McLean, Evalyn Walsh (1886–1947)
McLean, Evalyn Walsh (1886–1947)
American socialite and owner of the Hope diamond . Born on August 1, 1886, in Denver, Colorado; diedon April 26, 1947, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Thomas F. Walsh (a carpenter and gold miner) and Carrie Bell (Reed) Walsh; married Edward Beale McLean, on July 22, 1908 (separated 1928); children: Vinson McLean (died young); John R. McLean; Edward Beale McLean; Evalyn Washington McLean Reynolds (died 1946).
Father found gold (1896); moved to Washington, D.C. (1898); moved to Paris (1904); bought Hope diamond (c. 1909); entered upper stratum of Washington society (1916); left husband (1927); became involved in Lindbergh kidnapping reward campaign (1932).
Father Struck It Rich (autobiography, 1936).
Evalyn Walsh McLean was a mining heiress and renowned Washington hostess best remembered for her extravagant soirées and profligate spending habits. She also owned the storied Hope diamond, a 44.52-carat jewel rumored to bring bad luck to its owners. McLean was born Evalyn Walsh in Denver, Colorado, in 1886, under anything but moneyed surroundings. Her father was an Irish immigrant and carpenter who bought and sold small abandoned mines in the West, hoping to strike it rich. He also spent
time as a storekeeper and hotelier. At age ten, McLean's life was changed forever when her father did indeed find gold quartz near Ouray; she detailed this rags-to-riches tale in her 1936 autobiography Father Struck It Rich.
McLean initially had a hard time making the transition to wealth; a notorious tomboy, she had little formal schooling even after her family moved to Washington, D.C. They frequently sailed to Europe, and on one occasion there her parents put her in a convent to restrict her troublemaking. In 1904, she was allowed to move to Paris to study music, and was provided by her father's bankers with a $10,000 letter of credit. She used it to buy a sports car. Her parents worked diligently, though unsuccessfully, to prevent her marriage to Edward Beale McLean, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship. The scion of a newspaper family that owned both the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Washington Post, "Ned," as he was called, had spending habits as lavish as her own. In 1905, McLean was in an automobile accident in which her brother Vinson was killed. Her leg was seriously injured, then badly set, and as a result she underwent a dangerous operation that brought on an addiction to morphine for a time.
Evalyn and Ned eloped in 1908, after which both sets of parents reconciled themselves to the situation and gave the newlyweds generous cash gifts. They spent the money on an extravagant European honeymoon, during which Ned bought her a famed jewel called the Star of the East. They also viewed the Hope diamond at Cartier in Paris; after their return to the United States, McLean bought that huge stone as well, although she knew of its reputation as a bringer of bad luck. Raised a Catholic, she simply called a priest and had him bless the stone in a gesture to remove the alleged curse.
The McLeans lived in a summer home in Bar Harbor purchased for them by her father, who also gave them an allowance of $1,000 a month that never lasted the 30 days. Ned McLean drank and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy several times. McLean had her first child in 1909, a son she named after her late brother Vinson (the boy would die in a traffic accident at the age of nine); three more children followed. The McLeans' life was further stabilized when Ned gained control of his family's newspapers in 1916, after his father appeared to grow mentally unstable. Control of the Post placed the McLeans inside Washington's upper echelons of non-elected power-brokers, a position they relished. The family home was a rambling northwest D.C. estate called Friendship, where McLean kept a llama, and which reportedly had the highest private electric bill in the capital. They were known for throwing outstanding dinner parties that included both the city's old guard and new legislators; McLean loved to seat ideological or personal enemies next to each other at her tables. At one of her lavish soirées, a senator surveyed the ballroom and remarked, "This sort of thing is what brings on a revolution."
Ned McLean became friends with President Warren G. Harding, who often dined at their home, and in 1924 became involved in Harding's Teapot Dome scandal. Under oath, he lied to protect Albert B. Fall, secretary of the interior, then recanted his testimony. The debacle ended the McLeans' social prominence in Washington for a time. McLean left her husband several years later and raised their three children in a much stricter manner than her own upbringing. Like his father, Ned McLean grew unstable; in 1933, he entered a mental hospital, and died there in 1941.
During the depression years of the 1930s McLean, while maintaining her opulent lifestyle, became known for her extravagant acts of charity. She grew sympathetic to what was called the Bonus Army—the thousands of out-of-work men who converged on the nation's capital for aid during the only massive protest of the Great Depression—and convinced a restaurant owner to make them 1,000 sandwiches in the middle of the night. She also bought them cots, books, and cigarettes with her own funds before they were driven out of town. In 1932, McLean pawned the Hope diamond to raise $100,000 which she gave to a convicted felon who said he knew the whereabouts of the kidnapped baby of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh ; the man promptly disappeared. (He was later sent to prison for the scam, and the diamond was returned to McLean.) Gradually such acts dissipated her fortune, and the Post was sold in 1933 to the Meyer family right around the time their daughter, Katharine Graham , was in college; it is still in the Graham family.
McLean continued to entertain lavishly at her Georgetown home during the war years as well. Her daughter Evalyn McLean Reynolds married a senator, but died while still in her 20s. McLean herself died of pneumonia at the age of 60 on an April night in 1947. Her servants phoned U.S. Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, a family friend, upon her death, unsure of how the priceless jewel collection should be guarded. Murphy took the Hope diamond and the rest of the jewels and rode around in a taxicab all night, finally putting them in a safety-deposit box after the banks opened in the morning. Two years later, the McLean jewels were sold to New York jeweler Harry Winston; in 1958, Winston donated the Hope diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it remains on display.
Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943, 1947.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Kernan, Michael. "Around the Mall and Beyond," in Smithsonian, May 1995, p. 18.
McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.
McLean, Evalyn Walsh, with Boyden Sparks. Father Struck It Rich, 1936.
Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan