Tangled Web—Conclusion

In the last installment we read the inspiring British newspaper story printed in January 1947 about young ballerina Audrey Hepburn returning an RAF man’s signet ring that had been handed off in 1943 after that airman had been shot down near Arnhem. Since it was printed just after the war, this article would seem to qualify as a “primary source” about wartime Audrey, and authors love primary sources. But as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in 1943, and there was no peaceful mechanism for a fugitive Allied aviator to be handed over to the Germans unless the van Heemstras were in league with those Germans.

The article itself is full of clues as to its source:

  • The 1947 reporter has been supplied with information by someone that Baron van Heemstra had an estate when he didn’t have one. No one in the press yet knew background about Audrey Hepburn because she wasn’t yet a celebrity.
  • Whoever supplied the information used the term “peasant” twice. It’s the kind of word an aristocrat would use.
  • The article states that the airman was treated beautifully by the van Heemstras in their estate (that didn’t exist, except in the mind of a certain aristocrat).
  • At the time the article was written, Audrey and her mother the baroness had the goal of coming to England “for good” within a year.

Regarding the last point, what was stopping them? Well, only the fact that the Dutch police were investigating Ella for pro-German activities during the war, an investigation that made it impossible for England to accept her without exoneration. This police case dragged on through 1948 and wasn’t completed until February 1949. In the meantime, Ella was “cooking the books,” destroying evidence, altering dates in her timeline, and creating good press about what she had done in the war—like taking in British fliers on the run.

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

Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston around the end of the war.

Because of the above clues, and Ella’s needs at the time, I believe she spoke to the reporter and created the fiction of the well-to-do, loyal-to-Oranje van Heemstras on their estate, complete with peasants. Otherwise, where would the reporter have gotten such details? In fact, unless airman Max Court had come down squarely atop Villa Beukenhof, there’s no way he was under the van Heemstra roof for a moment in 1943. And if he had landed in the middle of Velp, the Germans would have captured him instantly, and somebody in Velp would have noted the occasion of a flier dropping into the middle of town in a diary. I found no such entry in any wartime diary.

But there was a gold ring, and Dutch girl Audrey did turn it over to Max Court of Tonbridge, so he did interact at some point with someone close to Audrey or Audrey herself.

I’m going to give you two possible scenarios that would fit within the facts I know after three years of research.

Scenario 1:

Court was one of the many downed fliers hiding at the northern edge of Velp or in the Veluwe just beyond. It was dangerous territory because of the close proximity of the Luftwaffe air base at Deelen with its top-secret Diogenes command bunker. Despite the danger, the Resistance counted on Audrey to run messages and food to these men because of her age—at 14 she could be “dressed down” to appear younger and therefore not a threat. She also had the stamina of a dancer on her side and fluency in English. During what would have been a brief encounter with Court measured in seconds or minutes rather than days, he thought to pass her the ring, perhaps because she suggested it, and also provided his name and address. And soon, yes, he was captured. This may even be the encounter where she handed flowers to the patrolling enemy and was allowed to pass. Who knows?

Scenario 2:

Another even more likely possibility is that the story involves not the van Heemstra estate, but that of the van Heemstra kin, the van Pallandts, at Kasteel Rozendaal. The van Pallandts did indeed have a grand estate, complete with peasants, located just up the road from the van Heemstras—an estate that saw its share of World War II. And Audrey and Ella may have been players in the drama of an airman stumbling to Rozendaal (located in quite “pleasant” countryside) because both mother and daughter spoke fluent English. The ring may well have been in safekeeping at the castle behind 15-foot-thick walls until war’s end. Under this scenario, Baron van Pallandt had but to ring up the authorities and report an airman on his property and they would have rounded the miscreant up, no problem, with no harm to the titled landholders at the castle. As the master of Rozendaal, which included his property and the village next to it, the van Pallandts sought to remain neutral, or at least appear so.

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

Kasteel Rozendaal, estate of the van Pallandts just north of the van Heemstra home in Velp.

Depending on which scenario is true, all the details fed to the reporter in 1947 sound like they came from Ella—playing up her part in the drama, which would come around to benefit her with the Dutch police as they conducted their investigation about whether Ella van Heemstra was a loyalist or a Nazi collaborator.

There’s a notable lack of quotation from Max Court himself other than to report that Audrey was beautiful. So I’m convinced Ella provided the story, which no local reporter from Kent would be able to fact-check with an Arnhem that had been devastated in the “Bridge Too Far” battle and was just beginning to stir back to life at the time the article was written.

The KentLive website piece of April 19 suggests that Max Court was likely the Tommy described in Dutch Girl as hidden in the van Heemstra cellar after the battle of Arnhem. I feel strongly he was not due to the time in the war of the Court story (1943) and location of Villa Beukenhof. As noted, an RAF man could not have walked through German-occupied Velp without being discovered. Maybe the Resistance found Court, at which point he would have been placed in a safe house, but definitely not the van Heemstra house—Ella had been labeled by the Resistance as “Gestapo” in 1942! One year later, after her conversion away from the Nazi cause, she was beginning to earn the trust of the Resistance but still would not have been handed a flier for safekeeping. On the other hand, after the failed Allied invasion at Arnhem and defeat of British Airborne, there were dozens of “Tommies” in the vicinity of Velp in need of shelter. Then the desperate Resistance would have placed one of these men, or perhaps even two (Audrey’s son Luca Dotti wasn’t sure), in the van Heemstra cellar until they could be smuggled out. So in September 1944 there was motive and opportunity for an Allied soldier to be placed in the care of the van Heemstras. But there’s no plausible way for Max Court in 1943 to end up inside the van Heemstra house after coming down in the countryside. He could easily, however, made it to secluded Kasteel Rozendaal in the countryside north of Velp.

All of which demonstrates the importance of on-the-ground research in Arnhem and Velp; without it, I wouldn’t have known the geographical challenges of the story or the close relationship of the van Pallandts and van Heemstras. I wouldn’t have known about Ella’s vested interest in spreading heroic stories about herself because she was at that moment being investigated by Dutch authorities—this I learned in the secret police files kept at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague.

The story of Max Court’s signet ring also shows how even seemingly solid primary sources can be anything but and without some cross-reference, they need to be discarded in the name of historical accuracy.

Truly, my hat’s off to Ella for a great yarn, and for giving me material for not one but two columns. You, Baroness, remain full of surprises more than 30 years after your passing.

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