Award-winning author of the international bestseller "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.
The book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn that I wrote in close collaboration with Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son, will be released September 28. It tells the story of a side of her that’s been touched on in other biographies but never explored. And it’s a common human theme, particularly among women: “I left the workforce to raise my children and now they’re grown. What do I do next?”
Audrey Hepburn found Audrey Hepburn a tough act to follow. An impossible act to follow. As an ingenue she had won a Best Actress Academy Award and been nominated four other times. She had won three British Film Academy Best British Actress awards and her mantel also held Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and on and on. She had conquered Broadway and won a Tony and as a sidelight became the world’s most important clothes horse. Even after she was long retired, publishers hounded her to write a memoir.
At age 57, with older son Sean working in L.A. and younger son Luca on his own in Italy, Audrey stood at this important and vexing crossroads in frustration. She may still possess some vestige of the face that had launched a thousand magazines, and some sense of the talent that had earned her all those honors, but film roles for women in her age bracket were in 1986 what they are today: scarce. She had dutifully kept the same agent into the 1980s that had represented her in the Sabrina days, Kurt Frings, and he reviewed script after script and sent many on and always Audrey reviewed them with disappointment. Too violent, too depressing, too gory, too vulgar.
But despite her chronological age, she knew she was still young. Inside she felt the same exuberance that had gotten her through two shows a night dancing in West End choruses 35 years earlier. She ate healthily and loved long walks in the Swiss countryside. She traveled often—one week would find her in Paris and the next in Hollywood.
Staying in film was the obvious answer. She had never loved film work and yet films had earned her a nice living and it’s what she knew, so she kept looking at the scripts and even threw her hat in the ring for the role of a society matron in a television miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and it was here she learned the latest of life’s lessons: When you jump into such a casting pool as this, you better be ready for sharks. Not only did Academy Award-winner Claudette Colbert want that part; so did Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, and Colbert got it and would earn an Emmy nomination.
Funny thing about Audrey Hepburn: She had an ego that resulted inevitably from decades of success and an inferiority complex several times wider. Fame bewildered her because she didn’t consider herself pretty enough or talented enough to have earned it. All she could say with certainty and a lot of pride was that she worked damn hard and gave herself with total commitment to any job she took on. She had to work twice as hard as everybody else because she was, in her mind, only half as good an actress.
So what about that memoir? She probably could have commanded a million-dollar advance but no way would she ever do such a thing. Because of the war she had some skeletons in the family closet that she must keep locked away. More than that, editors would expect the inside story on her life and career and that meant dishing about friends and co-workers. She may have known that Humphrey Bogart was a bitter man who had no patience for her on the set of Sabrina, but that was her business, just like her affair with co-star William Holden on the same picture was her business. She would never dream of sharing these matters with the world.
The life she was living in retirement wasn’t exactly torture. She owned a Swiss farmhouse tended by a wonderful staff. She maintained a world-class fruit and vegetable garden that provided bounty for the table almost year-round. She had minded her money to the extent that she could provide for herself and her family. And she had finally at long last found the love of her life, former actor Robert Wolders. She could easily live out her years at home, or visiting family, honoring famous friends, endorsing the occasional product, and presenting at the Oscars.
But that was just it—Audrey Hepburn had never done things the easy way, so why start now? And that is the jumping-off point for Warrior. Other authors always treated this as just another chapter in the story of her life. The final chapter. To me, it’s the beginning of an epic adventure.
While growing up, I had many heroes and I’ve discussed some of them in these columns. One I haven’t mentioned is Bruce Lee, better known to young-me as Kato on the 1966-67 TV series The Green Hornet and then in some martial arts motion pictures. I took Bruce Lee for granted as one of the coolest human beings ever and never thought of him as Asian or a minority or anything of the kind. He was just 100% Ohmygod Badass. Now through adult eyes I can see what he accomplished on television way back then in a United States ruled by and for white people. We had seen Asians play sidekicks and serve as comic relief, but a young Asian male as the soft-spoken and deadly enforcer of an otherwise unremarkable superhero the likes of Britt Reid/The Green Hornet; well, this was new.
Not long ago I watched a particular episode of The Green Hornet and Lee’s fight scenes struck me dumb. I wish I could find that sequence to show you but here’s something similar—it’s kinda dark but in several seconds you get the idea. What Lee brought wasn’t the same old quality of stuntmen for Adam West and Burt Ward throwing air punches with meat-slammer sound effects; Lee brought something else—something muscular and pulverizing that defied gravity.
