The Incredible Life Of History's Greatest Golddigger: Death Rays, Yoga Cults, and Mad Science

The Incredible Life Of History's Greatest Golddigger: Death Rays, Yoga Cults, and Mad Science

Back in 1922, Harold McCormick, chairman of the International Harvester Company and one of the wealthiest men in America, checked himself into a Chicago hospital to have "youthful glands" inserted into his testicles in order to enhance his virility. Whether the glands in question came from the testicles of a monkey or a human remains a little disputed (the doctor in question specialized in grafting tissue from both animal and human donors). Although the New York Times rather gleefully reported that a muscular young man was seen being wheeled out of the hospital, having "acquired some of McCormick's wealth in return for a sacrifice." But while McCormick's procedure caused something of a stir, nobody could blame him too much, since he had just got engaged to the most famous socialite of the age: Ganna Walska

 Polish-born American opera singer Ganna Walska

George Grantham Bain Collection

Walska, seen here dressed for a quiet evening at home. 

Walska had been born into a humble family in Russian-occupied Poland, where the main exports were depressing poetry and even more depressing life expectancy statistics. It was a bleak time for women, and also men, and frankly most of the animals didn't have it great either. But despite these unpromising beginnings, Walska managed to force her way to the top through nothing more than sheer force of will (and some truly great divorce lawyers). Along the way, she would marry no less than six wealthy oddballs, each progressively weirder than the last, becoming an international celebrity in the process. 

How did she pull that off? Well, it's a pretty incredible story, involving hypnotic yoga cults, anti-masturbation sleeping harnesses, a mad scientist hoping to implant serial killer testicles in his patients, a second mad scientist with a death ray, unsolved Himalayan murders, and some of the worst opera concerts ever staged.

The Baron And The Glutton

Walska's rise started at age 19, when she somehow made it to a royal ball in St. Petersburg. The mysterious young woman
charmed the Tsar, who declared her the most beautiful woman at the ball and even commissioned a special portrait of her, because being Tsar meant your wife wasn't allowed to punch you. Shortly afterward, Walska married a wealthy young baron. But Russia proved too small a stage for her ambitions, or possibly she just had a better sense of political trends than Tsar Nicholas, because she soon divorced the baron and departed for New York (the baron celebrated the divorce by being instantly shot in the head during the opening battles of WWI). 

Walska arrived in New York armed with nothing but a hefty divorce settlement and a letter of introduction to Diamond Jim Brady, the unmarried millionaire financier. Diamond Jim was a famous glutton who thought nothing of gulping down three dozen clams as a midmorning snack, followed by a light meal of two ducks, seven lobsters and a massive steak. Unfortunately for Ganna, he was already madly in love with the famous opera singer Lillian Russell, the only woman who could match him in eating a 12-course meal every night. Journalists used to gather in fancy restaurants to report on their regular corn-eating contests (Russell would discretely deposit her corset at the coat check first), while they later became a popular sight pedaling around the city on gold-plated, diamond-studded bicycles

Diamond Jim movie poster

Universal Pictures

Their movie ends with Brady eating to death, because nobody had heard of a happy ending until 1953. 

The Mad Anti-Masturbator

Walska quickly bounced back by marrying an elderly doctor, who helpfully died two years later, leaving her a wealthy woman. Which is when she met Harold McCormick, who had become head of IHC, then the world's biggest producer of farm equipment, after his brother Stanley had a breakdown. The brothers had been raised in such a sexually repressed environment that Stanley insisted on sleeping in a self-designed harness that strapped his hands to his ankles, lest he be tempted to masturbate. He
eventually got married, but couldn't bring himself to consummate the relationship and ultimately suffered a psychotic episode under the pressure, becoming alarmingly obsessed with the texture and weight of his underpants. 

His family subsequently confined him in a heavily guarded mansion in Montecito, California, which was equipped with sprinklers in the trees to douse him with cold water if he became manic during a walk. It was felt that seeing his wife would be too stressful, but she was allowed to hide in the bushes and watch him with binoculars every few weeks. 

He remained there for the rest of his life, barring a brief escape attempt in 1920, when he jumped onto the back of a grocery truck as it pulled out of the estate and was found hiding behind a nearby rock. The restrictions were eventually loosened enough to allow him to receive visitors, but only if there was a guard crouched behind a potted plant keeping an eye on things. The estate was subdivided after his death, and part of it is currently the home of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who you absolutely did not see showing up in this article. 

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with other members of the royal family going to church at Sandringham on Christmas Day 2017

Mark Jones

We like to think they'll stumble on a very confused old lady watching them with binoculars. 

