Author: rmatzen

Award-winning author of the forthcoming "Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II" as well as "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe" in 2016, "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3" in 2014, "Errol & Olivia" in 2011, "Errol Flynn Slept Here" with Michael Mazzone in 2009, and three other books.

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920354-1920-1081.jpg

… Forever

I caught part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade here in the U.S. on television this morning. Featured were the usual assortment of giant aerial balloons to enchant the kiddies—the Grinch, Spider-Man, Pikachu—all the usual suspects. But then my friend Eric tipped me off to a past Thanksgiving parade that featured a disturbing sight for any child.

pinocchio 1937

No, I’m not talking about the horrifying Pinocchio that terrorized New York beginning in 1937. If you lie, Junior, your fate will be an excruciating, inflamed erection on your face!!

As scary as that no doubt was, I’m speaking of the guy below, who was promoting Hammer’s then-new Frankenstein monster as portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. The new and improved version of Frankie appeared in 1957, a dramatic reboot by the British Hammer Studios of Universal’s creaking old black-and-white series that had begun in 1931.

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE2

Imagine you’re an 8-year-old minding your own business in front of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store at the holidays 1957 and this guy comes floating into view.

The tag line of the picture was, The Curse of Frankenstein…will haunt you forever! I think maybe I just explained a generation of vivisectionists who patrolled the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

Happy Holidays.

Blind Date

Wherever I go to talk about Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (which by the way makes an outstanding present at the holidays), I’m asked what I’ll write about next. It’s a natural question for people to ask, and a difficult one for me to answer. I always say, “Audrey’s a tough act to follow,” and I mean that. I’m inclined to write a book about Mickey Simpson, the mountain of an actor who usually played a bad guy in Westerns of the 1940s and 50s but also showed up in pictures as diverse as Flynn’s Adventures of Don Juan, a Weissmuller Tarzan, a Three Stooges short, and the Adventures of Superman. Life must have been a blast for Mickey Simpson because he was always working! Always at a different location in and around Hollywood, hanging out with all sorts of famous actors and always up to some kind of crazy no-good. He did 13 episodes of The Lone Ranger alone. He was a rare actor who at 6-foot-6 could stand eye to eye with Clint Walker’s Cheyenne Bodie—he appeared nine times on Cheyenne, always as a henchman. That was his specialty, serving as loyal muscle for the brains of the operation, never the one coming up with evil plans. It’s easy for me to have a soft spot for Mickey Simpson.

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

As usual, Clint Walker gets the drop on Mickey Simpson. On Cheyenne Mickey was 0 for 9 going up against Bodie.

Only problem is, how many people want to read a book about Mickey Simpson? I wish someone would write one because I’d buy it in a minute, but that author won’t be me; I need a topic that has commercial potential. And something that hasn’t been done. And in an area where I already have an audience. In other words, this ain’t easy.

There’s another problem I’ve run up against lately. I thought I had a topic in a Hollywood personality from the 1930s and 40s (I won’t say who it is because I still might do it sometime). But this prospect had a personality disorder—could have been borderline, or bipolar, or narcissistic—and after spending three years with Audrey Hepburn—I’m sorry, a fatally disordered mind isn’t for me.

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

Years earlier Mickey (left) went after Tarzan. Also unsuccessful. You’ll have to indulge me because this is the closest to a Mickey Simpson biography I’m going to get.

My colleague Scott Eyman hilariously described his time spent writing a superb biography of director John Ford as “like being locked in a telephone booth with 12 Eugene O’Neill characters, and they’re all mean.” In other words, Ford wasn’t a warm guy, but as Scott also noted, “Talent doesn’t care who it happens to.” Many brilliant people are deeply troubled—in some cases their disorder contributes to the talent. For me, though, at this stage of my career, I want to enjoy the required two or three years locked away with my subject.

Writing a biography can be like going on a blind date. I always thought Olivia de Havilland was both beautiful and pleasant, but after deep research dives for Errol & Olivia I discovered the driven, complex, and meticulous loner underneath. Jim Stewart was nothing like I thought he’d be—certainly nothing like the character who would show up to bumble his way through appearances with Johnny Carson. You just never know what you’re going to get when you start down the path and get to know your subject.

