An estimated eight billion people have seen the 1939 Hollywood film version of The Wizard of Oz. Millions have viewed a pair of the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film, on display at the Smithsonian. Hundreds more saw another pair on loan to the Judy Garland museum in Minnesota, until it was brazenly stolen by thieves unknown in 2005. Minnesota has been on watch ever since.
But intrepid G-men, those FBI who have been criticized so much lately, were on the case. They announced this week that the slippers have been found, and they are close to apprehending the miscreants. Callooh-Callay!
Before I pontificate further on a few engrossing details in the case, I will point out that as a child of the sixties, I viewed Oz a good dozen times in black and white before ever seeing it in color. My aunt also says that she was watching the movie with my aging, Alzheimer-stricken grandmother and that at the moment when Dorothy opens her sepia-toned tornado-struck house to the colorful world of Oz, my grandmother died. So there is some deep connection between my Minnesota genes and this movie. As with that scene, there is more to the case than meets the eye.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Collector Michael Shaw had loaned the slippers 13 years ago to the Grand Rapids Minnesota museum, in the city where Garland was raised. One August morning in 2005, the museum staff woke to find broken glass and the slippers missing from their place of honor. The security system had not alarmed the police as it should. Only a single sequin was left standing on the pedestal.
Markel, the insurer of the slippers, was dubious about the security issue. Years of wrangling with the museum and Shaw ended with Shaw finally paid $800,000, but Minnesotans remained frantic. An extensive search ensued, including dragging the bottom of the Tioga Mine Lake pit in 2015. Documentarian Theodore James even filmed the short, “Who Stole the Ruby Slippers?” about the unsolved mystery.
However, in 2017, a suspicious character (ok, those are my words, journalists describe him simply as “a man”) approached the insurer with information as to the shoes’ whereabouts. The request for money turned into an extortion plot which involved the Grand Rapids FBI. A year-long investigation led to search warrants executed in Minnesota and Florida and, as the New York Times reported, a sting operations recovered the slippers. The investigation is still ongoing, and a tip line at the FBI’s press release asks the public to call with any additional information.
These shoes are the holy grail of all Hollywood memorabilia.
–Rhys Thomas, author of the Ruby Slippers of Oz
Shaw originally got his pair of the ruby slippers from Kent Warner, a costumer who worked on the MGM lot. Warner apparently found multiple sets of slippers–at least four still in circulation. He gave one to MGM for a 1970 auction where the bidder of $15,000 ultimately donated that pair to the Smithsonian. Another pair from Warner was sold, and after additional auctions, ended up at the Academy Museum in Hollywood.
But Warner’s bag was fairly large, and his knowledge of costumes extensive. Depending on who you asked, he either saved Hollywood treasures from the dumpster (Bogart’s trench coat in Casablanca supposedly) or took things known to have value.
Warner, a nostalgia buff–he was once written up in TV Guide for his collection of vintage TV sets–became a modern day prince in a Machiavellian wardrobe world. Almost by himself, he created a booming underground market by selling movie star clothes that he found during his forays in studio wardrobe departments. According to friends, he called himself “Lana Lift,” but many regard him as more of a Robin Hood.
–Rhys Thomas, in the LA Times
Two, two, two mysteries solved in one
However the various pairs shoes ended up in the various hands–Kent Warner, the Smithsonian, the Academy Museum, Debbie Reynolds, Michael Shaw, the Garland Museum, or the still unnamed perpetrators of the theft–the stolen pair have been verified as genuine.
A fascinating article at the Smithsonian blog, posted just yesterday, explains how objects curator Dawn Wallace examined the slippers. The key was in comparing the paint on the sequins from the Smithsonian pair to the newly discovered one. They matched. Also, microscopic analysis and sequin dating (something like carbon dating only more obscure) showed that the shoes were the same age. How did curators get to know so much about sequins? When you hold shoes worth over a million dollars, considered to be a core part of American history, Wallace says you create “basically a library of information about the shoes.”
Wallace noticed something else. The museum’s pair had long been thought to be one of the least valuable, in part because it appeared mismatched. The heels differed; the bows weren’t precisely the same design. When she compared the museum pair to the newly recovered pair, another mystery was solved.
For those who remember their Shakespeare (or Gene Wilder movies), The Comedy of Errors is about twins separated at birth (as is Start the Revolution Without Me). Such appears to be the case also with the shoes. Through close examination, Wallace and partners Ryan Lintelman and Chief Conservator Richard Barden determined that the recovered pair is likely the “matching” pair that would make both pairs perfectly whole, restoring another kind of balance.
Since the announcement yesterday, the museums have not said yet whether the matches would be reunited with each other when both pairs return home. The Smithsonian had planned to return their slippers to display in October of this year. Stay tuned for more on what they eventually decide to do.
You’ll Not Crucify Me on this Yellow Brick Road!
Of course, no discussion of ruby slippers would be complete without mentioning that they were an anomaly in the first place. L. Frank Baum, author of all the Oz books, originally put the witch and Dorothy into silver, not ruby, shoes. The color was changed to ruby so that the new color process used in MGM could show the shoes off better against the yellow brick road.
Why yellow and why silver in the first place? There’s some argument about how much political theory or current history Baum injected into his stories. He was known to say that his stories were written “to please children.” Yet Baum wrote extensively on political subjects. He was somewhat notorious in lauding white supremacy over Native Americans, while at the same time strongly supporting the burgeoning women’s suffrage movement. Some scholars say he was pro-McKinley and anti-Bryan, anti-Populist.
Whatever the exact nature of his politics, he was immersed in the issues of his times, and a major subject in the 1870-1890s was the shift of the nation to the gold standard, which devalued silver. Many political theorists suggest that the yellow brick road represented the gold standard and Dorothy’s shoes represented the Silverites, a subset of the Populist party, who would have enjoyed dancing down the golden road. Historian Henry Littlefield even suggested in the 1960s that the name Oz came from the abbreviations “oz” in which gold and silver are measured.
Silver shoes in the movie version might not have touched the American imagination in the way these ruby slippers have. Silver paint might not have easily identified the stolen slippers as genuine. A single silver sequin, left among the museum glass, might not have even been spotted.
No, the slippers must be ruby, because this movie sits in our hearts, emerging as it did from a story about the heartland. And the history of our politics, our scientific knowledge, our movie making, and our detective work runs through it all like a bloodstream pumping through to those shoes, the holy grail of Hollywood memorabilia.