Battle looms over $1.5M ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress found in storage closet

By | May 7, 2022

She’s not over the rainbow about this Hollywood memorabilia auction.

A Wisconsin woman has gone to court to stop the sale of a long-lost piece of movie history: the blue and white gingham pinafore dress worn by Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz” — which could be worth $1.5 million.

The iconic costume, one of five versions of the dress worn by Garland’s Dorothy in the 1939 classic, is set to be auctioned off May 24 by Bonhams in Los Angeles at the beheest of Catholic University of Washington DC, where it was discovered in a shoebox inside a storage closet last year.

“I was just surprised after all this time, here it had been found, and here it is being hastened off to the auction house,” Barbara Hartke, 81, told The Post.

“I just want to know who has ownership over this … I’d like to see the documentation.,” she added.

The costume, complete with a short-sleeved blouse of cream organdy and Garland’s name written on a label on the inside, was a present from actress Mercedes McCambridge to Hartke’s uncle, Rev. Gilbert Hartke, a famous-in-his-own-right priest and professor who founded the university’s drama department, the family contends in a $3 million Manhattan federal court lawsuit. It’s unclear how McCambridge came to own the dress.

Barbara Ann Hartke claims in a lawsuit the dress belongs to her uncle’s estate, Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke, who died in 1986.
Eli Branson/@elifromchi

“I met Mercedes McCambridge a few times and my memory is mostly of her fondness for Uncle Gib,” Hartke recalled. “He helped her battle alcoholism. … That was the idea, that this was gifted to Gib from her out of deep appreciation.”

Oscar-winner McCambridge, a Garland contemporary who is perhaps best known in the modern era for voicing the demon which possessed Linda Blair’s character in “The Exorcist,” was the artist in residence at the university from 1972 to 1973.

The “Wizard of Oz” dress, one of only two complete versions of the costume known to still exist, is being offered at a pre-auction estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Another of the surviving Dorothy dresses went for more than $1.5 million in 2015.

The dress, complete with a short-sleeved blouse of cream organdy and Garland's name written on a label on the inside, was a present from actress Mercedes McCambridge to Hartke's uncle, Rev.  Gilbert Hartke.
The dress, complete with a short-sleeved blouse of cream organdy and Garland’s name written on a label on the inside, was a present from actress Mercedes McCambridge to Hartke’s uncle, Rev. Gilbert Hartke.
VIA REUTERS; Courtesy of Bonhams

“There was no effort to reach out to us or any of the family. It was just like it was there, it was found in this box and then immediately we’re off to the races and that was that. Was there anything else found?” wondered Hartke, a retired Chicago public school teacher.

Father Hartke, the youngest of seven kids who grew up on the north side of Chicago, died in 1986 at age 79 of a heart condition. He was a well known figure in Washington DC, counseling presidents from Harry Truman to Jimmy Carter, and mentoring future theater critic Walter Kerr and actors such as Jon Voight and Henry Gibson.

It’s been a whirlwind few days for Hartke’s remaining family, who learned of the dress auction via news reports, said great-nephew Tony Lehman.

“We’re just focusing right now on, ‘What’s the ownership?'” Lehman, 60, said.

Catholic University “just ignored the family here,” said lawyer Anthony Scordo.

The college insisted to The Post that it is “the rightful owner of the dress. … The actress Mercedes McCambridge donated the dress to Fr. Hartke in his capacity as a professor of drama at Catholic University.”

Her “intent [was] to donate the dress to support the drama students at Catholic University. … The decision was made to auction the dress in order to support the students.”

The university added that Father Hartke, as a priest in the Dominican order, had “taken a vow of poverty. He vowed not to receive or accept any gifts as his own personal property, and at the time of his death did not have any tangible items in his estate.”

Barbara Hartke says there’s no reason to rush the sale.

“It’s not going to evaporate,” she said of the dress. “I think it’s sensible to decide, ‘What’s the message we want here? What’s the tribute to Uncle Gib? To his kindess and also Mercedes McCambridge and the good people who were touched by him. I think all those things have to be considered.”

Bonhams did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.