When Evalyn and Ned McLean got married in 1908, they seemed to have it all. A golden couple, they had wealth, connections and loving families. As a wedding present, the McLeans got a summer cottage (read “mansion”) in Bar Harbor, Maine. Bar Harbor had for decades been a magnet for Gilded Age show-offs.
That first summer was perhaps their happiest. But then their lives over the next 30 years would descend into madness, scandal and ruin. Their demise almost coincided perfectly with their ownership of the Hope diamond.
Was it bad luck, brought on by the Hope diamond, or their own recklessness and mental illness?
Or was it just too much money? Evalyn, after their divorce, wrote that Ned’s problem was “unearned wealth in undisciplined hands.”
Pot, meet kettle.
Evalyn, born Aug. 1, 1886, was the daughter of an Irish immigrant carpenter, Thomas Walsh, and Carrie Bell Reed, his school teacher wife. During Evalyn’s early years, she and her brother traveled the west with her parents as her father prospected for gold. When she was 10, he came into her bedroom and said, “Daughter, I’ve struck it rich.” He had found the Camp Bird gold mine in Colorado, one of the most lucrative ever.
The family moved to Washington, D.C., where they ate off gold plates in their 60-room mansion. Evalyn went to school in her own coach with matched horses and a coachman who wore silk. If she wasn’t wearing jewelry, Evalyn said, you knew she wasn’t feeling well.
Ned McLean came from older money and more distinguished ancestors — military heroes, diplomats, explorers, capitalists. His mother, Emily Truxtun Beale, was the daughter of Edward Fitzgerald Beale, a prominent diplomat, explorer and military officer. His father, John Roll McLean, co-founded the Great Falls and Old Dominion Railroad in Virginia, and the town that grew up around it was named McLean. The elder McLean also owned the Cincinnati Post and part of the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Later he bought the Washington Post.
As Evalyn later observed in her autobiography, the Beale genes had weakened by the time they got to Ned.
Ned and Evalyn
Ned met Evalyn in dancing class when she was 11 and he was eight. He fell in love with her at first sight. He asked her to marry him a number of times, but she refused because of his heavy drinking.
When she finally said yes in 1908, they eloped to Colorado. Their parents gave them $200,000 for a three-month honeymoon in Europe and the Middle East. They blew through it all and couldn’t pay their hotel bill in Paris.
They moved into a huge mansions called Friendship in Washington, D.C. From there they hobnobbed with heads of state, traveled the world and partied around the clock.
One of their lavish parties prompted a guest to remark, “This is what brings on revolutions.”
Ned befriended President Warren G. Harding, who Evalyn thought might be a good influence on Ned. It turned out that Ned was a bad influence on the president.
The McLeans Buy the Hope Diamond
In 1910 in Paris, the McLeans first saw the Hope diamond. Called the most expensive item you can hold in one hand, it’s now worth $200 million. Pierre Cartier sold it to them after telling them about the curse. A French gem merchant named Tavernier had stolen it from the eye, or maybe the forehead, of a statue of the Hindu goddess Sita. Then wild dogs tore him apart. Another owner, Princess de Lambale, died when a French mob beat her to death. Marie Antoinette owned it. In 1908, Sultan Abdul Hamid bought it and lost his throne. His concubine who wore it died young.
Few of the stories had any truth to them. Tavernier died of old age. Marie Antoinette, however, had owned the diamond.
Ned bought the gem for $154,000 in the offices of the Washington Post, where he worked as managing editor.
To be extra careful, Evalyn had the stone blessed in a church. As the minister said a prayer over it, a flash of lightning toppled a large tree across the street.
Evalyn said she didn’t believe the curse, though she never let her children or her friends touch it. But she let her dog wear it sometimes at parties.
Tragedy Strikes the McLeans
The blessing didn’t seem to work. Ned’s mother, who had told them not to buy the diamond, died within a year of its purchase. Evalyn’s father had died that year as well, and, grief-stricken, she lapsed into morphine addiction. Ned continued to rely on alcohol, sometimes using a sling to steady his drinking hand.
Evalyn’s mental health deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t recognize her party guests, and she started to hallucinate. Ned then had a sanitarium built for her on the top floor of their Washington mansion.
Their first son, Vinson, received quite a lot of publicity as the $100 million baby. The McLeans, fearful of kidnappers, hired bodyguards to keep watch over him. But at the age of nine, the boy slipped away from his minders and ran into the street, where a car ran over him. He died that night. Ned and Evalyn hadn’t been home; they’d gone to Louisville, Ky., to see the races.
Years later, the curse of the Hope diamond would claim another victim. The McLeans’ 19-year-old daughter, Evalyn, wore the gem at her wedding to 57-year-old Robert Rice Reynolds. He was an isolationist, a Nazi sympathizer and co-owner of a fascist anti-Semitic newspaper. Six years into their marriage, she committed suicide.
Evalyn’s real curse, however, seems to have been her husband. At 22, Ned’s father made him managing editor of the Washington Post. He turned the newspaper into a reactionary, juvenile newspaper viewed with disdain by journalists.
Even his pets were dissipated. Ned owned a trained seal and fed it a fifth of whiskey every day. Once he brought a trained bear to a Florida whorehouse, where it mauled two women inside.
While visiting his friend President Harding at the White House, he infuriated the First Lady by urinating into an East Room fireplace.
The McLeans owned two houses near the executive mansion, one of which they rented to Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Daugherty held a round-the-clock party at the house, called the Love Nest. One night, Ned brought call girls and prostitutes to the Love Nest. Things got out of hand and people started throwing things. A bottle struck one of the women in the head, and she died a few days later. An FBI agent who took her to the hospital recalled Harding leaning on the fireplace.
Ned then got implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal. His friend, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, had accepted a bribe to lease oil reserves without asking for bids. Ned, at first, agreed to say he had loaned Fall the money. But the senator who led the investigation into the scandal figured correctly that Ned couldn’t have loaned Fall the money. He was broke.
The Lindbergh Kidnapping
In 1929, Ned left Evalyn for another woman and they divorced. But four years later, Evalyn had her ex-husband committed to an insane asylum, where he once danced the hokey-pokey with Zelda Fitzgerald.
On March 1, 1932, a kidnapper took Charles and Anne Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son from their home in New Jersey. Evalyn, remembering her fears for her young son Vinson, hocked the Hope diamond to raise ransom money for the baby. She gave the money to a rogue FBI agent, who kept the money for himself. The Lindbergh baby was found dead, and the FBI agent went to prison.
Ned died of a heart attack in the insane asylum in 1941, leaving what little money he had left to his common-law wife.
Evalyn never got over the death of her daughter. She had to lease her Washington mansion to the government for office space. In 1947, she died of pneumonia, as the plaster falling from the walls of her home.
Evalyn left the Hope diamond to her grandchildren. In 1947, they sold it to jeweler Harry Winston to pay her estate taxes. In 1958, Winston donated the gem to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where you can see it today.
This story is based on a chapter in Bar Harbor Babylon by Dan and Leslie Landrigan. Click here to see Leslie Landrigan talk about the book on a podcast.