On an August night in 2005, one or more thieves busted through the back door of the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids and snatched its prize exhibit: a pair of ruby slippers from the 1939 classic film, The Wizard of Oz.
It’s said nothing was left behind except some broken glass and a single red sequin -- as if Dorothy herself had clicked her heels and whisked them back to Kansas.
On Tuesday, a flock of reporters gathered at the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ (FBI) Brooklyn Center office to witness an Ozian miracle: homecoming. The slippers had been found. Some shred of Grand Rapids’ favorite daughter had returned to her home state.
FBI Special Agent Jill Sanborn was there to greet the anxious crowd, along with Grand Rapids Police Chief Scott Johnson and United States Attorney for the District of North Dakota Chris Myers. The officials declined to comment on exactly where or how the shoes were found, or why Myers’ office was even involved.
The investigation into the stolen slippers is still ongoing, with no arrests and no information about the suspect (or suspects), though officials have been referring to the caper as an “extortion plot” against the Markel Corporation, the insurance company that owned Dorothy’s digs.
The mood was high in the conference room. After the vague accounts of the search, Sanborn gave the reporters what they came for and unveiled the lost shoes -- fittingly -- from behind a curtain.
The pair looks much less sparkly than it had onscreen. A coat of faded burgundy sequins like fish scales gleamed dully under the whitewashing light overhead, while a chain of heavy-looking cameras clicked at top speed.
The tragedy of the ruby slippers is that they only became beloved once it was too late to save them. Several versions of the satin pump covered in sequined chiffon were made for the movie, but many disappeared after being thrown into storage upon the movie’s completion. It wasn’t until the ‘70s, when one pair was fished out of an old bin, that anyone realized they were special. They sold for $15,000 to an anonymous buyer. A few more turned up in basements and as prizes at county fairs.
In the harsh light of the press conference, they looked their age -- tired, even tawdry. It’s remarkable how a pair of shoes so adored (they’d be worth millions at auction) could ever look so unloved. It’s a fitting legacy for their rightful owner -- not Markel, but the woman for whom they’d been made: Garland. If anyone could understand the plight of the ruby slippers, it would have been her.
Garland was born in Grand Rapids in 1922, the daughter of vaudeville professionals. The first song Judy performed in public was "Jingle Bells." She was 2-and-a-half. By 10, her pushy, overbearing stage mom, Ethel Gumm, was giving Judy sleeping pills to help her get some rest while they toured.
She was 13 when she signed her first movie contract. Soon after, her father died of spinal meningitis, the first of many losses she’d have to endure in the years ahead.
A few years afterward, she was accepting her first girl-next-door roles in movies, and the studio was pressuring her to weigh less, to smile more. Her food intake was closely monitored -- sometimes plates were snatched away from under her nose -- and she was fed amphetamines to keep off the pounds. Before long, she became addicted to it, plus other drugs she now needed in order to sleep.
Drugs became the wind-up key MGM used to keep their teenage starlet running -- stimulants when they needed her up and working for 18 hours a day, sedatives when they needed her to calm down. From the time she was 16, she was repeatedly propositioned for sex by her coworkers at the studio. She once remarked that she was lucky that it was her mouth -- and not some other part of her -- that did the singing.
She was still a teenager when she starred in what was to be her most famous role: the wide-eyed Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. She was also a teenager when she was married for the first time, to bandleader David Rose. She’d soon divorce him for her second husband: director Vincent Minnelli -- another union that only lasted a few short years. Minnelli was attracted to men.
The drugs, exhaustion, and grief wore Garland down. By 1950, she was considered unstable and difficult to work with, and MGM dropped her.
She still continued to dazzle with her larklike voice. Her marriage to producer Sid Luft materialized and dissolved, as did her marriage to actor Mark Herron; she alleged that both were physically abusive. Her children, among them Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft, described a complicated, difficult relationship with their mother, who was always trapezing through her moods, addled by drugs and the shifting attentions of her audience.
When she fell into depression, she fell hard. Luft said Garland tried to kill herself about 20 times over the course of their 13-year marriage. Her fifth husband, bandleader Mickey Deans, found her dead in their bathroom floor in 1969. It was reported as an accidental overdose. She was 47.
Long after her death, it is still Garland who permeates the dreams of children as they visit a technicolor Oz through their television screens. It is Garland’s voice that lulls the world to sleep and promises that happiness could be as solid and enduring as a physical place, if you could only find a way to get over the rainbow.
On stage and the screen, Garland acted out lessons of innocence and wonder, and the transportative power of love. In return, the world offered her little more than pain -- years and years of it -- until she was worn as thin as the soles of those slippers behind the curtain Tuesday.
If their return teaches us anything, it’s to take care of that which we love. Or prepare to lose it.