As of this writing I may have my answer. A good friend suggested it, and at first I said what I always say (being something of a skeptic and also something of a pessimist): “I can’t do that!” But then I thought about it and asked for opinions here and there and maybe it can be done. I’m not yet near the go/no-go point, where you either keep fishing or cut bait. First comes foundational research and then requests for the holdings of specific archives. If it’s there, then we’re a ‘go.’ If not, well, damn. I’m nowhere.

I’ve been blurting out my friend’s idea, and I’ve decided I need to stop that because if this thing is a no-go after all, I’ll be wiping egg off my face. For the time being let’s just say, it’s possible there’s a book in my future that’s every bit the story of Fireball, Mission, and Dutch Girl.

Maybe.

War and Peace

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

Velp turned out on Saturday, Sept. 14 for the unveiling of a statue and historical marker at the site of Audrey’s home in wartime.

It’s official: the Netherlands embraces “favorite daughter” Audrey Hepburn. Media coverage of the Dutch launch of Dutch Girl, known there as Audrey Hepburn: Het Nederlandse Meisje, has been expansive and included local and national television coverage as well as print pieces in Amsterdam’s Het Parool, de Gelderlander, and others, along with various radio programs.

DG-DutchAudrey spent some rough World War II years in the town of Velp, which abuts the eastern border of Arnhem close to the border with Germany. There she faced first psychological stress and atrocities at the hands of the Nazis, followed by bombs and bullets as the full fury of combat hit Velp. Then came the Hunger Winter of 1944-45.

That Audrey emerged from the war not scarred and withdrawn is a testament in part to her upbringing among Dutch aristocracy with its commitment to noblesse oblige, and also in part to two influential people in her life, her Aunt Miesje and Uncle Otto. From both these family members Audrey learned a positive outlook that would see her through dark times throughout her later careers as an entertainer and as goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. From Miesje the Dutch girl experienced the enveloping sort of love that Ella van Heemstra, Audrey’s mother, could never display. So influential was Miesje’s affection and positive outlook on life that Audrey became a champion not only of love but of peace as well.

 

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

Here I am (on the right) with Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and the statue of a young dancer created by sculptor Yvon van Wordragen. (Photo by Wil Schlicher)

Love was the theme of my visit to the Netherlands. Many in Velp still remember Audrey Hepburn-Ruston, the teenaged girl who practiced ballet at the Jonny Rosmalen Dance Studio, volunteered at the hospital, and performed various tasks on behalf of the Dutch Resistance from 1943 to 1945.

The people of Velp turned out in force at a September 14 ceremony to unveil a small statue and historical marker at Rozendaalselaan 32, site of Villa Beukenhof, the home that Audrey and her family, the van Heemstras, occupied during most of the war. It was hoped by organizers of the event that 200 might show up; in fact, about four times that number crowded the sidewalks and parking lots of the tree-lined street as a band played, many dignitaries spoke, a ballerina danced, and Audrey’s son Luca Dotti unveiled the bronze statue of a ballerina as loudspeakers carried Audrey’s voice singing “Moon River.”

In my remarks after the unveiling, I noted that Audrey is by far the most beloved movie star in the world, but it isn’t just her performances on screen that keep her current. It’s her commitment to peace and the life of public service she lived that have made her a hero for the ages. And that hero was forged while she lived at the spot where the celebration occurred, at Rozendaalselaan 32 in Velp.

In Velp she learned how it felt to be caught in the middle of a war waged by adults. In Velp she first cared for children who had been traumatized by bullets and bombs. In Velp she suffered the rumblings of an empty belly and faced the prospect of dying of malnutrition. In Velp she ventured out to help the Resistance not knowing if she would ever again return home.

