As many around the world celebrate Halloween this weekend, it’s time once again to turn to one of the most chilling gemstones of all: the Hope Diamond. Today, we’re looking closely at the years when Evalyn Walsh McLean owned the diamond, to try to answer a lingering question: did the gemstone really bring the family bad luck?
In the summer of 1908, the only surviving children of two wealthy American families were married in Denver. The groom, Edward Beale McLean, was the son of the owner of the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Evalyn Walsh, his bride, was the daughter of an Irish-American gold mine owner, Thomas Walsh. Ned and Evalyn, pictured above with their pet dogs, were an eccentric, wealthy pair. In her 1936 memoir, Evalyn described her new husband as “so changeable that at times I felt quite polyandrous.” One New York Times article, in 1911, noted, “Both Ned McLean and his pretty wife are quite young, and in a way unsophisticated, although they were born and reared in an atmosphere of wealth and luxury.”
Francesca Cartier Brickell, in her recent book about her family’s famous jewelry firm, puts it plainly: “The young couple, it was widely reported, had far more money than sense.” Indeed, when they embarked on a honeymoon trip around the world after their wedding, their pockets were stuffed with $200,000 cash, thanks to the generosity of their fathers. (The sum is something in the neighborhood of $6 million in today’s money.)
While in Paris, the impetuous young couple strolled into the Cartier flagship store at 13 Rue de Paix. By then, the famed Cartier firm was being run by three brothers: Pierre (pictured above with his wife and daughter), Jacques, and Louis Cartier. Evalyn was a familiar customer; she had frequented the Paris shop with her father. Ned and Evalyn were particularly captivated by a 94.8-carat pear-shaped diamond, known as the “Star of the East.” The price tag was high: $120,000.
But neither of the McLeans hesitated. Evalyn remembered gasping, “Ned, it’s got me! I’ll never get away from the spell of this!” They convinced themselves that the diamond was a smart investment, and after they “signed a receipt,” Evalyn wrote, “Cartier allowed us children to walk out with the Star of the East.” Wearing it, she recalled, made her feel “half-drunk with excitement.” She smuggled it back into the United States to avoid paying the exorbitant customs fees.
A few years later, after the Cartiers acquired another fantastic diamond, Pierre knew that the McLeans were potential targets to buy the gem. The Hope Diamond, a remarkable blue diamond measuring in at more than 45 carats, had a complicated, meandering history. It was likely originally found in India, and it may have spent time in the French royal vaults. It took its name from Henry Philip Hope, a Dutch banker and collector who owned it during the nineteenth century.
The Cartiers had purchased the diamond from another French jewelry merchant. In 1910, when the McLeans made another trip to Paris, Pierre decided to show the diamond to them at their hotel. He arrived, with the diamond in tow, as the couple were having breakfast. Cartier regaled the couple with tales of the diamond’s purported history, from the court of Versailles to the Sultan’s harem in Turkey, all while keeping the stone hidden inside a sealed package. Evalyn grew impatient and irritated, and asked to see the diamond right away.
As he unwrapped the diamond and revealed it to the McLeans, Pierre explained that the diamond had unfortunately also been reported to bring bad luck to its owners. Evalyn dismissed the idea of a curse. “Bad luck objects for me are lucky,” she stated. Perhaps she felt she didn’t have much left to fear. Her father had recently died, and several years earlier, she had survived the automobile accident in Newport that had killed her only brother, Vinson. But, regardless of her feelings about the supposed curse, the McLeans didn’t buy the diamond that day, apparently because Evalyn wasn’t a fan of the setting.
Back in Washington, the McLeans were reunited with their young son, Vinson (pictured above with his parents). But Pierre Cartier wasn’t ready to give up on his customers. He shipped the diamond to the United States and sailed back to New York (aboard the Lusitania!). He wrote to the McLeans, advising them that he’d be “honoured” to have a second appointment to show them the stone. The setting had been changed, with the blue diamond resting in a smaller diamond cluster and suspended from a diamond chain.
Evalyn still wasn’t convinced that they should buy the diamond, but Pierre pressed her, suggesting that she should keep the diamond for a few days to think on the matter. She put the diamond on the dresser in her bedroom, and its magic began to work on her. “At some time during the night,” she remembered, “I began to want the thing.”
The McLeans wrote to Cartier and confirmed that they would buy the Hope Diamond, paying the agreed-upon price in a series of installments. (Sources disagree about the price. In her memoir, Evalyn says it was $154,000; Francesca Cartier Brickell states that it was $180,000, and includes a photo of the receipt.) When Ned’s mother heard about the purchase, she was shocked and angry. She fully believed that the diamond was cursed, and she tried to compel Evalyn to return it. At one point, she did send the diamond back to Cartier, but the firm immediately returned it. There were also disagreements about the payment plan, eventually leading to legal action. The sale wasn’t settled until 1912, and it included a unique, notable clause: it was “the customer’s privilege to exchange goods in case of fatality.” If the curse proved true, Evalyn would be able to swap the jewel for another—assuming that she was still alive.
