Who Stole the Ruby Slippers?
Suspicious Munchkins, Hollywood hucksters, and lunatic fans (oh, my): Inside the very weird and not so wonderful search for an American icon
Because he was carrying valuables, Michael Shaw always preferred to drive—in a long white car, a Lincoln as far as anyone can remember—the 2,100 miles from his home in California to the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids. There, in a conference room, a crowd of 60 or 70 people would assemble, and Shaw would set his brushed-aluminum case on a table. Then he would begin to reminisce, in the melodramatic voice of the child actor that he once was.
Often wearing a gold medallion over a turtleneck and blazer, his beard close-cropped, his long bangs unnaturally dark, he would relate his romps through Hollywood’s Golden Age—how he sat on Judy Garland’s lap to watch movies, how she acted as a kindly den mother to him and the other kids running around the MGM lot. His listeners would ooh and ahh as though he were resurrecting the dead.
And then he would open the case. The ruby slippers—one of four pairs known to remain from the filming of The Wizard of Oz—glittered inside. He would slip on a pair of thin white gloves and gently lift his prize possession out of the case. The crowd would lean forward and gasp.
A gifted storyteller, Shaw had been giving this presentation since the 1980s, when he started taking the slippers on the road—to malls, charity events, and Oz festivals all over the country. Among fans, the pair became known as the Traveling Shoes. Shaw purchased them in 1970, shortly after Garland’s death, and he fancied himself their impresario and protector, the self-appointed ambassador of Garland’s legacy. “I have been given the responsibility of taking care of this pair of shoes,” Shaw told me in 2004. “And I’d like to think that Judy is looking down, smiling, knowing that her famous pumps are being used for such good causes.”
In his presentations, Shaw saved the most touching anecdote for last, a tale that presumed to demonstrate the slippers’ power. In the early 1980s, he would say, he brought the slippers to the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where a friend, an ardent Judy Garland fan, lay dying, one of the first casualties of AIDS. In a voice verging on tears, Shaw would describe setting the slippers on the man’s skeletal chest, how his friend’s face, once contorted in pain, lit up with joy. A few hours later, the friend was dead.
Shaw had been making this trip to northern Minnesota since 1989. After his presentations, he would secure the shoes in a simple Plexiglas case on the museum floor. In the summer of 2005, however, Shaw loaned the slippers to the Judy Garland Museum for an extended exhibition, just as he had the previous summer. But on the morning of August 28, a week before the exhibit was to close, Shaw received a call at his home in Los Angeles. It was the museum director, John Kelsch, calling from Minnesota.
“We have an emergency,” he told Shaw.
Shortly after 2 o’clock that morning, the window in the rear emergency door of the museum had been shattered, the door opened from outside. The Plexiglas cube housing the slippers was smashed. Missing, of course, were the most valuable shoes in the world—size 5½, burgundy, with an inscription inside: “JUDY GARLAND.” There were no fingerprints, no witnesses. Police believed the thief had entered and left in less than two minutes, like a tornado.
Shortly after the robbery, Shaw created a website to raise awareness and solicit tips about the slippers’ disappearance. Even so, he expressed little doubt about what had happened to the shoes—or where they had gone. As he explained at a press conference in Los Angeles not long after the incident: “Some fanatic has paid to have the slippers stolen,” he said. “People are obsessed with these shoes.”
I arrive at the scene of the crime in the middle of summer, as the annual Judy Garland Festival is getting underway once again. The streets of downtown Grand Rapids are filled with fans adorned in Judy Garland pins and Judy Garland T-shirts, declaring “I haven’t been the same since a house fell on my sister.” The Judy Garland Museum at the edge of town is buzzing with Wizard of Oz memorabilia sellers, who peddle action figures, clocks, banks, books, bobbleheads, even a Toto doorstop. A couple of Munchkins—living totems of Old Hollywood (only six of the original 124 survive)—are throwing down meat and potatoes next door, in the basement banquet room of the Sawmill Inn, where they will later sign and sell reproduction stills from The Wizard of Oz for $10 a pop. As Garland fans skip arm-in-arm along the yellow-brick sidewalk outside the old Central School, construction workers watch with bemusement.