Because of Audrey’s reluctance to talk about the war for various reasons, history had lost this part of Audrey’s story. She rarely spoke of Velp, and previous biographers gave the town, which sits in the municipality of Rheden, barely a mention or looked past it entirely. But now the record is set straight, and with a historical marker and statue, Velp has formally embraced its connection to Audrey Hepburn. The love I felt there, not just that sunny Saturday but throughout the eight-day visit, made me pretty sure Audrey was around and approved of the honor her town bestowed.

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

My name and the image of Het Nederlandse Meisje can now be seen on a historical marker in Velp–and I’m alive to read it. (Photo by Wil Schlicher)

 

 

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.

The Dark Horizon

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

Look out! The Germans—I mean, the Spanish—are about to invade, warns Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk. A few months after this photo was taken, the battle of Britain commenced.

Errol Flynn and his home studio of Warner Bros. made a picture in 1940 that’s highly regarded as one of his best—well, by many devotees of classic cinema if not by me. I’ll readily acknowledge some brilliant moments, but I have too many nits to pick with The Sea Hawk to love it. One of my chief complaints is the script, and the funny thing is, The Sea Hawk didn’t make any sense to me until yesterday when I finally had a huge and hilarious aha moment. Compounding my problem is that way back in college I had first seen the 1947 reissue print of this picture, multiple times in fact, and that memory had stuck with me. The reissue print had more than 20 rather key minutes removed, including the opening strategic speech by King Philip II of Spain and the closing strategic speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

In the past 30 years, the missing footage was reconnected into a full 126-minute print of The Sea Hawk, and I only ever applied my brain to that print yesterday when it played on TCM/U.S. I realized just yesterday that the only way the absurd, confusing plot of The Sea Hawk can be comprehended is to substitute the word Germany every time you hear the word Spain. Any time they say the word Philip, insert the word Hitler. Then and only then does any of the nonsense make sense.

Guess what: It’s history time!

The Sea Hawk went into production at the end of January 1940 after delays of a few weeks while Flynn rested up following the exhausting production of wild and wooly Virginia City, chronicled previously on these pages.

CUT TO: King Philip of Spain’s opening speech: “The riches of the new world are limitless, and the new world is ours, with our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas; our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East and the Far West. Invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us? Why? The reason is a puny rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her queen, who secretly gives aid to our enemies while her pirates plunder our commerce. We cannot keep northern Europe in submission until we have had a reckoning with England.”

He goes on at great length to say how short his lifetime is and how he must fulfill his destiny (Hitler had said this time and again). Then Philip stands beside a massive, and I mean 20-foot high, 30-foot wide, world map, and in silhouette, his finger pointing directly at Germany, recaps the global spread of Nazism—er, Spanish domination—concluding, “One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain!”

As actor Montagu Love recited his lines on a Warner soundstage, Hitler had conquered Poland just four months earlier, completing the first round of European real estate acquisition—Austria, the Sudetenland, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Cameras rolled on The Sea Hawk during the time period known later as the Sitzkrieg, when it became quiet. Too quiet, and Hitler was apparently making Western Europe guess what he would do next. In reality, little Germany was trying to recover from war with Poland because what seemed to be a rollover was anything but, and the Poles had packed more of a punch than Hitler would allow in public. Germany always stretched its limited resources to the max any time it made an attack; history has lost sight of the fact that the Germans only had so many guys, weapons, fuel, and food to go around, which is why gobbling up territory became so important—to replenish all these things.

I can’t imagine that any kid in the audience, and there had to be scads of them because this was an Errol Flynn pirate picture, had any clue what all the speechifying was about, but their parents got an earful about the looming threat of Nazism and the inevitability of war. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of spreading the word after drawing a line in the pavement with production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939—it was a picture that pissed Hitler off and he said so. But pounding the message home was a gamble for the studio because the United States was still an isolationist nation determined to let the Europeans work out their problems.

It never made any sense to me why in this movie English pirate ships captained by “sea hawks” were allowed to raid Spanish shipping in time of peace. But careful listening reveals the British admiral in charge explaining to the queen, “Our privateers have made substantial contributions for the very purpose of providing a navy.”

And only Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe, coolest of the “sea hawk” captains, has the guts to proclaim in the queen’s court: “Spain is at war with the world.”

