institution.
In 1947 Evalyn’s daughter, Evalyn Beale McLean, committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Evalyn was to die soon after, at the age of 60, from pneumonia. Evalyn had predicted she would die bankrupt, and she almost managed it, leaving $606,000. (She did better than Woolworth’s heiress, Barbara Hutton, who left only a couple of thousand dollars in her bank account on her passing).
The Hope Diamond was left to her six grandchildren, but her beloved jewellery collection had to be sold off to meet her debts. The Diamond was bought by a New York diamond merchant, Harry Winston, in 1949, who exhibited it around the world. In 1958 Winston was persuaded to donate it to the Smithsonian Museum, where it has resided to this day. Neither Harry Winston nor Evalyn Walsh McLean ever believed the Diamond was to blame for anyone’s misfortunes. And there is no doubt that with big money can come big problems. If you live as high on the hog as Evalyn, and many other owners of the Diamond did, then problems are bound to catch up with you sooner or later.
But perhaps, in some ways, it’s a relief the Hope Diamond is no longer in private ownership.
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