After his all-too-brief turn as Kato, Lee went on to carve a successful career in Asian pictures that hold up well today, including The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, and then the Warner Bros. release Enter the Dragon, which I made my dad take me to see twice in first run.
Bruce Lee’s death from a freak allergic reaction to a painkiller made for another of those traumatic childhood events for me—Pete Duel had been taken at the turn of 1972, Roberto Clemente at the turn of 1973, and then Bruce Lee that July. Three of my heroes gone in 18 months, like, literally, my top three, at ages 31, 38, and 32.
All of which is to say you won’t find anybody who respects the achievements or memory of Bruce Lee more than I do, which is why I love the depiction of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I more than love it. I love-love it. I could watch it on a loop for a week, or a month. As far as I’m concerned Tarantino brought Bruce Lee back to life just for me, exactly the Bruce Lee I needed in childhood and exactly as I would have wanted him to be. This Bruce Lee is funny and arrogant, as full of himself as I could wish him to be in his young prime during the Kato run. Who the hell wouldn’t be arrogant, doing what he could do? He encounters our stuntman-hero Cliff Booth backstage during filming of an episode of The Green Hornet, with Booth standing by to play an extra. Pretty soon they’re engaging in a friendly best-of-three-falls marital arts match and it’s one fall each with the third round dead even when the fight’s broken up.
I’m no expert at hand-to-hand combat but there’s a misperception when Lee goes flying into the door of a car that Booth drove him there. But it seems as if Booth simply sidestepped a Lee attack and some deflected momentum took Lee into the car. That’s a fine point but an important one because there was quite the backlash from Lee admirers over the portrayal of “Bruce Lee” in Once Upon a Time. They said, How dare you disrespect our hero in this way?How can you imply some middle-aged stuntman could hold his own with the great Bruce Lee? Lee’s daughter led this charge and complained loudest of all.
Well, I loved both Bruce Lee and this depiction of Bruce Lee, and it’s pretty clear that Quentin Tarantino loved Bruce Lee and paid homage with this depiction. He brought Bruce Lee back to life, for crying out loud, and back into the spotlight in a fantastic way. Of course, this was a caricature of Bruce Lee like so much in the picture is caricature, but the reaction to my last column about the ending of Once Upon a Time indicated that for many people, the Bruce Lee vs. Cliff Booth sequence produced smiles to rival the ones resulting from that dreamlike happy ending when we fade out to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski living happily ever after.
I wish Quentin Tarantino would bring my dad back to life like that. Go ahead make him an arrogant physics professor who speaks in the third person. I promise I won’t say, “How dare you besmirch my father’s memory!” because he’d be alive again. Heck, he’d be bigger than life, if only for 5 or 10 glorious cinematic minutes.
I need to talk about the greatest moviegoing catharsis of my life. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and now that I’m between books, I need to capture it even though I figure it’ll bore some.
Oh, shameless plug: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, published by GoodKnight Books, drops Tuesday, September 28. Lots more coming about this soon but for now, back to our story.
When I was growing up, Charles Manson managed to claim a place in the environment, like those steel plants in the Mon Valley that belched smoke into the air I breathed every day. Just like that, Manson polluted the earth by corrupting souls on the one hand and snuffing out lives on the other. We lived with Manson and his followers for decades and decades as they rotted in jail. Every so often one of them would come up for parole and state the case why they should be set free, and all of us on the outside went, No.
And all the while, in that expanse of time, ever widening, Sharon Tate remained dead, and the child she was carrying, and those who died with her—Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, along with Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, murdered the next night. And there were other murders before and after. All these people should have been living all those years and none of them were because of Charles Manson.
When Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood came along in 2019, I was skeptical and didn’t know what to expect. How would the Manson experience be presented? Would he be glorified? Even if he wasn’t, how could any of us live through the nightmare all over again? Then upon release I started hearing raves from my friends. “A crackerjack show!” wrote one. “A triumph! You’ll love it!” said another. Wait, what? A movie about Charles Manson and Sharon Tate??
But I just sat through that ending and experienced the pure magic all over again for maybe the, I don’t know, seventh time?
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
If you haven’t seen the picture and intend to, stop reading. I’ll place a photo below—Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and director Quentin Tarantino—to create some space so you can avert your gaze and click away from my page.
