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Catholic University in legal tug of war over Dorothy’s dress

wizard of oz dress

The Catholic University of America

J-P Mauro - published on 05/10/22

A Dominican priest's vow of poverty may be the deciding factor in the lawsuit.

The Catholic University is standing its ground in a legal dispute over the ownership of one of the last surviving dresses worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. 

The “Dorothy dress”

The iconic blue-and-white gingham dress, which has been confirmed as the same worn by Dorothy when confronting the Wicked Witch in her castle, had been lost for decades. It was only discovered while CUA was preparing Hartke Theater for renovations in 2021. 

The costume is a particularly rare piece of Hollywood memorabilia, as it is one of four remaining dresses from the production and just one of two to retain the original white blouse. The only other dress that still has its blouse sold for $1.5 million, in 2015. 

After deliberation, the university decided the dress would go up for auction, with the proceeds going toward endowing a new faculty chair and establishing a film acting program. Aleteia previously reported that the dress was expected to draw between $800,000 and $1.2 million at auction. 

The lawsuit

These auction plans have been halted, however, by Barbara Hartke, the niece of Fr. Gilbert Hartke, who founded CUA’s drama school. Barbara, 81, filed a lawsuit which argued that the dress belongs to Fr. Hartke’s estate and that CUA had no claim to it. Fr. Hartke, a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), was given the dress by Mercedes McCambridge, a Hollywood actress and artist-in-residence at Catholic University in 1973. 

In an interview with the New York Post, Barbara seemed particularly upset that Fr. Hartke’s family was never informed of the discovery. She commented: 

“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?”

CUA’s response

Now, the university has formally responded to the lawsuit. According to CNBC, CUA released a statement on May 6 in which they claimed ownership of the dress. They argue that Fr. Hartke’s religious vow of poverty prevented items of worth from association with his estate:

“Catholic University understands the solemnity of these vows, as did McCambridge and Fr. Hartke at the time of the donation to Catholic University,” the statement said. “Consistent with these vows, the dress was a gift to further Fr. Hartke’s important legacy of building the School of Drama here at Catholic University.”

The Catholic University went on to note that although it was presented to Fr. Hartke, the donation of the dress was made to the school. They explain that “contemporaneous sources” show that McCambridge intended the dress to support CUA students. This is also their explanation for why they did not contact Fr. Hartke’s family. They stated: 

“Catholic University did not reach out to the family of Fr. Hartke because the dress was gifted to Catholic University for the benefit of the students in the Rome School.”

Looking forward

Ultimately the courts will have to decide who has claim to the dress. Barbara Hartke’s lawyer, Anthony Scordo, has filed for an injunction to halt the sale. He argues that a delay to the auction will not hurt its sale price, so it’s worth taking the time to clear up the matter. 

Based on Scordo’s comments to CNBC, his case may lean on the historical value of this relic of 20th-century cinema: 

“This property is … important to the American public for reasons that are articulated in the Verified Complaint. The fact that an important part of Americana will not be in the public realm and be lost forever.”

Judge Paul Gardephe has yet to rule on the motion for a temporary injunction. Barbara Hartke has not indicated what she intends to do with the dress should she win the lawsuit. 

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