The infamous diamond first came to Washington via one of its last owners, Evalyn Walsh McLean. She was an heiress to a gold mine fortune and in 1909 married the equally wealthy Ned McLean, whose father made his money in natural gas and owned The Washington Post. The rich young couple quickly became the stars of Washington society. Their 60-acre “Friendship” estate in Northwest Washington, with its huge Georgian mansion, became the mecca for the most spectacular parties in town, including one that Evalyn gave for 48 friends which cost her $40,000. But then, she also spent a million dollars on a party to celebrate her dog’s birthday. While Ned imported sod from Switzerland to build an 18-hole golf course on the estate for his pal, President Warren G. Harding, party-going Cole Porter immortalized Evalyn in his song “Anything Goes” which includes a verse about “Missus Ned McLean ( God bless her) … .”
The McLeans’ encounter with the Hope Diamond took place in Paris in 1911. Jeweler Pierre Cartier visited them at the Hotel Bristol to show them a bauble they might like. Mrs. McLean didn’t like the gem’s setting, so Cartier reset the jewel and presented it to them two months later. Cartier told her how its owners met with bad luck and how it had hung around the neck of the ill-fated Marie Antoinette, but Evalyn was a non-conformist. She believed that what was unlucky for others would bring her good fortune. More important, she believed the diamond would guarantee her celebrity back in Washington. Ned agreed; they bought the diamond for the fabulous sum of $180,000 and brought it back to “Friendship.”
Evalyn wore the diamond almost every day. She warned others not to touch it, for fear the curse would rub off on them. When the young couple returned home from France, Ned’s mother and a friend both picked up the stone to examine it more closely. They both died within the year. It was the first in a string of misfortunes. Ned and Evalyn’s son Vinson, dubbed the “Million Dollar Baby “when he was born, was hit by a car while crossing Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Friendship Estate, and died a few days later. Ned McLean’s connection with President Harding ruined his reputation when he got mixed up in the Teapot Dome scandal. Ned became a hopeless alcoholic and got involved in a series of well-publicized infidelities and scandals. Eventually the bankrupt Washington Post was sold at auction to Eugene Meyer, father of Katherine Graham. Ned Mclean ended up in an insane asylum and died there in 1941. Evalyn’s daughter died a few years later of a drug overdose.
Evalyn was in and out of debt for the remaining years of her life, pawning the precious Hope Diamond whenever she ran short of funds. She died in 1947 from an infection she got while recovering from a broken hip. It may or may not have been due to the curse, but the McLeans managed to run through a combined inheritance of over $100 million (which would be billions in today’s dollars).
Evalyn never blamed the Hope Diamond for her misfortunes. In her book Father Struck It Rich, she said, “tragedies, for anyone who lives, are not escapable.” After her death, the diamond was sold at auction to jewelry store magnate Harry Winston, who donated it to the Smithsonian, where it is visited every week by thousands of people. The three-inch thick walls of glass prevent curious viewers from touching the stone, and that’s probably just as well.