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November 26, 2007

Helene Ver Standig — 'The world's largest diamond swindler'

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And yet she never broke the law.

Joe Holley's September 25, 2006 Washington Post obituary (which follows) of this remarkable woman demonstrated how a knack for turning things inside out and upside down can be a ticket to success.

    Helen Ver Standig; Ace Marketer, Dealer of Faux Diamonds

    Helen Ver Standig, 86, who died of respiratory failure Sept. 9 at Sibley Memorial Hospital, was a 4-foot-11-inch marketing dynamo who knew more about fakes, pretenders and counterfeiters than any valet, psychiatrist or bartender in all of Washington.

    As "Madame Wellington," the wisecracking, savvy businesswoman sold diamonds that weren't really diamonds. They may have looked genuine — enough so that in 1969 midnight burglars smashed the window of her Connecticut Avenue store and scooped up a handful of "Wellingtons" — but they actually were simulated stones made of cut and polished lead.

    Mrs. Ver Standig and her business partner-husband, M. Belmont Ver Standig ("Mac" to friends) were never ones to tell that a certain first lady wore fake diamond earrings. That a member of a European royal family wore a Wellington tiara (worth $25,000). That a Supreme Court justice purchased numerous fine diamonds for his wife that were de facto Wellingtons. Or that one of their patrons allegedly boasted that he spent four days with a $1,000-a-night hooker and rewarded her with a Wellington diamond. (A real diamond at the time cost $5,000 a carat; a Wellington, $40 a carat.)

    The Ver Standigs loved it when their store was robbed. They ran ads in Washington newspapers warning, "BEWARE OF DIAMOND SWINDLERS." The Wellington diamonds were virtually indistinguishable from real diamonds, the ads burbled. "So you better be on guard. Some thief is going to try to sell you one of them, and it's going to be pretty easy for him to fool you."

    People lined up on Connecticut to see if the Wellingtons looked that real, prompting the Ver Standigs to trademark the name "Counterfeit Diamonds" — and to craft another ad. In bold type over a photograph of a Wellington ring, the caption read, "Only one thing keeps us from passing this off as a diamond." In small type underneath the photo were the words "(The Police Department)."

    Mrs. Ver Standig became "Madame Wellington" when her husband grew concerned that competitors were stealing their advertising concepts. He sent his wife to pose for New York Times cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, who came up with "a buxom tiara'd doyenne of diamonds, dripping with jewels and winking naughtily."

    That's how The Washington Post described the caricature; according to her son, the outre real-life version bore a great deal of similarity. Appearing as "the Madame" at the opening of all the Wellington stores — 42 in all, in the United States, Europe and Canada — she liked to say, "Honey, I've been responsible for more cheap weekends than any madame in the country."

    Mrs. Ver Standig was born Helen Van Stondeg in the District on July 11, 1920. Her father, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, was a tailor who moved from New York and opened a dress shop on lower Connecticut Avenue called Adolf's. When she graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1936, she went back to the shop, where she'd been working since she was 12. With the Depression still on, "I learned what bartering was — trading, teeth being cleaned for a hat, dresses for shoes and furniture for clothing," she wrote in a family memoir.

    One day in 1938, Mac Ver Standig of Boston strolled into the shop. The tall, suave young man managed newspapers for a bank that had taken them over through foreclosure. In town on business, he enjoyed tracking down distant relatives and thought Van Stondeg might be a variant of his own name.

    He met 18-year-old Helen and asked the tiny, voluptuous young woman to show him around Washington. ("You bet your bippy, and off we went," she wrote.) Three months later, the two eloped to Maryland. "We couldn't wait to jump in the sack," she told The Post years later.

    The couple went to work selling advertising for a weekly newspaper in Massachusetts and then bought weekly papers of their own, first in Cranston, R.I., then in Greer, S.C. After selling the South Carolina paper, they moved to Washington, sold advertising briefly for radio station WWDC and then opened the M. Belmont Ver Standig Advertising Agency.

    With Mac as the creative genius and Helen as the business genius, the agency was an immediate success. Its first client was Hot Shoppes; to tout the restaurant chain's fried chicken, the Ver Standigs invented a chicken-loving character called Pappy Parker. They crafted an ad campaign for the first Marriott hotel, created a "discount drug" ad campaign for Dart Drugs, developed Geico's "safe drivers" pitch and persuaded developer Marshall Coyne to make the Madison Hotel a luxury abode.

    For another of their clients, Wilkins Coffee, they featured Wilkins and Wontkins, a couple of puppets created by a young University of Maryland student named Jim Henson. Wilkins and Wontkins were the original "Muppets."

    Publicity was the Ver Standigs' game, whatever the situation. In the early 1950s, Mrs. Ver Standig, an ardent animal lover, acquired two ring-tailed monkeys, Moses and Joshua, who enjoyed climbing telephone poles in the neighborhood, unscrewing the ceramic insulators and flinging them at unsuspecting passersby on the sidewalk below. The phone company persuaded the city to sue, and for days local papers covered the "D.C. Monkey Trial." Mrs. Ver Standig eventually prevailed and was allowed to keep her mischievous primates.

    Her son recalled Moses's demise. The little monkey and his pal were accustomed to sitting down at the family dining table every evening, until an evening when Moses helped himself to cantaloupe rinds and a martini. The resulting gastritis prompted a panicked Mrs. Ver Standig to call the family doctor, who thought he heard her say that husband Moishe (Mac), not monkey Moses, was dying. He rushed over, an emergency medical team right behind.

    "What do you want me to do?" the EMS attendant asked, staring down at the prostrate monkey.

    "Mouth to mouth!" Mrs. Ver Standig shouted. Alas, Moses could not be revived. Joshua repaired to the National Zoo.

    The Ver Standigs sold their ad agency in 1964 and began marketing the simulated diamonds via mail order before opening the shops. Given the high price of real diamonds and skyrocketing insurance rates, business boomed, and Mrs. Ver Standig took to calling herself the world's largest diamond swindler.

    After her husband died in 1972, she continued running Wellington Jewels, along with a resort hotel on Cape Cod called Smugglers Beach. She also started a real estate investment company and invested in radio stations.

    In 1992, she sold Wellington Jewels to the QVC home-shopping channel and took up the cause of AIDS, after a close friend died of the disease. She also served on the board of Whitman-Walker Clinic and supported Washington's first charter schools.

    In 2005, the D.C. Council declared July 11 "Helen Ver Standig Day."

    Survivors include two children, John Ver Standig and Joan Lipnick, both of Bethesda; five grandchildren; and her companion, George Basiliko of Washington.

November 26, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Comments

"...but they actually were simulated stones made of cut and polished lead."

Or lead glass, even.

Passing off cut and polished lead as diamond would be something of an achievement. Faceted leaded glass, however, is "lead crystal", with a high refractive index for more diamond-like sparkle.

Posted by: Daniel Rutter | Nov 28, 2007 2:28:44 PM

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