Around the Mall & Beyond

On the 26th of April, 1947, Evalyn Walsh McLean, the mining heiress, died at her Georgetown mansion that overlooked Washington, D.C. She was 60 years old.

Naturally one of the first things her staff thought of was the famous Hope Diamond, the largest deep blue diamond in the world and probably Mrs. McLean's most spectacular possession.

What to do with it?

Someone called Frank Murphy, an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: Would he take the responsibility for the thing and the rest of Mrs. McLean's jewelry collection?

Certainly, Murphy said. He knew the McLeans well. Late that night he arrived, collected the jewels, jumped into a taxi . . . and paused.

"Mr. Murphy didn't know where to go, because this was then 11 or 12 o'clock at night. He thought the best thing for him to do was just cruise around the city in a taxicab all night, and this is what he did."

These are the words of the late Edward P. Henderson, a former curator in the National Museum of Natural History's Department of Mineral Sciences, in a delightful oral history interview that I found in the Smithsonian Archives.

The interviews, boxes of them, the recollections of Smithsonian curators, are a treasure. And Pamela M. Henson, a historian with the archives who conducted the interviews, is an indefatigable explorer into the memories of some quietly remarkable people. Henson, who has a doctorate in history and the philosophy of science and a background in biology, had pointed me to Edward Henderson as just one of several dozen colorful Smithsonian curators of the past.

"The next morning," Henderson continued, "why, he went into the Riggs National Bank and he said he wanted to deposit this material. Naturally, the bankers said, 'Are they securities or what. . . ? What is this stuff?'

"'Well, one is the Hope Diamond.'

"Then they said, 'How do [we] know it's the Hope Diamond?'"

The bankers were persuaded that if a Supreme Court Justice had brought it from the McLean mansion, it quite likely was the Hope Diamond. But what was the value?

So they called Henderson, the associate curator of mineralogy and petrology. He remembered Mrs. McLean's heroic efforts in 1932 to get the Lindbergh baby back — bear with me here. For the ransom money Mrs. McLean had hocked the 44.52-carat gemstone at a Virginia pawnshop.

In the complex scheme Mrs. McLean hired one Gaston B. Means, a grafter who'd done time in a federal penitentiary. Means, who said he knew who the kidnappers were, apparently pocketed the money. He later went to prison for the scam. Mrs. McLean eventually got the stone back.

Anyway, Henderson thought the value had been set then at about $100,000. That doesn't sound like much for the Hope Diamond, but at the time it was a respectable sum.

The bank deigned to accept the stone, and soon after that Harry Winston, the noted New York jeweler, made a sealed offer for it. He set a three-day deadline on the offer to prevent the entire diamond market from getting in on the deal.

The bank did contact Lazare Kaplan, another major league diamond man, but as Henderson says, "Kaplan decided that he didn't want to get mixed up with it. He had plenty to do, so [he] let Winston have it. I could see that these two diamond dealers were friends."

No, Henderson didn't appraise the Hope himself. "At no time do we ever want to get involved with a lot of diamond dealers," he told Henson.

Some years later, Harry Winston gave the stone to the Smithsonian. How did he get it safely to Washington? It was mailed to the Mall. Henderson recalled that Winston simply posted a package with two or three diamonds in it, and one of them was the Hope Diamond. "Mr. Winston undoubtedly took out other kinds of insurance," Henderson confidently explained.

About the gem collection: when Henderson came to the Smithsonian in 1929 "it wasn't much to be proud of," he said; "a number of different gems were there, but they weren't high quality."

The stones, mostly unmounted, were displayed in flat-topped cases down the center of the hall. "People would lie against them, and gems would rattle off their pads." The burglar alarm beneath the cases was run by batteries that had to be tested every few weeks.