The cult of Judy Garland has always sat a bit strangely in Grand Rapids, a timber town of 7,700 founded as a humble place to haul and slice wood before it’s sent down the Mississippi River. The region’s rough edges are scarcely sanded away: The Blandin paper mill looms large in the center of the city, straddling the rapids, and hotels have signs near their entrances admonishing, “No hockey sticks allowed in the building.”
These days, locals are less likely to talk about Garland than they are to tout their connection to big-time hockey players for the old Minnesota North Stars, the Minnesota Wild, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the St. Louis Blues. Grand Rapids may have raised Judy Garland to age 4, when her family split for California—many older residents still affectionately refer to her as Judy Gumm, a curious amalgamation of her birth name, Frances Ethel Gumm, and her stage one—but the familiarity with which Garland is spoken is like that reserved for a landmark, something that’s just always been around.
The Judy Garland Festival began 34 years ago, established by a Grand Rapids historian as a civic event. Garland hadn’t actually appeared in town since 1938, when she stopped in as a 15-year-old celebrity, her only return home. Yet the Hollywood connection was a good enough excuse for a party. Locals competed to appear in an annual staging of The Wizard of Oz. They crowded downtown streets for parades led by Mickey Rooney and other Garland cohorts. As word of the festival spread, hundreds of fans from around the world descended on the town, and memorabilia merchants set up booths along the parade route. In 1994, sensing the potential for year-round tourism, the city moved the white clapboard home in which Garland was raised to the edge of town and restored it. In 2003, the Judy Garland Museum was built next door. The museum now contains the world’s largest collection of Garland memorabilia: gold records, the carriage (once owned by Abraham Lincoln) that ferried Dorothy and friends into Oz, even the coroner’s note listing Garland’s death as an “incautious self-overdose.”
The festival, however, is not what it once was. AIDS took an outsize bite out of Garland’s fan base. And as gay culture, once closely associated with the cult of Garland, is increasingly assimilated with the mainstream, fewer young gay men are picking up the torch. Internet sites such as eBay have reduced demand for onsite memorabilia dealers. And although the museum has benefited from the generosity of Garland’s Hollywood admirers—Debbie Reynolds, Bob Hope, Barbara Streisand—there’s no getting around the fact that Garland’s friends are dying off. The festival has become less of a community event, say locals, and more of a fundraiser. Gone are the parades, the plays, and Mickey Rooney (not that anyone misses him; Rooney was notoriously stingy with free autographs). What remains are $40 dinners and lectures appealing mostly to hardcore fans. Some locals now feel left out. “It was phenomenal how people once got involved,” says a former resident. “But after the house moved out to the highway, it’s like it wasn’t about us anymore.”
By the time the slippers were stolen, in fact, locals were beginning to wonder how the Judy Garland Museum was keeping its doors open. Attendance had been falling for years before the theft—nearly 19 percent between 2004 and 2005 alone. The humble Plexiglas display of the slippers only added to the impression of destitution. When another pair of ruby slippers, owned by a retired New York printer named Anthony Landini, were displayed at Disney World in the 1990s, they were afforded security worthy of the Hope Diamond: Set on a large revolving pedestal in a locked, climate-controlled case, they were watched 24 hours a day by guards and security cameras. “You couldn’t put your hands on that case without alarms going off,” says Landini.
When the slippers disappeared from the Judy Garland Museum, by contrast, police discovered that the facility featured an almost-comical lack of security. The alarm for the door that was broken open had been disabled, the security camera overlooking the shoes turned off.
Even the Munchkins—though they’re eating and drinking on the museum’s dime when I talk to them—suspect that the museum itself was complicit in the heist. “Inside job,” one of them tells me in a voice straight out of Oz. “No question.”
