Lost & Found: Margaret O'Brien And The Waylaid Oscar

September 13, 2023 | Samantha Henman

Lost & Found: Margaret O'Brien And The Waylaid Oscar

Many stars dream of receiving an Academy Award for their work—so you can imagine that those little gold guys become prized possessions for those who win them. But, as we all know, things in life can go awry. There have been three people in history who’ve refused the award, and even more who’ve had the trophies stolen or lost them. But one woman whose Oscar disappeared—Margaret O’Brien—never stopped looking…and it paid off. 

Margaret O’Brien was a child star in the Golden Age of Hollywood who first made waves with the WWII-era film Journey for Margaretwhere she played an orphan of the London bombings. Other roles followed, but O’Brien made the biggest splash in the hit film Meet Me in St. Louis in 1944, playing Judy Garland’s younger sister Tootie. Thanks to her performance in the film, she won the Juvenile Award for Outstanding Child Actress at the 1944 Academy Awards. O’Brien cherished the award, even keeping it in a special room in her family’s home for nearly a decade—though there was a disaster on the horizon. 

Bob Hope presents Margaret O'Brien with the Academy's first Bettman, Getty Image

In 1954, the O’Brien family’s maid offered to take the statue and two other awards home to polish. It was something she’d done before without incident. However, this time, she didn’t show up for work the next day. Or the day after, Three days passed before O’Briens mother contacted her to request the return of the trophies and to tell her she was fired. That’s when tragedy struck. 

O’Brien’s mother fell ill and died before the award was returned. In the fog of grief, O’Brien forgot about the incident for months. When she eventually remembered, she tried to track down the maid, but the woman was gone. O’Brien hoped that she would one day be able to find the Oscar—she just had no idea how long it would take.

Though the Academy provided O’Brien with a replacement when they found out what had happened, she still took the time to search for her waylaid award in antique stores and memorabilia fairs. It took until 1995, but it was worth the wait. 

The Juvenile Oscar is about half the size of a regular Oscar, so when one popped up in an auction bearing O’Brien’s name, the then-executive director of the Academy took note. The item had been placed in the auction by a pair of memorabilia collectors who spotted it at a flea market and bought it for $500. Though they’d hoped to sell it at auction, once they heard its history, they agreed to return it to her.

Former child actress Margaret O'Brien (R) holds the Oscar she won as outstanding child actress at the 1944 Academy Awards after it was returned to her 07 February in Beverly Hills. Mark Nash (L) and Steve Neimand (C) recently found the Oscar at a flea market, ending O'Brien's search for the award, which was stolen from her 37 years ago.Vince Bucci/AFP via Getty ImagesMargaret O'Brien with Mark Nash (L) and Steve Neimand (C), the collectors who found the Oscar at a flea market. 

It took almost 40 years, but in February of 1995, the Academy returned the Oscar to O’Brien at a special ceremony. O’Brien remarked: “For all those people who have lost or misplaced something that was dear to them, as I have, never give up the dream of searching—never let go of the hope that you'll find it because after all these many years, at last, my Oscar has been returned to me”.

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