Imagine you are five years old and your parents split up. I come from one of those happy homes, and through my childhood I’d walk in the door after school and find my mom sitting on my dad’s lap and they’d just be, like, in love. I saw it so often from such an early age that I never found it gross. It’s just the way it was. But if you’re five and your parents go the other direction and there’s screaming and slamming followed by the silence of separation, that’s got to be murder.
That was Audrey Hepburn’s reality; it’s the dominant reason she wore a deer-in-the-headlights look for much of her private life, because she never got over that breakup and her father’s abandonment of their home.
But then, kids are resilient, you hear, and they bounce back. Well, yeah, except what if your gadfly mother immediately after the breakup decides to send you off to boarding school in another country for months on end over a course of years under the pretext of “Oh, it’ll do her good.”
Man, now the damage is starting to accumulate. Luckily, the important half of Audrey’s family was Dutch, and the Dutch are tough, practical, down-to-earth, stable—and did I mention tough? The Dutch can take a punch and then show you the other jawline and invite you to hit that too. And the Dutch side of the family was titled, chock full of barons and baronesses going back upwards of a century and a half, meaning they were stoic on top of everything else. Audrey’s veins coursed with all this good stuff to combat the ick of divorce and exile.
Her son Luca tells me she adored her time in England and loved the people she lived with there. Remember, Audrey began her schooling in England, not in Belgium where she was born or in Holland where she sometimes stayed. She learned to read and write in English. It was in England where she first became enchanted with ballet. Mum came to visit and would stay a couple of weeks at a time; on occasion she would spirit Audrey and her half-brothers—also exiled but to The Hague and not England—off to London or Rome or some other exotic place. But the bulk of Audrey’s time was spent in the often-gloomy country village of Elham.
At long last after more than four years, Mum called the little girl home to Arnhem in eastern Holland, not far from the German border. Finally, Audrey at age 10 would enjoy some stability in the bosom of her family.
Whoa, not so fast. Mum stuck the little English misfit in year four of Dutch grade school, where she took a psychological beating, unable to understand a word being said around her and ridiculed for not only pitiful attempts at Dutch but also painful shyness. And a few months after that, the Germans invaded, beginning just about exactly five years of an ever-tightening grip until the Netherlands was wrung dry of resources, food, entertainment, electricity, running water, and hope.
Audrey got the full wartime tour, soup to nuts. She witnessed executions. She saw body parts in the street after bombs tore up her neighborhood. She stemmed the bleeding of wounded soldiers and civilians until she too was covered in blood. She had guns pointed at her by Germans and Brits alike, and stood in the direct path of machine guns as they rattled away. Your Audrey Hepburn endured all that.
In essence, you could say that Audrey Hepburn was robbed of her childhood. But the cool thing about her is, she didn’t let that happen. She found ways to cope with World War II—by communing with nature, reading books, sketching scenes, growing close to her grandfather and aunt, and above all, dancing, surmounting painful shyness to become the most famous ballerina in a city of considerable size.
I guess after you read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you might have perspective on the rough road one kid had. Then the next time someone asks you how your childhood was, maybe you’ll answer, “Well, at least they weren’t shooting at me.”
This little glimpse into Audrey’s early life is quite intriguing. She always seemed so serene and unruffled, like a swan. It’s a bit of a shock that her childhood years were so turbulent. A ruptured family and a ravaged country. The fact that she maintained her composure and didn’t live a miserable life trying to blame it all on her parents or the horrors she’d experienced as a child is incredible, but she lived an honorable, successful life and a useful one. Thank you for another thoughtful piece.
That’s it exactly, Bonnie–she had all the justification in the world to go over to the dark side and live a turbulent, messed-up life. Instead, she kept her feet under her, achieved in her career, raised two sons, and gave back to the world nothing but positivity. #hero
I cannot wait to read this book! Since I’m interested in both classic film stars, including Audrey, and WWII history, it’s a must read. And I have been frustrated with previous AH bios which are mostly gossipy rundowns of her Hollywood years. Something was missing I was certain. Thank you so much, Robert, for all your hard work and diligent research. Now we’ll get the real story.
I appreciate your comment, Sharon. Thank you. And I assure you the real story is more incredible than anyone could have imagined. It makes you go, “No wonder she wouldn’t talk about that.”
I have been practically salivating in anticipation of your book since I found out about it! Every new blog post of yours and every new review just increases my excitement.
I’ve been an Audrey appreciator for years, but I’ve been fairly disappointed in most of her biographies. The Barry Paris one has been my go-to bible, outside of things written by her sons. But as detailed as it is, it still skims through Audrey’s war years. Understandably, when you’re writing a complete life biography, spending extended time focused on researching just five years may not seem practical.
But what an incredible and influential five years it was! Audrey Hepburn wouldn’t have existed as the world knew her without those five years. So it’s been unsatisfying to find that defining period of her life always out of reach and full of misleading or incorrect information. I’m very pleased that someone finally took the time to dig into her war years and parse out fact from fiction and discover amazing truths Audrey never felt she could share. Based on everything I’ve heard so far, I believe I’ll finish your book with more understanding of this incredible woman, and a heart full of even more love and admiration for her.
And as a bit of a WWII buff, I know I’ll appreciate the level of detail you give to the bigger picture of the war. You can’t tell the personal story of one girl and her family living through a global catastrophe without paying mind to the larger context. And like you said in another post, everything the Nazis did mattered to the people living under their guns.
Thank you, Robert! Can’t wait to read!
“I know I’ll appreciate the level of detail you give to the bigger picture of the war.” Bless you, Sam. Bless you. A few reviews on Goodreads are blasting me for too much history and I say, so be it. If you want a fan tribute, there are plenty of options out there. Pass Dutch Girl on by. I can only hope the book lives up to your expectations.
I’m also curious if the book will cross over to the WWII military audience–of which you are one. I’ll be curious to get your opinion from that perspective once you have book in hand.