There, the “puny, rock-bound island” needs defenses from the looming threat, and German—er, Spanish—ships deserve to be attacked because of the ruthless ambitions of Hitler—er, Philip.

The last half of the 1930s in European history is covered concisely during two hours of plot time in The Sea Hawk, courtesy of a hasty rewrite of the original script by Warner screenwriter Howard Koch. There’s the expansionism of Germany, the attempted appeasement by the British Chamberlain regime, and most important, the imminent threat of a German invasion of England as exposed in communications intended for the chief Nazi—er Spanish—agent working near the queen but intercepted by Thorpe in the last reel.

The picture concludes with a grim speech by the queen that was cut from reissue prints: “A grave duty confronts us all: to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country. But when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” And she goes on from there with even more flag-waving.

No kidding, this is how a major motion picture ended in 1940, with a political speech! But Warner Bros. wasn’t run by fools, and the U.S. print faded to The End right after the queen knights her favorite sea hawk and before she holds her political rally. Only the British print contained the full Elizabethan address.

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

Queen Elizabeth, played by Flora Robson, knights Geoffrey Thorpe, and the U.S. version of The Sea Hawk fades out. In the British edition, Elizabeth goes on to inspire attendees with a speech about the world war dead ahead.

Upon the picture’s splashy release at the end of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging, and wise ones in the audience knew the “great armada” of Spain, whose use had been threatened throughout the picture, wasn’t seaborne but rather airborne in the form of hundreds of German bombers and their fighter escorts.

I imagine little boys walked out of the theater wondering what the hell, but there had been enough action, pirates, and ships and cannon, to hold their interest. Who knew or cared about Nazi spies?

It would be another 16 months until the United States entered the war, and the conflict would indeed become a nightmare. The queen’s speech, shot at the beginning of February 1940, became prophetic about ruthless ambitions engulfing the world, and many in the audience who watched The Sea Hawk would die in the conflagration ahead. Then followed long decades and re-releases of edited prints of what would become just another pirate movie, if a revered one, with a plot that made no sense. At least to me. Until yesterday.

 

Autumn

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

A nervous Audrey Hepburn arrives on location in Spain to be greeted by Sean Connery in costume; director Richard Lester looks on.

I only ever saw one Audrey Hepburn picture in a theater—Robin and Marian, in 1976. I remember the big fuss made by her return to the marquee back then. I remember she had a bigger-than-life screen presence that began for me the moment she shed her nun’s habit and fluffed a poofy 1970s hairdo courtesy of Sergio of Rome. I understood then: This is a movie star I should respect. Unfortunately, I found the goings-on around her to be a mixed bag, most of it disappointing, as the screenwriter (James Goldman) and director (Richard Lester) set out to turn legendary characters into simple aging mortals with psychological problems. Give me Errol Flynn in sequins over balding Sean Connery in grime any old day.

I love Richard Lester. His The Three Musketeers is the film that changed my life. Robin and Marian did not change my life, except to prove that Lester was every bit as human as his Robin Hood and Maid Marian; it also revealed that Lester has at least one psychological screw loose that made him need to myth-bust beloved heroes of legend.

We could argue all day about Robin and Marian, because I’m sure some of you out there like or love it, but I have the battle scars of first run that include ownership to this day of the souvenir program, not to mention some emotional residue from a picture about heroes that ends with (spoiler alert) a murder-suicide.

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

The advance once sheet with a hackwork tag line.

I’m here to talk about something mentioned in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (Buy your copy today!), and that’s Audrey’s experience actually making this thing in the heat of Spain after eight full years away from turning cameras. She had last worked on Wait Until Dark at Warner Bros. of Burbank during Jack L. Warner’s final coherent days ruling the last, most productive old-style Hollywood studio. Because Audrey was a pro who always showed up on time and knew her lines, she would have been a darling to J.L. She was spun gold back then and treated as such. Total star turn, including the best dressing room available—maybe even Bette Davis’s old second-story suite.

