Movie Article

Taking in the Garbage

Picking through celebrity trash -- Ward Harrison makes a heap collecting the refuge of movie stars, from Cher to Rita Hayworth

Attention, Hollywood stars. Antiques dealer Ward Harrison knows all about you. He knows what kind of medicine you take, and where you shop. He knows to whom you write your checks, and who's dunning you for past-due accounts. He even knows about those well-oiled love affairs with plastic blow-up dolls.

How? Because he goes through your trash. And whatever he finds of interest, he keeps — or sells through ads in movie magazines, sometimes to other stars, like Goldie Hawn and Debbie Reynolds. Clothes. Letters. Diaries. Thousands of dollars' worth.

Like A.J. Weberman, who enjoyed 13 minutes of fame by ransacking Bob Dylan's refuse in the 1960s, Harrison, 60, a former California resident who now commutes once a year for a month to the West Coast from Utica, Ind., considers himself a garbologist.

''Actually, I'm teeter-tottering between garbology and archaeology,'' he says. ''A hundred years from now, this stuff will be part of history. It's the same as finding documents from George Washington or John Wilkes Booth.''

Since 1967, when he found $500 worth of designer clothes and a well-stuffed piggy bank in an alley in Santa Monica, Harrison, a former bill collector, has patrolled the alleys of Southern California in search of treasures. He switched to Beverly Hills exclusively in 1976, when he stumbled upon Cher's piled-up trash and discovered a number of her costumes, wigs, and a 3-by-5-inch baby picture of her daughter, Chastity, in a sterling silver frame, engraved with the infant's date of birth and vital statistics.

''Every day I became more and more obsessed,'' he recalls. ''Not only monetarily but just to go out on the hunt! All this incredible stuff, day in and day out.''

In the years since, Harrison has bagged love notes from Joanne Woodward to Paul Newman, Rita Hayworth's hot-water reducing pants, Natalie Wood's diaphragm, letters from Kirk Douglas to his son Eric, Ann Miller's dancing shoes, Burt Reynolds' sparring gloves, Barbra Streisand's antique cooking utensil, Peter Lawford's FBI file, and a telegram from Humphrey Bogart to composer Johnny Green (Waited all night at the Bowl in the fog, arrived home and my cook told me you went to a movie with Dore Schary. How could you do this to me — Bogie). And that's just the tamer stuff.

Although Beverly Hills police have stopped Harrison twice for scavenging (a misdemeanor in Beverly Hills), he was let off with a warning and has never been arrested, nor has he had a star berate him. Except for Ida Lupino, who apparently confused him with someone else.

''She came out with her hair up in curlers and a cap on, and yelled, 'I know who you are! You're one of those spies from World War II! They sent you to spy on me!' And then she spit in my face.''

That episode aside, Harrison claims his alley adventures have been harmonious — he even met his second wife, the goddaughter of Wendell Corey, while going through Corey's trash — and have beat anything else he has tried. ''These are our gods!'' he says. ''I get so high on this, who needs dope?'' Of course, part of the thrill is that he never knows what will turn up. ''Suppose I reach in and find Marilyn Monroe's diary? You talk about my blood pressure! I'd probably die from the shock.''

Originally posted Apr 16, 1993 Published in issue #166 Apr 16, 1993 Order article reprints