Millionaires Two And Three

With Stanley in seclusion, Harold McCormick was left in sole control of IHC. He quickly fell in love with Ganna Walska, whose European sophistication was a world away from his drab upbringing. The pair eventually took ship for Europe, where Harold planned to ask his existing wife, Edith Rockefeller, for a divorce (the marriage had not been going well, possibly because she lived in Switzerland and he lived several trains and a steamship away in Chicago). Unfortunately, also aboard the ship
was Alexander Cochran, America's richest bachelor. By the time Harold got back from Switzerland with his divorce papers, Ganna and Cochran were married and living in an elegant new mansion on the Rue Lubeck. 

That marriage soon ran into trouble, with Ganna complaining about Cochran's numerous acts of cruelty, like giving her "eight or nine" priceless Cartier bracelets, as if she would ever cover the "natural beauty of my delicate wrists with the artificial beauty of rubies, diamonds and emeralds." As if that wasn't enough, he had "forced me to accept a sable coat worth a million francs, so big and heavy that it made me look old and fat." And her heart "stood still with disgust" when he rented an entire floor at a luxury hotel for her to enjoy the season at Cannes. Naturally, she had no choice but to divorce Cochran, accept a hefty out-of-court settlement, and then immediately marry Harold McCormick after all. 

Mme. Ganna Walska to wed Harold F. McCormick

Library of Congress

Who she then ... trapped in a haunted mirror? Wow, an absolute queen. 

The Power Of Transplanted Testicles

While in Paris, McCormick apparently fortified himself with a second graft of monkey glands, this time performed by the inventor of the surgery,
famed quack Serge Voronoff, who had grown very rich from the procedure, despite mockery from the medical establishment. Voronoff claimed that slicing into your scrotum and inserting thin slices of baboon testicle could increase your sex drive and help slow the aging process, which is strange, since we definitely aged about 10 years just from reading about it. 
1920 image of Dr. Serge Voronoff

Library of Congress

This guy is like if Wes Craven was born before movie effects, so he just had to do all his ideas in real life. 

Voronoff's procedure proved particularly popular with athletes, so that the 1939 FA Cup soccer final was played between two different teams allegedly fueled with the power of monkey bollocks. 

Voronoff started to lose even his limited credibility when he transplanted a human ovary into an ape, then tried to impregnate it. Not content with that horror movie premise, he also sought to acquire the testicles of recently executed murderers, believing that this would be an improvement over baboon balls. Although he did feel that patients who received the prisoner glands would need to be monitored carefully, in case they became overwhelmed by the power of the murder balls and turned to a life of crime. Not that this stopped his follower Leo Stanley, who removed the testicles of over 30 executed prisoners at California's San Quentin prison, transplanting them into other prisoners basically just to see what would happen. 

It's Ain't Over Till ...

But Ganna wasn't just into McCormick for his surgically-enhanced super-gonads, or even for his money. McCormick was also a noted opera patron, and Ganna Walska's overriding ambition in life was to become a celebrated opera singer. There was just one minor problem, which was that she couldn't sing. Even her own music teacher described her voice as "like five million pigs." But that didn't stop her from staging numerous elaborate productions starring herself, which inevitably ended with the audience booing and throwing rotten vegetables, which seem to have been surprisingly available to 1920s opera-goers. 

And that's just the ones that opened. Others ended like the Chicago production of Zaza, where the conductor was reduced to pleading with her to at least sing at a normal volume. Crying "swine, you would ruin my performance!" she stormed off the stage, returning only to announce, "Gentlemen, I am packing my bags. At the end of the season, you will be packing yours!" She then departed for Europe, where she outright bought the Theatre des Champs-Elysees to stage an even more lavish performance. It didn't go much better, to the point that Orson Welles is said to have partly based the talentless opera singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane on her (Walska consoled herself after a bad review by buying Faberge eggs). 

Walska and McCormick got divorced in 1931. And that's when things got really weird, even compared to the monkey glands.

The Engineer's Death Ray

 In 1938, Walska somehow wound up marrying Harry Grindell Matthews, inventor of the "death ray." A mad scientist to rival Voronoff, Matthews was living in a fortified compound in the Welsh mountains, where he stalked around in an eye patch and a long black coat, working on his doomsday weapon, which he declared would be powerful enough to annihilate whole cities. He emerged only to give numerous press interviews, where he attacked the British government for not supporting his work and threatened to sell the secret of the death ray to some foreign power. 
1925 photo that purports to show a night demonstration of the ray on the island of Flat Holm

Underwood and Underwood 

This is an "actual" photo of the ray in action. Meaning, it's doctored, but not by us. 