Flash forward to 1975 when Audrey met avant-garde Lester, veteran of heady successes like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in addition to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his latest hits, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Actually Lester was just past a total bomb of a picture called Royal Flash, the umpteenth spin on The Prisoner of Zenda and a career-killer for Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates. Royal Flash hadn’t yet exploded in Lester’s face as he began principal photography of Robin and Marian; his ego rode as high as that of 007 Sean Connery when they initially greeted former Dutch girl-turned-Academy-Award-and-Tony-Award-winner Audrey Hepburn.

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

Audrey is photographed in Rome the same month as the Robin and Marian Radio City Music Hall premiere.

According to the Old School from which Audrey had graduated, a star was picked up in a car and delivered to an air-cooled dressing room. Food was anything requested; wardrobe by Givenchy crisp and tailored within a millimeter of its life; hair and makeup took as long as it took and she’d sit there and mark up her script and diligently go over her lines; all the while, the director patiently set up shots with the camera, conferring with his director of photography or DP. Gaffers ran cables; lighting men fussed with 8Ks and peppers. Retakes were the norm, as many as it took until the director and the stars thought: Yes! That’s the one!

For Audrey, Old School filmmaking felt like Europe, like her roots with her family in the last vestiges of a fading Dutch aristocracy. Manners, curtsies, head coverings and white gloves.

Then came Dick Lester. Lester considered the script to be a filming aid rather than a bible. The fact that he liked to work fast had attracted Audrey because her sons, Sean and Luca, could be towed along for a quick, starring shoot lasting six or eight weeks during the boys’ summer vacation from school. But she should have been careful what she wished for, because Lester achieved his rapid work style by rolling multiple cameras to capture the master shot and over-overs all at once. This was fine by Connery, who didn’t like to rehearse anyway; Audrey had been groomed in the classic studio system by the old masters—William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, etc.—and simply didn’t know where to focus her energy and spent the entire Lester production off-balance.

Lester shot most of Robin and Marian out-of-doors in natural light supplemented by Thomas Edison whenever possible, and it wasn’t always possible. Audrey Hepburn hadn’t benefitted from a lot of formal education in her life, but she knew the laws of gravity as they applied to her 46-year-old face. Sure, she would tell you she never liked her looks and mean every word of it, and yet she was as vain as the next girl about the face that had made the career. As a result she had developed a growing reliance as years passed on the DP of each of her pictures to shoot her with optimized lighting in the best, most attractive angles for the contours of that face. It was always better to charm the DP at the first opportunity, Audrey knew, because even in a bad picture you’d look good as a result.

Well, the only scene in which she was guaranteed not to look bad in Robin and Marian was a dusk exchange with Nicol Williamson’s Little John when DP David Watkin misjudged the fading available light and Audrey disappeared into the dark forest undergrowth of a scene that even in the theater as a kid I knew was a problem. “I can’t see them. I can’t see anything.”

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

How could you do this to Audrey Hepburn?

As early as the costume fitting, Audrey sensed trouble. There was just one costume: a potato sack of a nun’s robe and undergarments. There was no Givenchy in sight because Lester’s usual costumer, Yvonne Blake, had, according to Lester, “been at pains to give it [the robe] a medieval look, rather than a couture finish, by sewing it together with bone needles. I watched Audrey slip it on and stand in front of the mirror and then, with hope that it could be improved, ever so slightly, into something that a 12th-century Givenchy might have blessed with his scissors, she twitched and tugged and tucked it this way and that. She finally resigned herself to the unyielding form.”

This was just one of many indignities for Audrey on the production. Lester and Goldman had blown up the charming script that had nudged her out of retirement in the first place, and now it was time for Lester to encourage the ad lib. Oh sure, he would allow of Hepburn, “She really was a good sport,” which she was. But this flippant attitude, treating Audrey Hepburn like any old plow horse instead of the thoroughbred she’d become, earning four Best Actress Academy Award nominations to supplement her win, shows Lester’s arrogance and lack of empathy.