I saw Shaw’s slippers the year before they were stolen, when I visited the festival out of sheer curiosity. I decided they were the kind of shoes no woman would wear who didn’t need them to leave a land of kindly midgets. They were both gaudier and plainer than I expected, rather squat and completely covered in sequins, like Elvis in his later years. Only the marvel of Technicolor made them dazzle. Without the devotion of their fans, they would fetch no more than $20 at a thrift store.
But much about the ruby slippers has been deceptive, right from their origins in the Hollywood fantasy machine. Dorothy’s shoes were actually silver in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book that inspired the 1939 movie. In a later version of the screenplay, you can see where a writer crossed out “silver” and wrote “ruby,” supposedly to take advantage of the new wonders of color film.
The movie was a massive hit, of course, but props like the ruby slippers meant no more to anyone at the time than the plywood sets. When a Tennessee girl named Roberta Bauman won a magazine contest regarding the top movies of 1939, MGM studios packed up the ruby slippers in a cardboard box and mailed them to her as a prize. It would be 30 years before anyone realized they weren’t the only pair around. The studio made multiple pairs for stand-ins and close-ups. It’s just that no one knew what had become of them. No one gave a lion’s whisker, really, until a 1970 auction at MGM that marked the collapse of Old Hollywood.
By then, the studio system that created such glamorous stars as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, and, well, Judy Garland had become obsolete. The MGM auction was intended simply to liquidate the vast warehouses of costumes and props on the studio’s lot in Culver City, California. But the sale became a spectacle, a “giant 18-day wake for Hollywood” in the definitive account of the event, the 1989 book The Ruby Slippers of Oz. This was due to the salesmanship of the man that had been hired to sort and display the items for auction, a young costumer named Kent Warner.
Warner had worked with MGM before, and was eager to salvage what history he could from Hollywood’s Golden Age, lest the props be hauled to the dump. He knew where all the best costumes were hiding, too—he’d been helping himself to them for years.
Warner had moved to Hollywood after a troubled childhood in New York. In Los Angeles, he hit the party scene hard with Ron Wind, his partner in life, costuming, and crime. To finance their escapades, Warner and Wind allegedly took old costumes from the studios where they worked and sold them under the table to movie buffs. Warner kept a few of them, however, as tokens of his affection for the fading glamour of Old Hollywood. He especially loved anything related to Judy Garland.
Throughout her famously up-and-down career, which ended Elvis-style in 1969—an accidental overdose of sleeping pills, rigor mortis in a London bathroom—Garland was particularly admired by gay men. She was less guarded than most stars, and they were drawn to this brassy candor. After all, being unguarded wasn’t an option for gay men in Garland’s day; they could only long, like Dorothy, to live in Technicolor. They secretly referred to themselves as “Friends of Dorothy,” and took solace in Garland’s apparent sympathy—not least, perhaps, because two of her five husbands turned out to be gay. “If you’re afraid to love, if you’re afraid to feel emotion, you can’t know Judy Garland,” one fan tells me.
Warner and Wind were more like stalkers than friends, though. They once finagled their way into a party that Garland attended after the 1965 Academy Awards ceremony, then hired a photographer to shoot them standing behind Garland to make it appear as though they were dining at her table. Warner saw the auction as a chance to search for the ruby slippers, the ultimate Garland memento. He was convinced they were somewhere at MGM.
In fact, Warner found at least four pairs of the old pumps, amid a pile of shoes in a rotting, rat-infested warehouse, 20 feet up on a rickety shelf, where the aging wardrobe ladies preferred not to go. At the auction, after sales of a wedding gown worn by Elizabeth Taylor, a trench coat worn by Clark Gable, and black lace underpants worn by Gina Lollobrigida, Warner stepped onto the podium with a little velvet pillow bearing a pair of ruby slippers.
