Evalyn Walsh McLean was one of a kind, the feisty daughter of an Irish immigrant who struck gold lots of gold during the height of the rush for riches in the wild west at the turn of the century. With this new found wealth, Tom Walsh moved his family east to Washington, DC.
"That was when everyone had started coming to Washington who had money," says columnist Sarah Booth Conroy. "It was a big thing then to come to Washington and become a part of the national scene, and that's when all these big houses were built. It was considered the thing to do to come here, and go to parties maybe three parties in one night, for heavens sakes!"
The Walsh mansion on Massachusetts Avenue became the scene of some of the most lavish entertaining in Washington. Evalyn's wild tomboy days were over, and her grooming as a debutante began.
"An agreement was reached in our family for me to go to Paris to study music, French and other parlor tricks of ladies," said Evalyn in her autobiography, Father Struck It Rich. "By some school magic, I was to become a lady!" "She was supposed to be sent there to make a good match, you know," adds Conroy. "What she really did was to buy out the whole town of Paris... innumerable dresses from Worth and all of those places. And her father heard that she was living the high life in Paris, and he thought that she had better come home, so he canceled her credit. But she had the foresight to know that he would do that, so she bought everything in town first. And she brought tons of stuff back with her."
Evalyn changed her wardrobe and hairdo with the days of the week, returning from one trip with an outrageous new look. "She came back from a visit to Europe with a very fancy hairdo," says Conroy."It was so complicated she couldn't wash her hair because nobody could put it back together. And her father just hated it, and all the girls at school made fun of her. And the headmistress said, 'You just can't do that.' So her father asked, 'Well, what would it take to make you put your hair back like everybody else?' And Evalyn answered, 'Jewelry!' So he gave her a beautiful bracelet that was very elegant and that was one of her first acquisitions." As Evalyn said at the time, "I cannot help it if I have a passion for jewels. The truth is, when I neglect to wear them, astute members of my family call in doctors!"
In 1908, Evalyn eloped, against her family's best advice, with the handsome heir to the Washington Post fortune, Edward Beale McLean. With $200,000 in "pin" money as a wedding gift from both families, the newlyweds sailed off on a three-month honeymoon to Europe and the Mid-East. At the end of the trip, Evalyn and Ned arrived in Paris without even enough money left to pay the hotel bill. "So I cabled my father and he sent me fresh credit and his love," said Evalyn. "Then I went to Cartier's. That is the way I always get into trouble when I have some money in my hands. They were lovely and, of course, they knew me and my Dad..."