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High on people’s minds this week is St. Patrick’s Day: chock full of green apparel, shamrocks, and that legendary “luck of the Irish." But a certain famed artifact at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History isn't so much associated with good luck… as bad.
If you look through newspapers from the 1940s, you'll find a number of bad-luck stories associated with one of this artifact’s owners: “Young McLean Heirs To Decide Fate of Tragic Hope Diamond.” “Unlucky McLean Hope Diamond Left In Trust To Grandchildren.” “Diamond Jinx Blamed For Death of Heiress.” “Evalyn McLean Reynolds’ Death Linked With Diamond.”
“And the lede to that piece,” says historian Paul Dickson, “[is] ‘The death of Evalyn Walsh McLean Reynolds, 33-year-old socialite, today added another link to the chain that binds the family’s fabulous Hope Diamond to tragedy.”
For those not familiar with the world’s most famous diamond, the Hope Diamond is about 1 inch in diameter. It’s a rare color — a deep, brilliant blue — and it’s been at the Museum since 1958, in the Harry Winston Gallery: the introductory gallery to our Gems and Minerals Hall.
National Gem and Mineral Collection curator Jeffrey Post has been with the Smithsonian since 1984, and so he can tell you a ton about the Hope Diamond. Like how it came from India in the 1600s, and was sold to a French merchant, who then sold it to Louis the Fourteenth, and it became part of the French Crown Jewels.
The Crown Jewels were stolen during the French Revolution, but 20 years later, in London, a blue diamond appeared for sale. The same blue diamond - which many believe was purchased by King George the Fourth, and then after his death, was acquired by a private collector, Henry Philip Hope.
“And of course it’s the Hope family name that stays with the diamond today,” Post says.
And yet, it can be argued that Hope isn't the diamond’s most famous private owner. The gem eventually wound up in the hands of renowned French jeweler Pierre Cartier, who sold it to one of his best clients: Evalyn Walsh McLean from Washington, D.C.
At the time, her name was pretty much a household word.
“She was in the papers every day; she was very attractive,” explains Paul Dickson.
Her husband, Ned McLean, was the heir to the family that owned The Washington Post, and the couple threw the most flamboyant parties at their mansion, at 2020 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest. The building is now the Indonesian Embassy. They also had another place, now known as McLean Gardens.
In 1911, they bought the Hope Diamond from Cartier, on credit.
“They put, I think, $45,000 down and $1,000 a month until the $179,000 and change was paid for,” Dickson says. “In fact, the papers, when it was paid for, they actually showed a copy of the receipt!”
And this is when those “curse stories” begin. As Dickson tells it, the year after the diamond purchase, Evalyn’s much-adored, first-born son, Vinson, was playing outside the mansion when a car bumped into him.
The woman driving ran to the front door “and said ‘I just bumped into him with my car,’” Dickson recounts. “She was going at a very slow speed.”
As the story goes, Vinson went to the doctor, got x-rays, everything seemed just fine, “and he spends the rest of the day out playing in the yard, comes in at 6:00 and drops dead,” Dickson says.
According to Dickson, at that point, the public went crazy.
“Now the story is that Tavernier, the original French merchant, had plucked [the diamond] from the forehead of a Hindu idol, and after he sold it to the French royalty he was devoured by a pack of dogs,” Dickson explains. “It’s also cited as the approximate cause of Marie Antoinette’s death, etcetera.”
That “etcetera” also includes the death of another relative of Evalyn Walsh McLean: Evalyn Walsh McLean Reynolds, that “33-year-old socialite” from the headlines.
“’Hope Diamond Heiress Is Found Dead In Capital,’” Dickson reads from an old news clipping. “This is the announcement that her granddaughter, beloved granddaughter, has died of an overdose of sleeping pills.”
Throw in the fact that Ned McLean winds up dying in an insane asylum (“He had convinced himself that he was an assassin hired to kill Ned McLean,” Dickson says) and of course the public is going to go nuts.
But, says curator Jeffrey Post, “There’s clearly no evidence that would back up a curse.
“For example, it didn't come from an idol’s eye,” he explains. “And in fact, Tavernier lived to a ripe old age!”
In fact, many of the Diamond’s owners lived long, full lives.
“One of my colleagues here, Richard Kurin, did a careful analysis of all the people who have come in contact with the Hope Diamond, and in fact, their life span is even greater than what you would expect for an average population,” Post says.
What’s more, many of them enjoyed great prosperity.
“You look back and there was a long reign where the French royalty did well in France,” he says. “They acquired the Diamond in 1668 and it wasn’t until 1792 that there was a Revolution. Likewise, you look through the people who owned it in the 1800s, and many of them did pretty well!”
It’s all a matter, he says, of perspective. If you want to create a fabulous story about an object bringing bad luck, “you’ll focus on all the bad things that happened to anybody who happened to be associated with that object.”
And if you want to write a good-luck tale, “then you just focus on all the good things that happened to those people over that period of time."
In the case of the Hope Diamond, Post says the Smithsonian actually has experienced a lot of good since Harry Winston -- who bought McLean’s jewelry after her death — donated the stone.
“These world-famous, spectacular gems that we have here on display with the Hope Diamond – almost all of these came here to the Museum after the Hope Diamond came here,” he says. “It was the gift from Harry Winston that really intrigued people to want to continue this idea of building a great, national gem collection.”
And it’s a collection that millions of people come and visit each year. But while they enjoy all of those “spectacular” gems, the Hope Diamond is pretty much the star. Post says it’s absolutely priceless.
“If there ever was anything that you just can't put a price on, I would say it’s the Hope Diamond,” he says.
But, says Paul Dickson, how could it not be? In addition to being such a rare stone, it’s managed to make its way from India, to France, to Britain, back to France, and, of course, finally here, to D.C.
“And the rest,” he says, “is history.”
"Diamonds Don't Mean a Thing" by Leon Redbone from Red to Blue