They were sold to an anonymous buyer for $15,000—far more than any other item at the sale. Even memorabilia collectors were shocked; they had never imagined that there was a market—a potentially lucrative one—for celebrity doodads. It was a greater shock, however, to Roberta Bauman in Tennessee, who believed that she possessed the only pair of ruby slippers. Warner had given everyone involved with the auction—including the buyer—the impression that the slippers on the auction block were the only pair in existence.
The other pairs found by Warner went underground, and it was years before anyone—namely Rhys Thomas, author of The Ruby Slippers of Oz—pieced together what happened to them. “It’s a twisted, sordid thing,” says Thomas. “Warner gave one pair to the auction. He stole the rest.” Thomas calls Warner the Robin Hood of the saga, a liberating thief. “He was really the first to understand that Hollywood didn’t care at all about its history. He decided to be proactive.”
Warner secretly kept the best pair for himself. He built an elaborate case for the slippers in his living room, where he and his friends discreetly admired them. He then sold another pair to the actress Debbie Reynolds (Reynolds’s slippers were never used in the movie, and are known as the Arabian test pair, for their flamboyant design). By all accounts, Warner intended for yet another set to go to Reynolds, who dreamed of creating a museum of Hollywood memorabilia. But Reynolds’s assistant, hired to curate the project, had other ideas. The man reportedly gave Warner $2,500 for the slippers, whereupon Warner handed them over, assuming they were bound for the museum. They weren’t. It was the man’s own money, and he kept the shoes for himself.
That man was Michael Shaw.
The entrance to the Grand Rapids Police station is marked by an old-fashioned, round glass light that says “POLICE,” like in a Charlie Chaplin film. Gene Bennett, one of two investigators on the force, leads me to a conference room to talk, then turns around: “Got a lot of dope in there, that’s not good,” he says. He’s wearing a polo shirt and a handgun, and he leans far back in his chair to summon details of the investigation.
Before he was assigned to find the ruby slippers, Bennett didn’t give them much thought. Men who carry guns rarely do. It didn’t matter that Bennett, a three-decade veteran of the force with sledgehammer arms and a push-broom mustache, has always lived and worked in Garland’s hometown. He just didn’t care for the movie. In fact, if Bennett ever thought about the ruby slippers it was only because his wife enjoyed playing The Wizard of Oz slot machine at the local casino.
As word of the heist spread, Bennett quickly learned that quite a few people did have thoughts about the ruby slippers. His phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I know who has the slippers, the callers would say, I’ve seen so-and-so with them. They were the Garland fanatics Shaw had spoken of—dozens, from around the world—eager to expose each other’s covetousness. “One fan would blame another fan who would blame another fan,” Bennett says. “Someone will say, ‘This guy wants them, he’s obsessed.’ I’ll say, ‘Sounds like you’re obsessed.’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I am…but he’s really obsessed.’ It’s like a dozen people fighting over the same woman.”
It’s estimated that more than a billion people have seen The Wizard of Oz, making it the most-watched movie in history. Perhaps more than any other film it combines the fantasy sequences, big production numbers, and star power that defined Hollywood’s Golden Age. “It was different back then,” says Hollywood memorabilia collector Greg Schreiner of Los Angeles. “The magic of the slippers, the magic of the movies then—it was more special.”
For many Oz fans, the ruby slippers simply harken to this glamorous if whitewashed era of escapism. Anthony Landini, who paid $165,000 for his pair of slippers in 1988 (he sold them in 2000), saw Judy Garland in concert 35 times and even attended her funeral in New York City. Owning the slippers was the culmination of his childhood fantasy. “They just represented the beauty of the film and the innocence of Dorothy,” he told me. “You know, when you become a fan of something, you just become crazy. You just have to have something.”