In the movie, self-doubting TV star Rick Dalton lives just down the hill from Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. On the horrible night, when Manson disciples Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel drive up Cielo toward the Tate house, Dalton belligerently orders them off his private street. He has no idea who they are or their intentions; he just wants them gone. As a result of the confrontation, they decide they must kill Dalton before proceeding on to kill everyone in the house at the end of Cielo Drive.
What follows inside Dalton’s house after the killers break in should be horrifying, and it is. This is one of the most violent, cringeworthy five minutes in the history of a major motion picture. But I for one and I suspect many or most of my generation find it to be beautiful and poetic.
As Rick Dalton floats in his backyard pool wearing headphones and listening to music, best friend and stunt man Cliff Booth and sidekick Brandy, a pit bull, take on Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel in the living room. Each of the murderers dies a more horrible death than the last at the hands of our heroes—Rick is jolted from his in-pool reverie in time to deliver the coup de grâce to Susan Atkins, who was arguably the worst of the lot.
A friend of mine born after the 1969 Manson murders watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and said she wasn’t impressed; she didn’t get it. And of course you’d be lost throughout because this is an ode to that era with dozen upon dozen pop culture references designed to make baby boomers smile. But you really wouldn’t get the ending unless you lived through the butchering of innocent people and then Manson’s self-aggrandizing attempts to make a mockery of the justice system.
Finally, on the 50th anniversary of those summer 1969 murders, justice was served if only in Tarantino’s alternate reality. From the turnabout killings of the would-be killers to the fade out where Sharon, Jay and the others live happily ever after to Maurice Jarre’s haunting main credits soundtrack theme lifted from the 1972 western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, I take temporary satisfaction that every so often, for a little while, something wrong has been put to right.
I remember seeing Judge Roy Bean on first run in 1972 and not liking it very much; it was written by John Milius, who has been a big influence on Tarantino’s writing style. This fictionalized western about a real-life good-bad guy in West Texas began with a title screen that read, “… Maybe this isn’t the way it was … it’s the way it should have been.” And that is the brilliance of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s the way it should have been in the summer of 1969, and my friends and I appreciate the intention and the feelings it leaves behind.
I have a Dutch family. None of my ancestors are Dutch, but I inherited a whole family in the Netherlands by researching and writing Dutch Girl, an effort that began in 2015 with our first visit to Arnhem. It was there I discovered Audrey Hepburn’s connection to that spot on the map, which intrigued me all the more when I tried to research her wartime years in Arnhem and found little available information, with much of that conflicting. What I did learn pretty quickly was that Audrey lived in Arnhem from December 1939 to sometime in the middle of the war, and then moved to the next village to the east, Velp.
In the spring of 2017, I contacted Velp’s leading historian, Gety Hengeveld, to request her help with information; at once she marshaled forces there and served as a point of contact for my upcoming research visit. Gety put together a luncheon so I could interview several wartime survivors at once, and there, in June 2017, I met my Dutch family, which included several names you’ll recognize if you have read Dutch Girl. I sat next to Rosemarie Kamphuisen that day, and we didn’t exactly hit it off because I believe trust didn’t come easily to her, and who was this American author and what were his intentions? Through lunch she held in her lap a published history of her family, including the war years, and she would refer to it to refresh her memory and conjure up dates related to the German occupation.
In the end she allowed me to photograph the relevant pages of her family history when lunch had concluded. Why? I guess she had judged me to be OK and beyond that, “You are our liberators!” she said to me with what I can only describe as awe and wonder in her voice. Just by being an American, I had qualified in her mind as one of the liberators, and I was honored and a little embarrassed to be lumped into the same group as the Allied troops that had attempted to liberate Velp in 1944 and succeeded a year later.
Mary and I saw Rosemarie on our next research trip in April 2018 during Velp’s solemn Liberation Day ceremony that takes place the Sunday closest to 16 April, the date everyone in the village, including Audrey Hepburn and her family, were freed from German occupation. Rosemarie greeted us like family and we sat and talked after the ceremony for a long time. We agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant a few days later and when Mary and I arrived at the restaurant, there was Rosemarie waiting for us, standing beside a bicycle that seemed much too big for her—she must have been at that time somewhere around 88 years old, and she had biked to our meeting! I will never quite get over that, but bicycles are the Dutch way of life and key to their sense of independence and health.
That day we learned all about Rosemarie and her family. She’d had a hard life including a bad marriage that forced her to start over from scratch while supporting five children. She had also become a force in the local community, a volunteer for senior citizens’ groups and historical preservationist.
