Ganna Walska, the Polish-born opera and concert singer, was a famous international socialite. She married six times and over the course of her lifetime acquired an amazing collection of jewellery.
By the age of 17 she had embarked on her first marriage and was living in St Petersburg. Her husband’s health soon necessitated a move to Switzerland where his untimely death led Ganna to look further afield in search of her destiny. By 1915 she was in New York, beautiful and with a consuming desire to be a great singer. Here her singing career started with a series of concerts; on 18 February 1918 she made her debut in a recital with Caruso at the Biltmore Morning Musicals. Two years later she was signed up to sing with the Chicago Opera Company in their 1921 season. She had also met the man who would play such an important role in her life, Harold McCormick, the millionaire son of the Chicago Reaper King, himself the chairman of the International Harvester Company, and, of obvious importance to Ganna, an ‘angel’ for the Chicago Opera Company. During this period she married Dr Joseph Fraenkel, a neurologist many years her senior. Indeed in 1936, the United Press Association reported that she was ‘estimated to have married fortunes totalling $125,000,000 in her marital ventures with four wealthy men. She likewise was believed to have spent one-twelfth of this sum in attempting to further her great ambition to become an opera star.’ What proportion she was to spend on her jewellery collection was not revealed but it must have been quite extensive.
The earliest existing photographs of Ganna Walska show her wearing simple pearl jewels. It was not until the early 1920s that her great passion for acquiring and wearing spectacular jewels was fulfilled. Her time with Dr Fraenkel was brief: he died within a few years of their marriage. Soon after she sailed with friends to Paris. On the voyage she met Harold McCormick again who introduced her to a fellow passenger, Alexander Smith Cochran. Cochran seems to have been immediately smitten by the ravishing Ganna; even before the voyage was completed he had proposed to her. Alec Cochran ‘forcibly placed a perfect oriental pearl ring’ on her finger saying that ‘if by January you still do not want to marry me, send back this ring. I will understand that Harold McCormick is too much on your mind’. After many protestations she finally agreed, kept the ring, and their wedding took place in Paris in September 1920.
Alec Cochran was reputed to be the richest bachelor in the world and his wedding present to her was ‘to go with carte blanche to Cartier and choose anything’ she desired. Her choice was never revealed but it may well have been the fantastic yellow pearshaped briolette diamond weighing over 95 carats, which was sold in 1971. By the end of the 1920’s this gem was mounted by Cartier as a drop for one of the long sautoirs which were so fashionable at that period. A few days after their marriage the Cochrans returned to America where Ganna was determined to pursue her career in opera. Inevitably, their relationship deteriorated and that Christmas,staying in their New York residence, Alec continuously asked Ganna what she wanted as a present and she would emphatically reply that she did not want anything.
A few weeks prior to Christmas she visited Cartier in New York and decided to try on several bracelets to verify whether she ‘would care to follow the trend of fashion’, sometimes referred to somewhat unkindly as ’service stripes’. Ganna decided that she did not want to cover the ’natural beauty’ of her wrists with the ‘artificial beauty’ of precious stones. Alec Cochran had spotted his wife at Cartier and had returned there a few days later as he had ‘almost half an hour to waste before luncheon’ and if he bought some jewels for Ganna ‘it would kill a few minutes’ of his time. He had then unceremoniously thrust the package containing the jewels on her desk, which ensured that Ganna was enraged by the manner in which the gift was both chosen and given. She could not even bring herself to thank him. The present in question was a 21.15 carats heart-shaped diamond ring, which was to become known as the “Walska Heart”.
Two weeks later, the couple returned to Paris but by July 1922 they were divorced and within fourteen days she was married to Harold McCormick, who had also recently been divorced from the famous heiress Edith Rockefeller.
McCormick now set about trying to advance his wife’s career while showering her with the wonderful jewels which she adored. Sadly for Ganna, even his enormous wealth could not assure her of success on the opera stage and she received many negative reviews for her performances. It could, however, buy her the most incredible jewels. Despite her husband’s advice to relinquish her ambitions, Ganna travelled throughout America and Europe pursuing her quest. By 1929 she had left Chicago for Paris, agreeing to a separation from Harold. Once back in France she bought the Château of Galluis, halfway between Paris and Chartres, where she entertained the rich and famous with extravagant galas. She also spent time at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, which she reportedly received as a present from Harold, and where she organized various operatic events. In 1931 Harold McCormick finally divorced her on the grounds of desertion.
By the mid-‘30s Ganna had finally bowed to public opinion and reluctantly given up her dream of becoming a great opera diva. She decided to spend most of her time at her château in France. Her attention now turned to mystics and gurus, much of her time occupied in searching for her true self and the ’meaning of life’. She soon tired of her life in France and sold her French Chateau and returned to America where in 1938 she married Harry Grindell Matthews, the inventor of the wireless telephone and weaponry. The marriage was short lived and they divorced in 1941. A year later her final marriage was to Theos Bernard - the so called “White Lama” - but this too ended in divorce in 1946.
The sale of her jewels took place in New York in April 1971 when she was nearing her eighties. This sale did assure Ganna that even if she was not to be immortalised as an opera diva, she would surely be remembered as a one of the 20th century’s great jewellery collectors.
“The Spirit of Beauty”, Mori Arts Center Gallery, Tokyo, 2010.
“Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels”, the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, 2011.
“The Art of High Jewelry”, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2012.
Cf: ed. Evelyne Possémé, Van Cleef & Arpels: The Art of High Jewelry, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 2012, pages 264 and 267.
Cf: Ian Balfour, Famous Diamonds, Antique Collectors' Club Ltd, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2009, pages 316, 320, 321.
Cf: Virginia Hayes and Steven Timbrook, Ganna Walska - Lotusland - Collections & Horticulture, Companion Press, Bishop, California, 2007.
Cf: Theodore Roosevelt Gardner 11, Lotusland - a Photographic Odyssey, Allen A. Knoll Publishers, Santa Barbara, 1995.
Cf: Ganna Walska and Richard R Smith, There’s Always Room at The Top, New York, 1943.
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