For others, however, the movie offers much more—an alternate universe with a hopeful credo: That the qualities we most desire—courage, wisdom, love—can be found in our own backyard, indeed inside ourselves. “It’s a message they don’t hear frequently enough in the modern media, it’s loud movies with filthy language and a dark pessimism that frightens them,” a reporter wrote recently from the deck of a Munchkin cruise, in which fans can sail the Caribbean with a handful of surviving Munchkin actors. Salman Rushdie, in his short story At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers, imagined the 1970 MGM liquidation as a mecca for obsessed seekers: exiles, tramps, and other displaced persons. For them, he wrote, the slippers affirm “a lost state of normalcy in which we have almost ceased to believe and to which the slippers promise us we can return.”
The longing for Oz has sometimes darkened into obsession. More than a few disciples have convinced themselves that the slippers’ power is real, able to transport them figuratively if not literally to a better place. Rushdie refers to such delusions as “damaged reality.” “In fiction’s grip,” he writes, “we may mortgage our homes, sell our children, to have whatever it is we crave.” Steve Jarrett, who designed a pair of replica shoes for the upcoming sequel to Night at the Museum, runs the online Ruby Slipper Fan Club from his home in North Carolina. He calls the pumps “the talisman” for movie-memorabilia buffs and Garland fans in particular, among them “some strange people, some very quirky people.” Jarrett says he has had to boot people off the website “left and right…because something’s just not right with them mentally.”
In Grand Rapids, the slippers were seen as sitting ducks for the obsessed fans always passing through town. At Madden’s Dutch Room, a steel-sided box of a bar squatting in the shadow of the paper mill, the late-afternoon patrons sip Leinenkugel’s and make mild cracks about the festival-goers down at the Sawmill Inn. They’re an outgoing bunch, mustachioed men in camouflage hats holding down red-topped stools around the bar, and they banter about the slippers the way you might expect, fingering the likely culprit as a diminutive friend, a guy who requires a tackle-box stool to fish from a boat.
In fact, they doubt a local is behind the theft. What would anyone in Grand Rapids do with the ruby slippers? Use them for bait? “Nothing against the town,” one guy says, leaning in. “But we’re rubes. Nobody here is smart enough to steal the ruby slippers.”
Nor is any Grand Rapidian, these men believe, savvy enough to recover them. As a TV above the bar flashes reports of a tornado just a few miles away, I’m filled in by locals on the alleged shortcomings of the Grand Rapids police. In the town’s most prominent investigation before the slippers theft, the accidental shooting of a young woman in 2002 by a state senator’s son, the local cops provided plenty of fuel for such critics. The patrolman who drove the defendant to the station admitted to drinking while driving earlier in the day; he was later disciplined by the department. Officer Bennett was judged to have neglected interview protocol, including the reading of Miranda rights, when taking the defendant’s initial confession; as a result, the confession was thrown out.
Whoever did steal the slippers, the bar patrons suggest, was counting on this guilelessness. Look around, one of them offers, at all the trucks in the bar parking lot: unlocked. Their homes: unlocked. The slippers: unprotected. “They figure we’re rubes, and then afterwards it’s like the Keystone Kops,” he says. Then he dances in a goofy impression of the silent-movie bumblers.
Around midnight, in a fan’s room beside the pool at the Sawmill Inn, several dozen Garland devotees gather for drinks. They sing along to the “Trolley Song” and dish about past festival guests, agreeing that the Munchkins have been the best, Mickey Rooney the worst. “He was a mean son-of-a-bitch,” a fan says.
In the wake of the slippers’ disappearance, scenes such as this feel distinctly fin-de-siècle. The festival—its star attraction gone, its audience eroding—would appear doomed to dwindle until the legacy of Garland in Grand Rapids holds no more currency than that of Lawrence Welk in Strasburg, North Dakota. Pop culture, with few exceptions, is not known for preserving its dead.
After a few whiskey and Cokes, the fans begin dissecting the leading theories about the theft, a crude act whose dry legalities sound depressingly earthbound among a cohort united by a song about rainbows. Yet the acrimony over the heist has revealed the world of Oz—far from innocent—to be as rife with human frailty as any other.
