The Notorious Hope Diamond

Hope Diamond

It is the rarest of stones... But that's not the only thing about the Hope Diamond that fascinates Evalyn Walsh McLean, the spoiled young heiress with a multi-million-dollar fortune and a taste for jewelry – expensive jewelry.

Evalyn Walsh McLean
On holiday in Paris in 1911, Evalyn and her husband Ned are at the Hotel Bristol receiving a visit from the Prince of Jewelers himself, Pierre Cartier, who carries with him a curious little package with a wax seal. Hoping to capture the interest of his wealthy and eccentric young client, Cartier has prepared an unusual sales strategy: "I have brought with me a little something you may remember, Madam. For when we last met, you told me of a great blue stone you had seen at the throat of the sultan's favorite in a harem in Turkey. N'est pas..?

We have heard since that the unfortunate woman has been stabbed to death during the Turkish rebellion..."

Cartier's manner is skillfully mysterious, and seeing that Evalyn's interest has been piqued, he begins a well-rehearsed narrative of this most exceptional stone.

illustration of Hope Diamond in early setting
Although Evalyn is enticed by the long and varied history of the Hope Diamond, her husband Ned is of a more practical nature and asks Cartier "How much?" Before Cartier can answer, Evalyn interrupts, "Ned, I don't want the thing. I don't like the setting," putting a quick end to the visit. But it would not be the last Evalyn would hear from Cartier concerning the Hope Diamond.

Cartier has sold exotic gems to Evalyn in the past. The previous year, she had purchased from him a ninety-five carat white diamond – the Star of the East – for $120,000. Recognizing the limited market for a jewel the size and character of the Hope Diamond, Cartier develops a new sales strategy, which he trusts will clinch the deal. Visiting with the McLeans a few months later, he begins to embroider a past for the stone, mesmerizing Evalyn with tales of intrigue, misfortune and death for all who have dared to possess it. "This stone," he claims, "comes with a curse."
"Cartier wanted a lot of money," says Washington Post Columnist Sarah Booth Conroy, "and Evalyn was hesitant. So Cartier added, 'Well, we've fixed it up now with a wonderful setting and you'll like it.
Hope Diamond
Why don't you keep it for a few days?' And so she put it on her dresser and she looked at it and she looked at it..." "For hours that jewel stared at me," remembers Evalyn in her autobiography, "and at some time during the night I began to really want the thing. Then I put the chain around my neck and hooked my life to its destiny for good or evil."

The deal closes at $180,000; Cartier's elaborate sales pitch has worked. The Hope diamond is the largest and most perfect blue diamond in existence, but for the young and impetuous heiress, its fascinating past is the hot selling point. "Besides that," says Conroy, "she thought things that were unlucky for everybody else would be lucky for her, because she was an exception."
Over the next two decades, the McLeans live a charmed life, raising children, vacationing, and entertaining at their mansions in town and their country estate known as Friendship.
Evalyn & Ned with famous guests
No stranger to the rich and powerful of Washington's elite, Evalyn builds her reputation as the town's most flamboyant and exuberant hostess; her parties are the talk of DC society. Invitations run into the thousands, including politicians, tycoons, celebrities and dignitaries from around the world, and Evalyn spares no extravagance to show her guests a good time.

Evalyn makes her appearances in the latest Paris fashions, and always she wears the Hope Diamond. "Well, she had such a strong identification with the diamond," says Conroy. "The diamond was the way
Evalyn Walsh McLean
she portrayed herself to the world. I mean, you would see her across the room and know, 'That must be Evalyn Walsh McLean, because that is the Hope Diamond.'""My own preference, generally, is for show," quips Evalyn in her autobiography. "It's only when the thing I buy creates a show for those around me that I get my money's worth."

But not everyone is as enchanted by the Hope Diamond. Almost every day, Evalyn receives letters from strangers who know she now owns the stone, warning her against its evil powers. They blame past association with it, however removed, for their own bad luck and ruin. Still, Evalyn will not give up the Hope. According to Smithsonian Curator, Jeffrey Post: "She lived a flamboyant lifestyle. She liked being in the spotlight, and the Hope Diamond was one way of keeping her in the spotlight.
But in Washington entertaining can be an expensive proposition, even for a millionairess. "She hocked the diamond a number of times," adds Conroy, "because she was always running out of money. She was not one to manage her money. She just wanted to live in a certain way and that's what it cost. She was not the world's most practical person, but she meant well."
McLean family
Evalyn tries to make her good luck charm work for the good of others, but it can't keep tragedy from her own back door. At the age of nine, her adored first-born son, Vinson, is killed in an automobile accident. Her husband Ned,
Evalyn with daughter
runs off with another woman and dissipates their fortune. A chronic alcoholic, he eventually dies in a sanatorium. Their family newspaper, the Washington Post goes bankrupt and Evalyn is forced to sell some of her properties. Then, in 1946, Evalyn's daughter dies of an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of twenty-five. With each misfortune, rumors of the Hope Diamond's curse resume.
Though notions persist that the diamond is responsible for her bad luck, Evalyn's own views on its legendary powers are more down to earth: "What tragedies have befallen me might have occurred had I never seen or touched the Hope Diamond. My observations have persuaded me that tragedies, for anyone who lives, are not escapable."

In 1947, Evalyn Walsh McLean dies. Her collection of jewelry, including the prized blue diamond, is sold to pay the debts of her estate.

In 1949, New York jeweler Harry Winston purchases Evalyn's collection and sends the
Hope Diamond at Smithsonian
Hope Diamond on a nine year goodwill tour around the United States to raise money for charity. Everywhere it goes, news reports are filled with the stories of its notorious past, rousing curiosity and magnifying the legend. In 1958, in an effort to help develop a major national gem collection for the American people, Harry Winston donates the gen to the Smithsonian Institution. Today the diamond resides in the museum's Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, revolving sedately behind three inches of bullet proof glass in the new Harry Winston Room.

"The Hope Diamond has become the most popular item in the entire Smithsonian Institution," says Post.
Evalyn Walsh McLean
"But let's face it, if Evalyn Walsh McLean never owned the Hope Diamond, it's very unlikely that we would all be sitting here talking about it right now. I would be trying hard to convince you that it's a wonderful natural history object and you should all come and see it, but it would probably not have the same cachet or the same fame as it does now."

"I cannot remember when I did not hunger after thrills," wrote Evalyn. "That is the key to all my recklessness, I fancy. For some thrills I have paid terrific prices, but we live just once, and of all the things in this world, I hate boredom most."


notorious past | savvy sales pitch | one-of-a-kind | becoming a legend
heart of gold | curses debunked | timeline

Mona Lisa
detail from Guernica
Lilies of the Valley Faberge Egg
Hope Diamond
Taj Mahal
scene from Borobudur

Treasures Homepage
| The Series | Education | Home Video | Soundtrack
Crossword Puzzle | Producers' Notebook | Site Map