- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

In 1910, when famed jeweler Pierre Cartier told 24-year-old Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean that the Hope Diamond was “cursed,” the first thing she thought was, “Oh, goody.”

So in January 1911, she and her husband, Ned, paid $154,000 for the 45-carat walnut-size diamond. She took it to a priest to have it blessed and then treated the deep-blue gem as a party favor, tossing it into the swimming pool and letting guests dive for it. She let her Great Danes wear it.

What about the supposed supernatural curse that brought bad luck to anyone who touched it?

“It was a marketing ploy to entice her. She liked the notoriety of it,” says Richard Kurin, author of a new book on the most infamous bling in the world. (Just for reference, most engagement rings are 1 carat or less.)

As director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Mr. Kurin spent 13 years tracking down the history of the Hope Diamond, traveling to Russia, Germany, Switzerland, England and France on a “cultural archaeological” dig to uncover the secrets of the diamond. “Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem” is a page turner, much in the league with “The Da Vinci Code.”

“Except this is real,” says Mr. Kurin, who holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology. The “Da Vinci Code” was a fun read, but this is all true.

The diamond was discovered in 17th-century India and supposedly carried a legendary ancient curse. It made its appearance in France during the Revolution (worn by Marie Antoinette) and in England during the reign of King George IV.

It finally arrived in America during the Gilded Age, then into the hands of “Diamond King” Harry Winston who finally, in 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian. It’s the most visited object in the world, attracting about 5 million visitors a year.

“People have heard of the curse. They know it’s famous. It’s like a celebrity thing,” Mr. Kurin says.

Mrs. McLean, daughter of a gold miner who struck it rich, was a celebrated hostess and spoiled wife of the former owner of The Washington Post. She and her husband drank heavily and socialized with Alice Roosevelt and those in Bar Harbor and Newport, including Doris Duke’s mother, Nanaline.

In 1919, the McLeans and their three children — Vinson, John II and Ned Jr. — moved to Friendship, the 76-acre family estate in Northwest Washington. While Ned and Evalyn were attending the Kentucky Derby that May, 9-year-old Vinson was playing by the roadside and was hit by a car. He died hours later.

Superstition about the Hope Diamond became the talk of Washington.

There also was more than enough schadenfreude regarding free-spending, feckless, rich high society, its fear of kidnapping and the notion of cursed diamonds.

The McLeans — who by this time had a daughter Evie — became good friends with President Harding and his wife, Florence. (Ned often was asked to handle blackmail attempts from Harding’s former lovers.) However, the Teapot Dome scandal — in which Ned was involved — put an end to the administration.

Ned became a serious alcoholic, given to bizarre behavior. By the late 1920s, the family began to decline. The Washington Post was heading for bankruptcy.

The McLeans officially separated in 1929. When Ned tried to file for divorce, Evalyn had him committed to an insane asylum in Towson, Md., where he died in 1941.

Five years later, Evalyn’s daughter Evie committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

In her autobiography, however, Evalyn Walsh McLean wrote: “What tragedies have befallen me might have occurred had I never seen or touched the diamond.”

She died in 1947, leaving huge debts and unpaid bills.

To settle the estate, her jewels — including the Hope Diamond — would be sold to Harry Winston, a New York gem dealer, who had “diamonditis,” Mr. Kurin says. He bought the fabled gem for $177,000, roughly worth $1.6 million in today’s currency. Mr. Winston took the Hope Diamond on tour as part of his Court of Jewels, and finally donated it to the Smithsonian.

“We almost lost it,” says Mr. Kurin, explaining the bureaucratic red tape involving a $1 million tax deduction for the jeweler.

It was appraised at $200 million in 1995.

As for Hollywood, Mr. Kurin says the legend of the Hope Diamond might be boffo at the box office.

“It would be a great movie,” he says, “but Steven Spielberg hasn’t called me yet.”

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