Painting Pictures

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

Villa Beukenhof at Rozendaalselaan 32 in Velp was built about 1920 and razed in the early 1970s to make way for an apartment building. It was here that Audrey spent most of the war, from August 1942 to the liberation of the town in April 1945. Big things will be happening on Saturday Sept. 14 at about the spot where you can see newly planted pine trees.

Hello, my name’s Robert, and I’m an introvert.

Hi, Robert.

This isn’t news to anybody who knows me, but some who have seen me at lectures and signings are surprised to learn I’m one of those. At any cocktail party you’ll find me rolled into a fetal position in the darkest corner where I hide until it’s over. If I find myself forced to be sociable in such circumstances, I’ll latch onto someone, anyone, who can carry the conversation and let that person serve as a human shield between me and everybody else.

All this said, it’s no surprise my favorite part of being an author is the sitting alone and writing part. Alone with my words. Calling up subject-matter experts and interviewing them, well, that’s part of the job, and about as much fun to me as digging out splinters. It forces me to interact and drains me more than your average half-marathon. But 98 percent of the time, I’m researching and writing all by myself.

Then at some point, all the words are written and the deadline has passed and the manuscript is out of my hands for good, and the countdown begins. The countdown to interviews on the radio, on podcasts, on television, or for newspapers. When all that’s done the public appearances begin and all these interactions involve a different discipline, especially for an introvert. As you can imagine, I used to sweat all these occasions, until one day when everything changed. I’ll always remember the date: January 16, 2014—the 72nd anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 3 and launch date, in Santa Monica, of my book Fireball. Some of you were there. I had prepared a speech for the occasion and was halfway through it, struggling, sweating, and not doing a very good job. I was fighting the situation.

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

Audrey in 1943 while she lived at Villa Beukenhof, at about the time she joined the Resistance movement.

I became infuriated with myself. Why am I struggling so? I have spent three years with Carole Lombard and know her about as well as I know myself, and yet I’m bombing.

It hit me all at once: You’re getting in the way of a great story. Nobody’s here to see you, idiot—they’re here to learn about Carole Lombard and that plane crash. I junked my notes halfway through and just talked.

I never got in the way of the story again through dozens of presentations for Fireball, then Mission, and now Dutch Girl. Somehow for an introvert this was a perfect solution: Tell the story, and stay out of the way. It’s never about the messenger and always about the message, whether Lombard, or Jimmy Stewart, or Audrey Hepburn. Stand aside and let the audience gaze upon these great stars they already love. Paint a picture of these luminaries and if it’s done right, I’m not there at all. Because it’s not about me.

(Not by coincidence, Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn were fierce introverts, which helped me understand them. I gravitated to both in part because they were introverts. It helped me write about them because I knew what they went through and their motivations for doing some of the things they did.)

In a week I fly to the Netherlands for the launch of the Dutch-language edition Audrey Hepburn: Het Nederlandse Meisje, literally, “Audrey Hepburn: the Dutch Girl.” I’ll spend all day Friday, September 13, with Dutch politicians and people in Velp who provided information for the book. Then Saturday, September 14, a bronze statue of Audrey will be unveiled at Rozendaalselaan 32, site of the villa where she spent the darkest days of the war. It was from this house that she would rush out to perform tasks for the Dutch Resistance. The statue was inspired by Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, and it’ll be unveiled by Audrey’s son Luca Dotti. I am pretty sure there will be hundreds in attendance, and I’ll be giving a speech before Audrey fans as well as the people of Velp to whom I dedicated the book—including many who knew Audrey as a girl. Also in attendance will be representatives from every family important to Audrey and her war story: the van Heemstras, van Uffords, van Pallandts, and van Limburg Stirums.

My responsibilities are few: Be a reliable representative of my battered and often-embarrassing country. Don’t trip and fall. And above all, remember to stay out of the way as we celebrate a great humanitarian who was forged at that spot on that street in that war. It’s all about Audrey and the Dutch people who survived the Nazi occupation with her. They are my friends and deserve the spotlight; I’ll be instantly recognizable as the one staying out of the way.

Piece of cake for an introvert.

12 comments

  1. Hi, Robert!

    As a fellow introvert, I salute you! I’m retired now, but my former job required me to get up in front of audiences of up to a thousand people at a time and speak. It was painful indeed for me, and very difficult to do, but I muddled through. I still don’t know how I did it. Anyhow, congratulations to you on the success of your book and good luck for your upcoming appearance in Holland. I’m sure you’ll do exceptionally well. Have a wonderful trip.

    1. Introverts unite! I always appreciate hearing from you, Bonnie, and absolutely–1,000 people can’t help but intimidate no matter how much one tries to stay out of the way. ‘Retired’ and away from those obligations sounds like a great way to be.

  2. Hello fellow introvert! Just want to tell you how much I love your books. As a fan of old Hollywood I’m amazed at how much information you are able to find and share with all of us. You are a tremendously gifted writer. Keep up the good (great) work, can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

    Karen Landers🤓

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Wow, thank you for liking my stuff, Karen. I am overwhelmed when I read comments like yours and the introvert in me just goes all Gary Cooper and blushes. As for what’s next, I have an idea that I can’t believe nobody’s covered. It’s another one that’s been hiding in plain sight, but I have to determine if the goods are out there in Hollywood archives before I can let any cats out of any bags.

  3. I’d come and watch you, but I have to work. Break a leg! Rock and roll it, (a little bit.)

    (Speaking of which, the Analogues are playing in Venlo on the 13th, and there are still tickets available.)

  4. Oh, I also dread the idea of interviews, speeches, calling people up… I do like how you solved your own problem with being interviewed about your books though! I’m sure you’ll do fine next week, and I’m sure everybody understands how nerve-wracking an event like that can be. I think there are very few of us who like and are skilled at giving interviews or speeches. 🙂 See you there!!

    1. It puts Audrey’s smoking in perspective, I think, as a way for her to calm her nerves. She always said she found interviews and speeches terrifying. Yes indeed, Kendal, I will see you in Velp on the 14th and look forward to meeting you in person.

      1. I found that smoking a certain herb legal in California helped my anxiety a lot! I’m at a loss here in Europe though, sadly. And I don’t want to get into tobacco… Hmmm… it’s legal in Holland, isn’t it? Might have to visit a coffee shop… 😀 Care to join?

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