I'll Get You, My Pretty (Dress), and Your Little Estate Plan, Too

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on May 26, 2022 | Last updated on May 31, 2022

One of the most iconic roles from the Golden Age of Hollywood is Judy Garland's Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. In addition to being a good story, the movie gave generations of children Halloween costume ideas, including the famous pigtails, picnic basket, and Depression-era gingham pinafore dress that can make any child look like Dorothy.

That dress has now become the focus of a lawsuit.

The Most Logical Place for Hollywood Memorabilia . . . Is Not Here

Garland wore multiple dresses during the production of Wizard of Oz. One of them ended up in the unlikely hands of Father Gilbert Hartke, a drama professor at The Catholic University of America. The Washington, D.C. school is a private, papal-endorsed university founded by U.S. Bishops.

Father Hartke retired in 1974 and passed away in 1986. Upon his retirement, he left the dress at Catholic University, where it was lost for decades. The school recently rediscovered the dress, had it valuated, and put it up for auction, estimating around $1 million for the sale price.

Not so fast, said 81-year-old Barbara Ann Hartke. As Father Hartke's closest relative (his niece), Barbara argued that the dress was a personal gift, and as the heir to Father Hartke's estate, she is the legitimate owner.

On May 23, Judge Paul Gardephe issued an injunction preventing the sale of the dress. An injunction is a court order prohibiting one party to a lawsuit from doing something (in this case, holding the auction). The lawsuit is ongoing, and it is not clear, at this time, who owns the dress. But the school cannot sell the dress until ownership is determined.

What Did Father Hartke Intend?

The late actress Mercedes McCambridge gave the dress to Hartke. McCambridge, a friend of Garland, was an Academy Award winner who credited Father Hartke for helping her overcome substance use disorder, according to the complaint (Westlaw subscription required). At issue is:

  • Did McCambridge give the dress personally to Father Hartke or the school?
  • How did Father Hartke view the gift? And what did he intend to happen to it?

This case raises a lot of interesting factual and legal issues. For example, does Father Hartke's vow of poverty (as a member of the Dominican Order) play a role in establishing his intent? Catholic University argues that it does, as ostensibly, his vows prevented him from accepting personal gifts. However, a religious vow is not legally binding.

Both sides of the dispute point to evidence, sometimes decades old, suggesting that the dress was a personal gift or a gift to the school. The lawsuit is still in the relatively early stages, so it may be some time before the issue resolves.

A Good Reminder About Estate Planning

While the case would make for a good final exam in a law school estate planning course, the takeaway is that even someone who has taken a vow of poverty might benefit from an estate plan.

While you may not be sitting on one of Judy Garland's dresses, you may have personal belongings that you would prefer to go to a relative, your school, or wherever else you choose. So, consider this a friendly reminder to create or update that estate plan if you've been meaning to do.

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