The inside-job theory turns on this notion of corruption, a notion that doesn’t exactly jibe with the facts. In interviews with police, the museum staff has been forthcoming, and Bennett believes director John Kelsch’s explanation that the disabled security device on the rear emergency door was simply an unfortunate consequence of the museum’s slim budget. So many visitors would unwittingly exit that door and set off the alarm—resulting in fines the museum could scarcely afford—that Kelsch says he had it disarmed. Also, the security camera that was off was apparently always turned off at night. “Everyone knew we didn’t have any security staff,” Kelsch says. “[Michael Shaw] knew that. It’s just sad that it happened here.”
Instead, Bennett’s lead suspect all along has been a Grand Rapids punk, a career criminal who may have gotten in over his head. “Here’s a guy,” Bennett says, “obviously not a pillar of the community, who steals the ruby slippers to say, ‘I stole the ruby slippers,’ not really realizing that what you’re going to do with them? Take them down to the pawn shop?” The suspect, however, refused to take a polygraph test, and not enough evidence exists to arrest him.
Yet the local yokel theory feels so anticlimactic, so dull, that when Bennett says, “It’s a shame—there’s obviously thousands of fans out there; they deserve better than to have some punk kid throw ’em in the river,” one imagines he could be condemning the lack of drama as much as the theft. Where’s a flying monkey when you want one?
There is another theory, say the fans, one that offers a level of intrigue that the situation would seem to require. But it implicates someone who presumably wasn’t in the market for a pair of ruby slippers: Michael Shaw.
When something as valuable as the slippers disappears without a trace, “the first thing you think of is insurance fraud,” says Bennett, who admits that Shaw’s behavior during the investigation has been “eccentric.” Shortly after the theft, Shaw called the investigator and demanded that he check in with him every day until he found the shoes. When, after some time, Bennett didn’t bother, Shaw phoned him. “I thought I told you to call me!” he yelled. At the Los Angeles press conference, too, Shaw seemed to protest too much. He revealed that he had insured the shoes for $1 million. But then exclaimed: “But I don’t want the money! I want the shoes!”
It hasn’t helped that Shaw has a penchant for exaggeration, one that—in most circumstances—would seem harmless if curious. When I first met him in 2004, he arrived for our interview in a threadbare Oz T-shirt and a faux-leather jacket imprinted with the logo of the old Knight Rider television show. He often claims to have been the voice of the show’s KITT car. In fact, he was the voice of KITT, not on the show, but on the Universal Studios tour.
Over the years, experts on the ruby slippers also cast doubt on Shaw’s moving tale of taking the slippers to his dying friend’s bedside. The friend was, of course, Kent Warner, and by all accounts, he remained furious with Shaw right up to his death—because he’d intended for the slippers to go to Debbie Reynolds. “If Michael Shaw was actually at his deathbed with the shoes,” says one insider, “well, then I’m a flying monkey.”
Before the slippers were stolen, Shaw admitted that he’d grown tired of the scrutiny of fans and historians. “In recent years I’ve been so angry,” he told me back in 2004, “because they’ve made those of us who were the earlier collectors sound like we worked for the Mafia. This is something that’s infuriating.” People needed to understand, he said, how different things were 40 years ago when Warner was making daily trips to the MGM warehouse, walking in with empty duffel bags and leaving with full ones. He’d received a wink and a nod from the guards—and nothing more. “I used to avoid telling people how I got [the ruby slippers],” he told me, “because, first of all, it’s a pretty dull story. I tell people, ‘What difference does it make how I got them? I got them for you to see.’”
Some fans now question Shaw’s motives. Steve Jarrett, who runs the Ruby Slipper Fan Club, publicized the website that Shaw authorized to presumably solicit tips. But Jarrett became disillusioned when the site morphed into a store peddling T-shirts and bracelets asking, “Who stole the ruby slippers?”