Did Evalyn Walsh McLean believe that her new diamond was cursed? She clarifies in her memoir. “Do I believe a lot of silly superstitions, legends of the diamond? I must confess I know better and yet, knowing better, I believe. By that I mean I never let my friends or children touch it. Call it a foolish woman’s fetish if you like; after you have said so without contradiction, let me say that I have come to feel—not think—that I have developed a sort of immunity to its evil. What tragedies have befallen me might have occurred had I never seen or touched the diamond. I have sense enough to know that fortunetellers gain fame as prophets by habitually predicting probabilities. My observations have persuaded me that tragedies, for anyone who lives, are not escapable.” Regardless, she had the diamond blessed by a priest, just to be sure.
Evalyn began wearing the diamond early and often. The New York Times reported in February 1912 that she wore the gem in public for the first time at a “brilliant reception in the Walsh mansion on Massachusetts Avenue” in Washington, D.C. She would have been an incredibly glittering sight, as she wore the Star of the East that night, too. For years, the Hope Diamond was a fixture around Evalyn’s neck, in portraits and at social events. She sometimes let her Great Dane wear the stone, and, although she wrote that she never let friends touch the stone, she reportedly loved to play scavenger hunt games at her parties, hiding the Hope in the garden for others to find it.
Whether Evalyn believed in the curse or not, her family did go through some truly awful things during the years that she owned the Hope Diamond. The first blow was dealt in May 1919, seven years after the purchase. Ned and Evalyn’s beloved eldest son, Vinson, was killed in a terrible accident. The nine-year-old boy darted into the street in front of the family home, after catching sight of an acquaintance. He was struck by a car and died.
The McLeans, as part of Washington society, had always moved in social circles that included prominent political figures. Above, in February 1921, Ned and Evalyn pose with their second son, Jock, as well as President-Elect Warren Harding and his wife, Florence, in Palm Beach. Political scandal visited the door of the McLean home during their time with the diamond, too. McLean was a close friend of Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall. The relationship led McLean to become embroiled in the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which Fall accepted bribes from oil tycoons in exchange for allowing them to drill on reserve lands.
The political problems were only the beginnings of Ned’s scandals. Both he and Evalyn had experienced addiction issues with alcohol and drugs. His increasing problems with alcohol coincided with other major issues. He was unfaithful to Evalyn, and by 1930, she took legal steps to end the marriage and secure spousal support. Ned became more and more erratic, and he spent more and more recklessly. The Washington Post was sold to trustees, and ultimately went bankrupt. And Ned himself was declared insane in court. He died in Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in Maryland, in 1941.
Nothing—not death, scandal, or divorce—kept Evalyn from wearing the diamond, even though some credited the “talisman of evil” with each of the misfortunes she experienced. Above, she wears the diamond in the 1930s with an elaborate dress and a diamond headpiece. At one point during the Depression years, when she needed money to make a mortgage payment, Evalyn did reportedly briefly pawn the Hope Diamond in New York. When she went to retrieve the diamond, Brickell notes that she didn’t bring a bodyguard or even a bag; instead, she “stuffed the diamond…into her dress and set off uptown to meet some friends.”
One of the final tragedies of Evalyn’s life took place in the autumn of 1946. Her only daughter, Evie, had married a much older man, Senator Robert Rice Reynolds of North Carolina, just a few months after Ned’s death. Five years later, Evie was found dead in her bedroom at Evalyn’s home, Friendship, in Washington. The cause of death was determined to be an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
Through it all, Evalyn continued to wear the diamond, as well as all of her other incredible sparkling jewels. This photograph, taken in 1936, is from the Library of Congress collection. The archival caption reads, “Mrs. E.B. McLean, with her Hope diamond and a armload of jewels seems to be deep in thought as to where her next load of diamonds are coming from.”
Evalyn died of pneumonia in Washington in April 1947. She was only 60 years old. In her will, she bequeathed the Hope Diamond to her grandchildren, leaving it in the care of trustees until they reached the age of 25. The trustees, though, sought and received permission to sell the diamond instead.
The diamond, along with the rest of Evalyn’s extensive jewelry collection, was bought by Harry Winston in 1949. Nine years later, Winston donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It has been in the museum collection ever since, and it’s one of the most visited pieces at the National Museum of Natural History.