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The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem
Gift to the Nation
On Monday morning, November 10, 1958, public faith in the U.S. government was literally wrapped up in the performance of James Todd, a 34-year-old postman -- and he was late!
Three days before, Paul Haase, a former policeman working in a Fifth Avenue shipping department, had carried a plainly wrapped package on the subway to New York City's general post office. The package was addressed simply, "Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Attention: Dr. Leonard Carmichael." It weighed 61 ounces. Insured for $1 million, the postage came to $145.29.1
From Washington's city post office, Todd, a Navy veteran with a somewhat troubled past, was entrusted to make the delivery. Un-accompanied, and with no weapon, it was just Todd and the Hope diamond.
The method was typical of the no-nonsense "King of Diamonds" Harry Winston, the famed jewelry merchant. By sending the diamond by mail he had the whole U.S. government protecting it. "It's the safest way to mail gems," he confidently declared.2
Mindful of the potential publicity bonanza -- or nightmare if the delivery was not consummated -- U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield awaited the arrival of the package with its intended recipient, Leonard Carmichael, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. They had assembled in the recently reconstructed Gem Room of the National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) along with distinguished guests for an 11:30 ceremony.
Foremost among the guests was the good-natured Edna Winstonrepresenting her husband and his company, Harry Winston, Inc. -- the donor and still legally the owner of the diamond, accompanied by her 17-year-old son Ronald. Others included society mavens Gwen Cafritz, Polly Guggenheim, and Nan Chase, the latter being the personal assistant of the deceased Evalyn Walsh McLean, who had owned the Hope diamond prior to Winston. George Switzer, the museum's curator of mineralogy who had pursued the donation, was ready to take possession of the famed gem. A retinue of Smithsonian guards, local police, and postal inspectors also milled expectantly.
Postman Todd put the package in his sedan and drove to the museum at 10th Street and Constitution, barely a mile away. The Hope diamond had, after a long period of negotiation and uncertainty, arrived at the Smithsonian.
At 11:45 a.m. Todd handed over the package to Carmichael who duly signed a receipt. Carmichael passed the package to Switzer, who carefully unwrapped the brown paper to reveal a simple but elegant rectangular jewelry case, much to the relief of the Postmaster General and the other guests. Todd later admitted that the television cameras and all the "hoopla" had made him a "little shaky."3
Edna Winston held up the opened case, with the Hope diamond, mounted on a necklace, inset into a fine satin cushion. Edna's brief remarks followed the theme of her husband's official statement that the Hope diamond was a gift to the American people. "We have hopes that this will be the nucleus of a great collection to view with the wonderful works of art in our museums," she said.4 Switzer then put the diamond into its new home in the Gem Room -- a small safe that when opened could be seen by the public through a glass display window. It looked somewhat like a ship's portal, surrounded by an oversized rectangular art frame.
The Hope diamond was displayed in its setting, on its necklace, against a satin background. An accompanying sign read,
Hope Diamond, 44½ carats
The world's largest blue diamond
Acquired from the estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean, 1949
Gift of Harry Winston, Inc. 1958
The sign, as it turned out, was wrong. In fact, much of what the Smithsonian had to say about the history of the Hope diamond that morning was wrong.5
But it really wasn't history or science that interested either the museum or the public. Americans were fascinated by the famed curse of the Hope diamond. Just days before, the Associated Press widely circulated a syndicated story leading with "The fabulous Hope Diamond, a stone of beauty and ill fortune, is about to pass from a New York gem merchant to the Nation." The story went on to recount the legend:
The diamond is believed to have been torn from the forehead of a Hindu idol and smuggled out of India by a Frenchman named Tavernier in 1642. Tavernier was bitten to death by a pack of dogs. Among subsequent owners: Nicholas Fouquet, a French official was executed. Princess de Lamballe was beaten fatally by a French mob. King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded.
Henry Thomas Hope, an Irish banker, gave the stone its name and as far as is known, came to a normal end. Hope's grandson, Lord Francis Pelham Clinton, died penniless. The grandson's music hall bride from America, May Yohe, left the diamond behind her as she went off in divorce. She ended up scrubbing floors. Simon Montharides was killed with his wife and child when they rode over a precipice. Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey lost his throne. Subaya, the Sultan's favorite, wore the diamond and was slain. The diamond was placed on the market after the revolt of Young Turks.
Mrs. McLean, wife of a former owner of the Washington Post and one of the capital's best-known hostesses, acquired the Hope in 1911 for a reported $154,000. Her husband, Ned McLean, died in a mental institution. Her oldest son lost his life in a car accident and her daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills . . . Winston bought it from the estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean. Winston has escaped the misfortunes which befell many of the diamond's earlier possessors . . .6
Edna Winston discounted the curse. "Not a bit of bad luck had it brought us. Instead it has been good luck for a great many people as it has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles raising money for charity," she said, referring to Hope's inclusion in Harry Winston's famed touring Court of Jewels fund-raisers.7Hope Diamond
The Legendary History of a Cursed Gem. Copyright � by Richard Kurin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.