About a year after the theft, Shaw reached a settlement with his insurance agency, a figure not publicly disclosed by mutual agreement between Shaw and the company. Shaw says that he had the shoes appraised at a minimum of $1.5 million—and that he received much more than the $666,000 figure most observers have assumed, the amount last paid for a pair of slippers at auction. A private investigator hired by the insurance agency apparently found no reason not to pay.
By the time of the settlement, however, some fans wondered if Shaw had lost interest in reaching out to them—and in recovering the shoes. His phone calls to Bennett had ceased. He had stopped making the rounds of Oz festivals. His website closed down altogether. As for the Judy Garland Museum, his stamping grounds for so many years, Shaw ended the relationship right after learning of the theft. “We haven’t spoken,” says director Kelsch with a shrug. “He got his money.”
Upon returning from Grand Rapids this summer, I phone Shaw at his home. When I explain why I’m calling, he seems taken aback. “Are you kidding me?” he says coolly. There’s a long pause.
In the world of celebrity memorabilia, the failure to recover the ruby slippers has conjured no little trepidation—a fear that people aren’t taking the icon’s disappearance seriously. Fear that the magic is finally wearing off. If the slippers lose their hold on the American imagination, what other cultural mementos might we deem disposable? “It’s an American national treasure that’s been stolen and no one gives a damn!” cries Brian Cummings, a New York appraiser of celebrity memorabilia. “It blows my mind to know that they’re still out there.”
Yet in their new status as stolen property, the slippers feel more real than they have in years. They are mere objects again, to be lost or found, and perhaps this is for the best. The old movie studios, we know now, were never in the business of making magic so much as illusions. Stars like Garland were fed pills and cigarettes by their studio bosses (and stage moms) to control their weight. They were products, as manufactured as the props, from their stage names to their public lives, created for them by studio publicity departments. To treasure Hollywood memorabilia is to value fantasy over this harsh reality, to ignore the man behind the curtain.
In his later years, Kent Warner seemed to recognize the ruby slippers for what they were. By the time he died in 1984, he had long since sold the pumps he’d taken for himself. “He realized they were consuming all the attention of his friends—more than he was,” says Thomas, the book author. “He really began then to understand their power. What people invest in them is the enduring power of belief. They are magic shoes because we believe they are magic shoes.”
Shaw, on the other hand, seemed to have remained enamored. “I believe he invested his heart and soul in those shoes,” says Thomas. Shaw had told him, “If I never owned another possession, I’d be happy.” If Shaw was reluctant to explain how he acquired the shoes, it seemed partly because this might spoil the illusion of their magic. “Why chop off the Easter Bunny’s ears?” Shaw asked Thomas when the journalist began asking questions.
Now 72, Shaw sounds weary of magic, disillusioned. He says that the loss has devastated him, not least because of the fans’ reaction. “It was like having a piece of my gut yanked out of me. I’m the one who was violated. I was the only collector who allowed my ruby slippers to be used for festivals and museums and charities.” Among the fans, he says, were “jerks” who had it in for him, “who were rather pleased that they were stolen…I generously made the slippers available for these people and this is the way my generosity is repaid!”
Shaw then tells me that just before the slippers were stolen he had made up his mind to cease their travels. One way or another, they would have disappeared.
The diminishing fan base, Shaw says, had been getting him down—“I was seeing the same people state after state.” Soon, it seemed, only the delusional would be left, seeking refuge in Oz, missing the real point of the slippers: To go home to reality, away from dangerous fantasylands. Shaw says he just didn’t get out soon enough, that one of these fanatics is probably the thief. “He knows he can’t openly show them,” Shaw says, “but he’s got to have them. Right now he may well be putting them on, along with his size 11 gingham dress and fake braids.”
In three years, police haven’t been able to verify this or any other theory. The search has all but ended. Last year, the statute of limitations expired—the perpetrator of the theft, with few exceptions, can now only be prosecuted for possession. The police have largely moved on. The mystery is now worthy of Hollywood itself: They are the most coveted shoes in the world, and they could be anywhere.
Tim Gihring is senior writer and arts editor for Minnesota Monthly.