July 22, 2022
Ann Norton remembers the dress in vivid detail.
The blue-and-white gingham frock in the Rev. Gilbert V. Hartke’s office was tiny. “You could tell that it was in a movie and had a lot of wear and tear on it. It still had makeup around the collar,” said Norton, who’d been a student and worked for Hartke at Catholic University in the early 1970s. “It was quite an amazing thing.”
Judy Garland had worn the dress in her legendary role as Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and it had been given to Hartke, a drama professor at the university, by the actress Mercedes McCambridge when she served there as an actress in residence. Hartke relished showing it off, Norton remembers.
“You couldn’t walk by Father’s office without him dragging you into it to show you the damn dress,” Norton said.
After 2006, though, with the office shuffled from a move and Hartke long retired and deceased, no one saw the dress for 15 years. That is, until Catholic University “rediscovered” it in 2021, and planned to auction it at Bonhams auction house to raise money for a new film-acting program. In 2015 Bonhams sold a different Judy Garland Wizard of Oz dress, one of the six thought to exist, for over $1.5 million.
But in May, Barbara Ann Hartke, claiming to be the oldest living heir of the priest, who died in 1986, filed a lawsuit to stop the auction and claim ownership of the dress. Catholic filed a memorandum in opposition, saying the dress had been a donation to the drama department. Several other relatives of Father Hartke filed a letter June 30 supporting the university’s ownership and planned sale of the dress.
“We find it appalling that Barbara Hartke would try to use Father Hartke, and his estate, as a tool for her own financial gain,” the letter says. By putting personal gain above support for Catholic’s drama students, Barbara Hartke’s actions “run counter to everything Father Hartke worked for and stood for his entire life,” the family members wrote.
The court nonetheless issued an injunction that halted the auction on May 23, the day before the sale was supposed to happen. But the legal battle over ownership continues. And the tale of the dress is as twisty as the yellow brick road itself.