Catholic University’s evidence for why it owns ‘Wizard of Oz’ Dorothy dress

In the court battle over a dress worn by actress Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” lawyers for the Catholic University of America have provided their evidence to the court, and it includes two descendants of the priest to whom the dress was given in 1973.

The filings come ahead of a Monday hearing in the lawsuit brought by a niece of the late Rev. Gilbert Hartke to whom actress Mercedes McCambridge presented the dress. The hearing will come one day before the scheduled auction of the dress, which could bring in more than a $1 million to the university.

The niece, Barbara Ann Hartke, 81, of Wisconsin, said the dress belongs to the family; but the school maintains that Gilbert Hartke, who was the longtime director of the university’s drama department, accepted the dress on behalf of the university.

Gilbert Hartke came from a large family, and was one of six siblings, according to attorneys for the college. Their evidence includes sworn affidavits from a grandniece and grandnephew of Gilbert Hartke, who said that he would want the dress to belong to the school, and that they support the school.

“I believe that my granduncle Father Gilbert Hartke would have wanted the dress auctioned by Catholic University to support the drama department he founded,” great-niece Margo Carper, of D.C., wrote.

Thomas Kuipers, a grandnephew of Gilbert Hartke, claimed that during a visit to the college as a child, he asked his great-uncle if he could have the dress.

“In response to my question, I remember my granduncle Father Gilbert Hartke said to me that I could not have it, as the dress belonged to Catholic University,” Kuipers, of Georgia, wrote in court filings.

In a statement to WTOP, Anthony Scordo, attorney for Barbara Ann Hartke, said that there has been “absolutely no legal documentation of such a gift to the university” in any of the university’s filings.

Another argument being made by the university is that Gilbert Hartke took a vow of poverty as a priest of the Dominican Order. Supporting that claim, the school submitted “a document of renunciation of temporal goods” that appeared to have been signed by Gilbert Hartke in 1933, along with probate papers, which appear to show he left behind no possessions.

“Father Hartke’s treatment of the Dress during his lifetime, by leaving it in the University, is fully consistent with his vow to never take any tangible item to be his personal property,” Catholic University lawyers wrote.

The court filings also included newspaper articles, which stated that the dress was a gift to the school. Also supplied were articles written about Gilbert Hartke, including a 1979 feature piece in the Washington Star that stated he had to give his paychecks to the Dominicans within 24 hours and that priests were only given $35 a month to spend. It also stated gifts became “the monastery’s, the community’s or the drama school’s” property. The article claimed a “six figure income” inherited by Gilbert Hartke was also invested in scholarships.

“As the chair, Father Hartke received many donations and leveraged his position to garner those donations to support the University’s drama program,” university lawyers wrote in a court filing.

The Dominican Order and the school also won the rights to Gilbert Hartke’s name during a previous court case with a former student, and members of his family were involved. The legal team for the college also provided an affidavit from the Dominican Friars Province to which Gilbert Hatke belonged, stating it does not claim any rights to the dress.

The “Dorothy dress” made its way back into the news in 2021, when it was discovered on top of mailboxes in the drama department; but court filings in this case also appear to show that the dress may have not gone missing for decades as previously reported by the school.

Gail Stewart Beach, associate chair and professor of practice at the school, claimed in a court affidavit that from 1987 through 2006, she regularly saw the dress in a box within a cabinet.

Also in its own court filings in the case, lawyers for the auction house Bonhams, which was named in the lawsuit, opposed the niece’s call for a temporary injunction that would postpone the auction, while at the same time making it clear the auction house does not own the dress.

The school also claimed that in calling for an injunction, a security should be collected from the niece in the case, which would cover the money lost if the auction is delayed or cannot take place.

The future of the auction is now up to United States District Court Judge Paul Gardephe in New York, after he placed a temporary restraining order which prevents it from happening. That decision isn’t expected until the hearing, a day before the auction.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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