It was a far cry from the new gem hall, the Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, which will open at NMNH at the end of next year. The Hope Diamond, which reposes temporarily in a dramatic enough setting on the second-floor mezzanine, will be the centerpiece of a special gallery named for donor Harry Winston. It will feature bronze pillars and cherrywood walls and polished stone floors, and all eyes will be directed to the Hope in its case, beautifully lit and slowly turning on its axis. The chamber will be only one part of what is reported to be the world's most comprehensive Earth sciences complex.

This will not be the first renovation of the hall. It was rebuilt once before, in 1957, and Henderson supervised the modernization job.

Edward Henderson came to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Geological Survey. He was 31 at the time. Those were the days. The museum staff took a pay cut in the Depression, some even were furloughed. Staff were paid in cash, and every two weeks the paymaster brought the money across the Mall in a varnished wooden box — unencumbered by guards.

The Department of Mineral Sciences had a cutting lab in the basement "and an old reconverted carpenter's saw." They also had an old-fashioned binocular microscope shared by Archaeology and some of the other divisions. One time in the '40s they wanted to cut a certain meteorite to determine how deeply cosmic rays had penetrated it. The rock was too heavy for their saw, so they took it to the Navy Yard.

"They said yes, they'd cut it for a couple of hundred dollars. . . . It took about three times longer than they guessed," the curator said.

A tough job at that time, cutting meteorites. It had to be done slowly or the meteorite would heat up, which might alter the structure. You were also apt to hit carbide or a small diamond crystal, which quickly dulled the blade and slowed you up.

Henderson knew his meteorites. As a specialist in mineral analysis, he took over the Institution's collection of meteorites and in 1964 became curator of the Division of Meteorites.

Some other people were interested in meteorites too. In the '50s Henderson called the Department of Defense to talk about the shape of the ideal projectile. "We said that we had evidence of things that travel much faster than any projectile ever fired, and for longer distances, and we'd like to talk with them sometime. They sent over — after two or three weeks — a very nice young fellow." Henderson wasn't claiming any credit for the idea, but he noted wryly, "All ballistic missiles now are shaped differently. The rockets that we send into space are shaped like meteorites-cone-shaped, rounded face."

So far I had hardly scratched the surface of the Henderson interviews. He loved to talk about the characters he knew at the Smithsonian: Roland Wilbur Brown in Paleontology, a frugal man who "would come down on Sundays and work in the office. He had a coffee pot [in] which he would boil an egg . . . also a potato: that was his Sunday lunch!" Brown read German, French and Greek, and had a passion for spotting mistakes in encyclopedias and other books.

When Brown's own book came out, on word roots in the English language, it was studded with small errors. "So what do you think this very frugal man did? He wrote to everybody that had purchased his first edition. . . . He said, 'If you'll return your book, I will reward you the cost of your book or give you my second volume, which has corrected all these errors. . . .' It cost him about $30,000."

There was Richard G. Paine, from the Division of Reptiles, who carried around a boa constrictor in a suitcase and once loaned it to the Ringling Brothers Circus because theirs was sick.

In 1947 Gen. Douglas MacArthur invited Henderson to Japan to appraise some $50 million in gems that the U.S. Army had recovered in Tokyo after World War II. Some were found in the ashes of buildings that had burned to the ground. "We got buckets full of sand and gravel with a lot of diamonds in it. So one of our big problems was getting the dirt and smoke and stuff off. . . . We were working in the Bank of Japan, down in their vaults where they keep all their gold. . . . We were boiling the stones in sodium carbonate solution, and vapor was condensing all over their very fine steel safes."

He felt badly about leaving the storeroom in such a mess, but every morning when he and the Japanese team returned to work, "everything was just all spotless again. They'd clean it up; they had to. Each night they cleaned up the whole place."

After retiring in 1965, Henderson worked on as an honorary research associate until 1988. He died September 12, 1992, but his name lives on at the Smithsonian in the form of a fairly large endowment that he and his wife, Rebecca, created to support the collection of meteorites and for research into the Smithsonian's history. An interesting man. A long life.

And I still had two more boxes to go.