“After all,” he said blindly, “she had been away from the screen for eight years. Filmmaking had changed a lot in that time.” And yet he continued to horse-whip her through the Spanish fields and forests that doubled as Nottinghamshire.

The rushes became another issue. On past pictures, the director and stars would look at the rushes to gauge performances and tweak as needed. Lester didn’t work that way. The exposed film went straight from the cameras to the edit suite of Lester’s cutter, John Victor Smith, who was putting the picture together on the fly.

A mere nine months later, in March 1976, Robin and Marian premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The occasion as attended by Audrey must have felt like any other, but even though the calendar said spring was in the air, for Audrey it was autumn. If you look at Audrey Hepburn’s filmography, this was her last viable dramatic role. She knew now, looking at herself as captured by Richard Lester and David Watkin, that her career as a leading lady was over, that filmmaking had indeed passed her by.

Outcasts

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The Marx Bros. smuggle themselves into the port of New York in Monkey Business (1931).

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for just about everything from my youth. It’s funny the things that make us who we are. I bleed nitrate after most of a lifetime in classic film that began with a sudden and deep love of the Marx Bros. toward the end of 1973. I can’t remember how it started, but I jumped on the Marx bandwagon as a youngster during their college campus resurgence and enjoyed the hell out of many Marx double-bills with my dad at the Guild Theatre in Squirrel Hill, near the University of Pittsburgh.

My pal, Greenbriar’s John McElwee, asked not long ago if the Marxes could possibly play to college audiences today—I wonder the same thing. Imagine a 300-seat theater as the Guild was then, shoehorning in kids aged 18-21, and here I was, much younger than that. The double-bills paired The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. I know I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in the Guild in the dark, a lot of that the sharing of the experience with so many others so eager to laugh. I remember one particular Friday evening with a blue haze hanging in the air and the smell of pot so thick I choked on it. But son of a gun if the boys weren’t funniest of all on that occasion.

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The Marxes made my scrapbook of 1970s memories. They even played a week at a suburban walk-in–can you imagine that happening today?

America needed a laugh back then, mired as the nation was in nightly reports of carpet bombing and dead soldiers, but that was life coming out of the turbulent ’60s. Now let’s do some math. In 1972, Horsefeathers—the story of Professor Wagstaff at Huxley College—was just entering middle age at a tender 40. Now let’s think of what was popular 40 years ago right now, way back in 1979, and that was the dead spot between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; the year of Alien and Apocalypse Now. Those pictures hold up well today, but can you believe that in 1972, college kids were happy to watch black-and-white prints full of splices and sprocket damage representing pictures that reached back not only to the depths of the Great Depression but to Prohibition as well?

Do you even know who I’m talking about with the Marx Bros.? I imagine some of my younger visitors have never seen a Marx picture. There was cynical, wise-cracking Groucho, ingenuous and silent Harpo, loyal and good-hearted Chico, and up through 1933, handsome young straight man Zeppo. They resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s as iconoclasts, challengers of authority, afraid of nothing and contemptuous of strait-laced society. Maybe audiences understood that off-screen the brothers were just the same—what you saw was what you got out of this collection of Jewish boys from New York City’s mean streets. No airs or pretentiousness with these guys. Chico was “a restless Aries who lived so fast he could hardly keep up with himself” (said biographer Joe Adamson); Harpo an onscreen imp who was IRL an intellectual who loved children and with his wife Susan adopted several and retired to a grapefruit farm; Groucho a serious thinker by nature who could rustle up any number of reasons not to do what he was supposed to do; and Zeppo a shrewd businessman who became Hollywood’s top talent agent.

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Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo. Only the two in the middle would live to see their counterculture renaissance.

They started in the wild west of pre-Code Hollywood and landed at Paramount, where they ruled a roost that turned out to be crooked—their studio was cooking the books and not paying them. The ornery brothers then moved to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg thought they needed a makeover and it killed them. They retired a mere four years later and made only one real Marx picture after that, in 1946 for UA. Now it’s 86 years since the end of their Paramount heyday and the boys have slipped into obscurity. They didn’t fit in 1933 and they don’t fit in 2019, except to a small and loyal legion that includes yours truly. I will always love these guys for the experiences they gave me with my dad, and for the way they introduced me to classic Hollywood.

