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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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.