I sit here and write this on two notable anniversaries. On this date, Audrey would have turned 90 years old. And on this date 74 years ago, the Netherlands was declared free of German occupation.*
Sister Celluloid, hostess of the Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, suggested I write on the subject of “Spending time ‘with’ Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars,” and that suits me fine because I’ve had an interesting group in my head for the past 13 years. First came Errol Flynn, then Olivia de Havilland, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and James Stewart before I found myself with Audrey Hepburn.
You might or might not be surprised at the real Errol Flynn, who was the product of a dominating mother and passive, emotionally absent father. The result was a bitter son who didn’t like himself and used whatever means to alter reality, first booze and then drugs—anything so he didn’t have to deal with his own tortured mind. Here he was, tall, impossibly handsome, athletic, and portraying one hero after another in the movies, while offscreen he disdained mirrors and spent his life restless and unhappy, lashing out at anyone in close proximity and committing suicide by substance abuse at age 50.
I bring up Flynn because he and Audrey shared the experience of a dominant mother and absent father, but while Errol proved to be a toxic presence through the course of research and writing Errol Flynn Slept Here (with Michael Mazzone) and Errol & Olivia, Audrey was anything but.
I think authors share a common experience in that the people they’re writing about become family, whether it’s a beloved brother or sister or (in Flynn’s case) a creepy uncle. With Audrey, I went through the usual awkward get-acquainted stage and then suddenly found myself living with a sweet, upbeat daily presence. She had gone through her life like we all do, experiencing its triumphs and tragedies, but in Audrey’s case, there was also the war.
Errol Flynn and Audrey Hepburn lived through the same World War II. Errol couldn’t serve because of physical imperfections that designated him 4F, an experience that kept him in Hollywood where his self-loathing twisted into even tighter knots. A continent away, Audrey lived through the worst the Nazis could throw at a conquered people and emerged with sweetness intact. I laugh as I write that sentence because how could this possibly be? She went through all the rules and restrictions of the Nazi regime. She saw her favorite uncle wrenched away from the family and imprisoned, then learned he had been executed. She witnessed the suffering of the Jews firsthand, with friends and acquaintances simply “disappearing,” never to be seen again. She saw the battle of Arnhem up close and watched the destruction of her world, and then lived through a tortured existence on the front lines of battle for the next eight months. She endured famine that almost killed her. Then came the biggest trial of all: She entered adulthood with the knowledge both parents had been pro-Nazi, including that most dominant person in her life, the omnipresent one who was supposed to be teaching lessons of right and wrong. Yes, it was true, in a post-war world determined to rub out any memory of the Nazis, Audrey had to guard the secret that her mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, had been an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the occupying regime. Audrey bore that cross through her career as an entertainer and kept dragging it into retirement and then on grueling trips as a UNICEF ambassador. And still she remained a sweet soul.
I guess the question becomes, how. How did Flynn turn out one way and Hepburn the other? How did I end up living in The Old Dark House with one and a garden with the other? And I think the answer is that Audrey had an ingredient that Errol didn’t. Audrey had Tante Meisje, her Aunt Wilhelmina as a constant presence through the war. From the time Audrey returned to the Netherlands at age 10 to the end of the war when she turned 16, her “wonder years,” Meisje was her de facto mother, providing cuddles, positive reinforcement, and lessons to last an adult lifetime. Ella wore the pants of the family in the absence of Audrey’s deadbeat father, and Meisje added love and a constant upbeat attitude even in the most dire conditions, including the murder of her husband Otto.
I learned all of this from inside the family, from Audrey’s son Luca Dotti. Pardon my clichés but the apples didn’t fall from the tree; Luca is a chip off the ol’ block. In working with him on the book, I felt the familiar energy of his mother—the great sensitivity and compassion, the honesty, humility, and unshakable belief in positive outcomes.
It’s always interesting to get inside the heads of famous people because of the surprises that await. Then you’re either, like, oh, or, Ohhh! Errol was the former, and Audrey was definitely the latter. Thank you, Audrey, for welcoming me into the midst your wonderful family, and Happy 90th Birthday.
*Liberation in the Netherlands is celebrated on May 4 and 5; Audrey’s village of Velp was liberated on April 16, 1945.