The Marx Bros. and their admirers had it best in those crazy counterculture days, after Chico and Harpo had passed on and Groucho was in his dotage selling out one-man shows all over the place, including Carnegie Hall—and with that one, Groucho the contrarian had the last laugh: He got there without practicing.

Mystery Men

Who will remember you when you’re gone? Personally, I hope to leave a gaping hole in many lives when I shake the mortal coil, but I probably won’t. I guess the reality is it’d be great if they don’t say, “Good riddance!”

Which brings us to Otto Ernst Gelder, Graaf (which is Dutch for Count) van Limburg Stirum, Audrey Hepburn’s uncle. When Audrey was interviewed over the course of her screen career, she very occasionally mentioned an uncle who had been shot by the Nazis. Never his name, never any specifics, never an emotional reaction. At the beginning of my project that became Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, I wondered who this man was and why she didn’t talk about him. His name was easy to find, but facts about “Uncle Otto” proved, at first, elusive.

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

Wilhelmina, her husband Otto, and Ella before the war.

Slowly, through my own digging and that of two researchers, Maddie in the Netherlands and Marina in the States, Uncle Otto’s story emerged. He was a scholar, a lawyer, a Presbyterian, and a man of compassion, good humor, and optimism. He was deeply in love with his wife Wilhelmina, sister of Audrey’s mother Ella. Otto enjoyed, up until May of 1942, a good life and a career he believed in—as a reform-minded district attorney in Arnhem.

Then the war came, bringing with it the occupation of the Netherlands, and Otto’s principles didn’t allow for Nazi doctrine. His outlook on life didn’t change a bit; he was certain he must not cooperate with the Nazis and he remained a cheerful optimist.

The more I learned about him, the more I realized how central Audrey’s uncle was to her life. His fate changed the history of the van Heemstras, Audrey’s family, and shaped beliefs that drove a movie star to become UNICEF’s good will ambassador.

I went from knowing nothing about Otto to thinking, what a guy! His story inspired a chapter in the book, a chapter that barely mentions Audrey. I knew I was gambling to do such a thing in a book about “Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” and yet I came back to the fact that his fate drove hers. I didn’t feel I had any choice but to proceed.

The mystery of Audrey’s connection to loved ones lost in the war deepened when she mentioned “a cousin” who had also been executed by the Nazis. Same situation as with Otto; never a name, just a vague descriptor. It turned out this cousin was Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, who did indeed appear in her family tree, way over on the other side. And lo and behold, Otto and Alexander died the same morning in the same place, executed by green police. Now they lie side by side at the execution site.

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

Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

As of 2017, the names of Otto, Count van Limburg Stirum, and Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck, seemed to exist only in Dutch archives and on their grave markers. What an injustice this was for men who died heroes of the people. The place of the execution of Otto, Alex, and their three companions—Willem Ruys, Christofel Bennekers, and Robert Baelde—is located on private property near the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. The Germans wanted to carry out the executions in a place so remote that it couldn’t become a shrine to martyrs. The spot can be accessed only by foot or on treacherous dirt roads that could easily flatten a tire or snap an axle. Signs reading “15 Augustus 1942” point the way for the curious, but even the signs are in disrepair. Yet every August 15 determined Dutch men and women attend a service at the murder site to remember “The Five” who were taken by the Nazis.

Year by year, the attendees of this remembrance age. Now it’s been 77 years since that awful morning and generations have come and gone. At this late date, who beyond family members will bear the torch for these five who died heroes in the cause of freedom from oppression?

If I can accomplish one thing for the legacy of Dutch Girl, one thing above all else, even above filling in the gap in Audrey’s timeline, it’s for this book to return to the Netherlands a piece of its own history, stories not only of Otto and Alex but also of the van Heemstras and many brave individuals and groups who refused to knuckle under to tyranny, whatever the cost.

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

Schimmelpenninck and van Limburg Stirum rest side by side at the execution site.