Now, at this point you're probably thinking "I don't remember any laser beams in my WWII history class." That's because Matthews' invention was pretty clearly a scam. For one thing, he repeatedly refused to demonstrate it for actual scientists or military engineers, preferring to give press conferences where he demonstrated the device's ability to kill a small mouse. This was impressive enough to the journalists, earning him huge media support, even as physicists protested the mouse demonstration was a perfectly simple experiment that anyone could do. Seriously, it was the equivalent of killing an ant with a magnifying glass, then screaming "Behold, I am become death, destroyer of worlds!" 

 Q-LINE lasers

Netweb01/Wiki Commons

"The United Nations has 24 hours to give in to my demands!" 

Meanwhile, the media pressure increased to the point that the British parliament demanded the military explain why they were ignoring Matthews and his amazing invention. Unfortunately, the answer was a high-profile disaster for the inventor. According to the military, Matthews had agreed to let them see the device exactly once, and their scientists were so unimpressed that three of them actually stepped into the path of the beam to show that nothing would happen. Seriously, it didn't even clear up their astigmatism. This was a major embarrassment for Matthews, who had been claiming the device was so powerful that just turning it on regularly caused his assistants to pass out. At this point, the press split into pro- and anti-Matthews camps, with articles flying back and forth defending or attacking the death ray, which was certainly the most important thing going on in the 1930s. 

Matthews and Walska married just three months after meeting each other, and just as promptly divorced. Which is actually kind of a shame, since a failed opera singer with a death ray sounds like a pretty great musical villain. 

Mystic Sex Hypnotism

By divorce five, Walska had become astonishingly rich in her own right, stunning customs officers by arriving for a short trip to New York with $2 million in clothes and jewelry. In fact, she was so rich that she started attracting gold diggers of her own, in the form of the astonishingly sleazy "White Lama"
Theos Bernard. A self-proclaimed Buddhist mystic, Bernard had achieved great fame as a yoga teacher and for publishing various bullshit stories about spiritual travels in Tibet. He married Walska, 21 years his senior, in 1942. Woo, go girl! 
Theos Casimir Bernard (1908-1947) demonstrating Baddha Padmasana.

Columbia University Press

Now let's get a look at him. Uh ... ewww, come back, girl.

Bernard was actually following in the family business here. His uncle was none other than Oom the Omnipotent, an extremely controversial guru who attracted the rich and famous to his sprawling ashram in upstate New York. The Great Oom was renowned for his yoga skills, but also repeatedly accused of improprieties with his female followers. In 1910, he was arrested and charged with holding a teenage student against her will. The trial rapidly turned into a circus, with allegations of hypnotism, sex rites in a mysterious red room, and claims that Oom was using powerful spells to sell students into slavery. It was almost impossible to tell what the actual charges were, and the whole thing collapsed after the student in question refused to testify.

As Oom's nephew, Theos Bernard claimed to have been apprenticed to a mysterious Indian swami from a young age. He subsequently bounced from "rich wife to rich wife," using their money to fund his interest in Tibetan religious practices. Shortly after marrying Ganna, the couple purchased a sprawling estate in Montecito, California, not far from where Stanley McCormick had been kept in seclusion. They named the house "Tibetland," intending to use it as a retreat for Buddhist monks, but fell out and filed for divorce shortly afterward. Bernard used his divorce settlement to fund an expedition to Tibet, where he was immediately shot in the head and dumped in a river under unclear circumstances. 

A Peaceful End Among The Dragon Trees

Ganna never married again. Instead, she remained in Montecito, renaming her estate Lotusland and spending her fortune to turn it into one of the finest botanical gardens in the entire world. You can still visit today and wander through the tranquil Japanese Garden, or take in the stunning dragon trees of the Dracaena Circle. 
Dracaena draco at Lotusland

J Brew/Wiki Commons

We'll clarify that these weren't made of literal dragons, because at this point in the story, all bets are off. 

In fact, she became so dedicated to Lotusland that she finally ran out of cash and took to selling her jewelry to expand the gardens even further until her death in 1984. And honestly, we're happy for her. How many people could leave the inventor of the death ray for a sex cultist's sketchy nephew and come out of it with nothing more than a nice new interest in gardening? Although we still think any kind of man-baboon genital hybrid should basically be off the table marriage-wise, even if it did work out this one time. 

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