Catholic University responds to lawsuit seeking ownership of ‘Wizard of Oz’ dress

A blue and white checked gingham dress, worn by Judy Garland in the “Wizard of Oz,” hangs on display, Monday, April 25, 2022, at Bonhams in New York. One of the most iconic outfits in American movie history is heading for auction, discovered in a box after decades of being thought lost. The dress was found last year at the Catholic University of America, and is on display in New York City before being put up for sale by Bonhams. (AP Photo/Katie Vasquez)

The Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz” movie wanted the ruby slippers, but a Wisconsin woman says she wants Dorothy’s dress that was recently found at Catholic University in D.C. because it belongs to her.

The blue-and-white checkered dress is one of several worn by Judy Garland’s character, Dorothy, in the film, and was given to the late Rev. Gilbert Hartke, who was a priest and longtime director of the school’s drama program.

Catholic University has said the dress was given to the school, but Barbara Ann Hartke, who claims to be Hartke’s niece, contends that in 1973, actress Mercedes McCambridge gave the dress “specifically and publicly” to her uncle, not the school.

Barbara Hartke has filed a lawsuit against Catholic University and auction house Bonhams just ahead of the school’s planned auction of the dress, which could potentially fetch more than $1 million.

Barbara Hartke, in court filings, said McCambridge meant for the dress to be a personal gift to Gilbert Hartke, with whom she had a long-term personal relationship, for his help in the actress’ battle with alcohol and substance abuse.

Catholic University hopes it has one of Judy Garland’s dresses from “The Wizard of Oz.” (Courtesy Catholic University)

“She [McCambridge] was obviously a close confidant of Judy Garland and the gift of the dress to Gilbert V. Hartke was to thank Hartke for his counseling and support,” the lawsuit states.

The dress went missing decades ago, and was only recently found atop faculty mailboxes in the school’s Rome School of Music, Drama and Art.

Barbara Hartke is calling for a New York federal court to step in and stop the auction, and eventually declare her the rightful owner of the dress. She accused the school for trying to illegally sell the dress.

“The temerity of the defendants in failing to honor his memory and ignore his legacy is insulting and distressing to the plaintiff and other living heirs,” court documents said.

Barbara Hartke said the planned selling of the dress by the school to unknown buyers would cause irreparable harm, and that no money could take the place of the dress being returned to the family.

Amber Roseboom, a spokesperson for The Catholic University of America, said that McCambridge donated the dress to Gilbert Hartke in his capacity as the university’s drama teacher, and that the donation was meant to benefit the students of the drama program.

The lawsuit, which Roseboom said the university wasn’t aware of until it was filed on Tuesday, “provides no evidence to the contrary,” she said.

Roseboom added that Gilbert Hartke took a vow of poverty, meaning he didn’t receive or accept any gifts as his own personal property. When he died in 1986, Roseboom said that Hartke didn’t have any tangible items in his estate.

“In fact, an inventory of Fr. Hartke’s estate conducted in 1987 listed nothing of value in personal possessions or any tangible property of any sort, despite other documented gifts to Fr. Hartke for the benefit of Catholic University over the years,” Roseboom said.

WTOP has also reached out to Bonhams auction for comment.

WTOP’s Matthew Delaney contributed to this report.

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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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