Wave

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

When the boys hit the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, they created a shock wave that crashed through Europe. The subjects of two of my books felt that wave, Jim Stewart in Old Buckenham, England, and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in Velp, the Netherlands. As much as we remember D-Day, as much as it’s celebrated, we simply can’t recreate or recapture the level of adrenalin felt anywhere on or near the European continent that particular day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

First came the anticipation. Everyone felt that, too; the tension, relentless and building—Allied forces in England, German forces in France, and the occupied peoples of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Where would the Allies attack? When would it happen? Word leaked out about Patton’s impressive First Army assembling in Kent. Not Patton, fretted the Germans. Anyone but Patton!

Tick, tick, tick. Time crept by. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. March turned into April. April into May. As detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, brisk action in barracks pools at Jim’s 453rd Bomb Group and elsewhere handicapped where and when the invasion would finally take place. In 453rd Operations, Jim knew the invasion was getting close because bombing missions by the group’s B-24s had transitioned from strategic flights against German cities and factories to tactical raids of key sites in France. It might be a railroad yard one day and a bridge the next, but the targets would be a couple hundred miles apart to reveal nothing about the intended invasion site. Would it be the Pas-de-Calais? Surely, yes, the shortest point between England and France. More daring gamblers said Normandy just because it was the last place Hitler would expect. For the Allied invaders, Normandy meant a long, torturous boat ride on choppy seas while rugged and heavily defended beaches awaited at the end.

A few hundred miles due east, the Dutch lived quite a different reality, as detailed in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. At age 15 and a junior member of the Resistance, Audrey was at this time helping downed Allied airmen avoid capture by day, while in the evening, dancing illegally to raise money for Jews in hiding. All the while her country experienced slow strangulation by ruling Nazi authorities who had extracted from the Netherlands all the food, coal, rubber, clothing, paper, and petrol they could in an ongoing effort to support the war effort on the Eastern Front. Dutch civilians had begun to suffer malnutrition that reached in and twisted bellies, all the while facing the anxiety of executions by firing squad for any random Resistance offense. By now, the Germans had confiscated radios from the Dutch—except for illegal sets that still operated on the sly. Officially sanctioned Nazi radio and newspaper reports boasted that invasion of the “Atlantic Wall” was no threat. According to the Germans, Allied attack was welcomed so the Americans and British could be defeated once and for all.

So the Dutch waited, hoped, and prayed. Every day those with radios listened secretly to regular broadcasts from Radio Oranje on the BBC. The Dutch listeners dared not speak the word that hung at the front of every mind: Liberation! If the day ever actually arrived, an Allied invasion would give hope to the hopeless, not just in small towns and large cities in the Netherlands but across occupied Belgium, throughout occupied France, and in all the concentration camps in Germany and Poland where Jews died by the day and Allied prisoners held out against disease and lice and inertia. In America, hope would spark through millions of mothers and fathers praying for the safe return of their children, the young people actually fighting this war.

If you watch The Longest Day, you get a sense of how the Germans on the Normandy coast felt when they beheld the invasion armada that misty dawn. If you watch Saving Private Ryan, you get horrifying glimpses of the killing machine the liberators faced on the beaches that day. And yet there’s no way history, let alone film, can do this day justice. As the news spread of military action at Normandy, as the titanic struggle played out on those beaches, as men fought and screamed and died, struggling dune to dune, hill to hill, hearts swelled in the United States and across Europe. Hands shook. Tears flowed. The free world held its breath through the longest day in history.

Seventy-five years later we can tour the beaches and imagine what the battle looked like. We can marvel at the crosses representing supreme sacrifice. We can revisit stirring eyewitness accounts. But we can’t feel the shock wave because it remains unimaginable. Jim was positioned to feel it in Operations at Old Buck when gates locked down and orders dictated what targets would be hit; Audrey felt it on a quiet street in Velp as secret radios barked out play by play and the Dutch dared hope they might break free of the oppressor.

What a day, that Tuesday in the fifth year of war—the day when everything changed, when the world felt a shock wave that tilted it in a new direction.