Tangled Web—Part 1

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

On Friday April 19 Google Alerts pointed me to an article on the KentLive website for the county of Kent in southeastern England. The article linked an episode from the Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II narrative with a Kent man who—said the story—had been sheltered by the van Heemstras in 1943.

The appearance of Dutch Girl prompted a Kent reporter to dig out a Courier newspaper story from January 1947 about Max Court, a Tonbridge man and RAF radio operator, who was on a plane shot down over Arnhem. Court parachuted onto “the estate of Baron van Heemstra” where he was directed to a 14-year-old girl (Audrey Hepburn Ruston) who spoke English. Court was then taken in by Audrey’s mother Ella Baroness van Heemstra, and sheltered for a day before the Germans captured him. Prior to arrest, Audrey suggested that Court give her his gold family signet ring because the Germans would confiscate it. She promised to return it to him after the war.

What a terrific story! The recent KentLive web page links to the original newspaper item that appeared in January 1947 long before Audrey was a star and in need of publicity, so it must be true, right?

Well, the story doesn’t appear in Dutch Girl for a reason. Actually several reasons.

I had come across the signet ring story, aspects of which didn’t ring true, and because I couldn’t determine its authenticity, I left it out of the narrative. In his book Audrey Hepburn, Barry Paris attributed a similar story to Audrey’s friend, reporter Anita Loos, who covered Audrey in biographical articles that appeared around the time of Roman Holiday. In the Loos version, a downed airman on the run passed to Audrey “a silver locket with the Lord’s Prayer engraved on it,” which she returned to him in England in 1947. It’s a wonder Audrey had any time for dance, with all these valuables to distribute around the UK!

Below I am going to put this newspaper story on the witness stand (it will appear in italics). As you read, I will be portraying a district attorney like Otto Count van Limburg Stirum. Taking it from the top:

Shot-Down Flyer Made Lifelong Friend

RING HIDDEN FROM NAZIS RETURNED

High over enemy-held Holland an RAF plane fell like a blazing torch, and from it parachuted a young Tonbridge man. As he drifted towards the pleasant countryside near Arnhem, Wireless Operator Max Court expected immediately to fall into German hands.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in 1943.

D.A.: No challenges, but I have a problem already. Since the countryside is described through the parachutist’s eyes as “pleasant,” it seems to mean this wireless operator is descending to earth in daytime. However, radio operators flew on bombers, and in 1943 the RAF flew its bombing missions targeting Germany at night. The missing detail of day or night raises suspicion. But yes, every flier parachuting to earth over enemy territory day or night expected to be seized the moment he hit the ground.

Instead, on the estate of Baron van Heemstra, he met a kindly peasant who told him he would fetch a girl living nearby who could speak English.

D.A.: Objection! At no point in the war did Baron van Heemstra have an estate. Until the beginning of May 1942 he rented rooms at an “estate,” but it wasn’t his estate. It was managed by a woman named van Zegwaart who had every reason in the world to stay on the good side of the ruling German government. Already the story is blazing like that poor aircraft on its way to earth.

Shortly afterwards the peasant returned with Audrey Hepburn Rutson [sic], 14-year-old daughter of Ella Baroness van Heemstra, who took Max to her home.

D.A.: Objection! Audrey Hepburn-Ruston was 14 from May 4, 1943 to May 3, 1944 and during that time she didn’t live in Arnhem; she lived about four miles east in the village of Velp. Ella lived with Audrey there. And as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in Arnhem. For Audrey to take RAF man Court to the van Heemstra home, she would have been forced to lead a uniformed enemy combatant on a long trip through, at the very least, many blocks of houses and buildings because her home, Villa Beukenhof, was located in the heart of the occupied town of Velp. And civilians didn’t have automobiles by 1943; they had been confiscated or were hidden, and there was no petrol for them anyway.

For a day he stayed, enjoying the Dutch folk hospitality, and before he was taken prisoner by the Germans Audrey took his gold signet ring for safe keeping. “The Germans will only take it away from you,” she told him, “and I promise to give it back to you after the war.”

D.A.: Objection! I grant you two things: 1) many a downed flier enjoyed the hospitality of many a Dutch home, and 2), the Germans would have taken his gold ring. But any Dutch family risked arrest and a quick forwarding to the Westerbork Transit Camp for aiding the enemy. How did the Germans find Wireless Operator Court without arresting the van Heemstras? And how did Audrey know in 1943 that the war was going to end favorably for the Allies? I state to the jury that now we’ve entered the realm of pure fantasy.

For over three years she wore Max’s ring on a chain around her neck. Then, a few weeks ago she and her mother came to England to return it.

D.A.: Objection! The last place Audrey would place a gold ring for safekeeping was around her neck. This was war. The Germans coveted gold, and any civilian on the street would be arrested at any time for any offense, meaning the gold ring would have been a magnet for trouble. Plus imagine a gold ring on a chain jangling on a ballerina’s neck. If it had been in easy reach, that gold ring would likely not have survived the Hunger Winter of 1944 when it could have bought food from the black market for the baron, Ella, Meisje, and Audrey. I submit that if the van Heemstras had such a ring, it was hidden well out of sight and mind as the war raged, and perhaps not at Villa Beukenhof at all.

Audrey, whom Max describes as a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality,” is now 17 and in training to be a ballerina. In a year’s time she and the Baroness hope to come to England for good. She was educated for some time at a girls’ school near Folkestone, and went to Holland when she was ten.

D.A.: No challenges here. But there are two clues in this paragraph alone—and several in this piece—that I’ll come back to.

Max, now 24, went to Sussex-road School, and afterwards helped in his father’s High-street fruit shop. Joining the RAF at the age of 18, he was shot down three years later. A prisoner for two years, he returned to England in April 1945, and was demobilized last May. Now he has his own nursery in Higham-lane.

D.A.: No challenges. The math has him shot down in 1943, which matches Audrey’s stated age.

He and Audrey have maintained regular correspondence, but there is no romance, says Max. He has a girl friend, and on New Year’s Eve took both her and Audrey to a dance in Maidstone.

D.A.: No challenges, but imagine you’re Max’s girlfriend and he tells you he’s ringing in the new year with you on one arm and a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality” on the other. Not sure I’m putting money on the longevity of Max’s relationship with his poor girlfriend.

Just before Christmas, Audrey was interviewed in the BBC programme “In-Town To-night” and when asked the reason for her visit, said, “I promised to give Max back his ring.”

D.A.: No challenges. At Christmas 1946 Audrey was on a mission to deliver a ring to a British airman and on a radio broadcast told the British nation about it. I believe her statement to be true.

So there’s the story, originally published in January 1947, that appeared on KentLive this past Friday as well as my reaction to the “facts” as presented. It’s an article from just after the war that you’d be inclined to believe if you hadn’t spent three years researching the van Heemstras and lots of time on the ground in Arnhem and Velp. In the next installment, I’m going to use the evidence collected during the Dutch Girl project to reveal how this story made it into print and the most likely scenario involving Max Court and Audrey Hepburn. Stay tuned!

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

One comment

  1. This story has so many amazing twists and turns! I am 90 pages into Dutch Girl with Uncle Otto just taken prisoner by the Nazis (on Audrey’s 13th birthday, no less). I know that he will soon be executed, and now, comes a new mystery courtesy of the magic of the internet. I am just grateful that you are so steeped in all the stories that you can separate fact and fiction. And I hope you do soon because now I’m dying of curiosity! Thank you again, Robert, for this wonderful book and your dedication to getting the story straight.

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