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
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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.