Just for some perspective, Rosemarie was a bit younger than Audrey but also Audrey’s contemporary in Velp. She remembered the van Heemstras and was very fond of Dr. Henrik Visser ’t Hooft, the Velpsche doctor for whom Audrey volunteered and local Resistance leader.
Of this fascinating man she said, “I have known hard times in my life, and he supported me without many words, but by respecting me and giving a boost to my self-confidence. In one way or another he gave me the feeling that he loved me in the most decent way possible. At his farewell reception [in the 1970s] he hugged me with the words: “Good luck, dear Rose.” It was just what I needed.”
Rosemarie participated in the committee that placed a historical marker and statue at the site of Villa Beukenhof in Velp and staged their unveiling in September 2019. The committee invited Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and me to speak at the ceremony, which was simply spectacular, attended by about a thousand people, brass band, parade, and a lavish book signing of the Dutch version of Dutch Girl. Those events marked the last times we saw Rosemarie. Our planned 2020 return visit was canceled by Covid and we couldn’t provide in-person moral support when she suffered a debilitating heart attack about a year ago. The best we could do was speak to her on the phone and keep touch via email.
Rosemarie Kamphuisen passed away yesterday in hospice, but not without one last battle. She kept warning us that her heart was giving out, but we kept believing that nothing could really stop her. She came from good stock that had helped defeat the Nazis, and she’d beaten the odds and successfully raised her children and gone on to help me write Dutch Girl. I’m so happy to report she also provided important reminiscences that appear in my latest book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, due September 28.
One of the hazards of writing books about World War II is that an author meets and works with wonderful, important people in the autumn of their lives and they become family and then they move on. It happens over and over and it hurts. But above the sense of loss is such gratitude that we met to establish new and loving relationships in the course of capturing stories important to history. These people live on in my books, and in my heart, forever.
Anyone who knows me can tell you without hesitation: that Matzen, he’s never satisfied. And it’s true. Something about my DNA makes it difficult to just stop and smell the rose for the rose and say, yes, this is a perfect moment. Case in point: When you write a book, you cast your subject in cement and it dries and what you’ve written is what there is, the problem being that your subject, whether Carole Lombard or James Stewart or Audrey Hepburn, continues to be affected by the physics of history. New facts emerge, perspectives change, and your book becomes ever more a snapshot in time, leaving the author to think, Damn, I wish I had known about this or that back when it mattered! The nature of biography makes me grateful for my blog, this little historical annex where I can update the record as needed.
SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I’ve written another book that you will be hearing about called Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, which will be released by GoodKnight Books in September. In it you will meet a super-cool relative of Audrey’s named Vero Roberti “who lived a life of adventure,” as I say in the narrative. I think you will love Vero like you loved Otto, Count van Limburg Stirum if you have read Dutch Girl. Anyway, in the past few weeks I heard from another member of Audrey’s family who lived a life of adventure. This woman said in email that she knew Ella, and Miesje, and of course Audrey—Aunt Audrey, in fact—and I had to get on the phone with her and find out more.
Yvonne Waller is the daughter of Ian Quarles van Ufford, Audrey’s half-brother. Ian as you’ll remember was the younger son of Hendrick Gustaf Quarles van Ufford and Ella van Heemstra (Alexander being the older son). They were Audrey’s older half-brothers who lived mostly apart from her until 1939 on the eve of World War II, when Audrey’s mother Ella van Heemstra had Audrey flown over from boarding school in England and all the van Heemstras reunited in Arnhem.
When Ian turned 16 and lived in the Arnhem suburb of Velp, the ruling Germans in the Netherlands forced him to Berlin where he worked as a slave laborer in a munitions factory until liberation by the Russians in the battle of annihilation for Hitler’s last stronghold. Ian would become another whose memories of the war were too dark to discuss. He told his daughter only two stories: one about falsifying papers and another about having a miniature radio hidden in a matchbox, but even relating this much would result in sleepless nights for a man who had seen too much.
After the fall of Berlin, Ian walked the 300 miles to Velp from Berlin, and he told Yvonne that upon arriving at Villa Beukenhof he knew he was home when he saw Audrey’s makeup box in her bedroom window. Ella would later give the makeup box to Yvonne, “and I go off to college and the poor makeup box is thrown away.” Such is life.
Another piece of family history I didn’t know was that after the war Ian worked for a cargo shipping company operating between the Netherlands and Indonesia, which led to the beginnings of his business career there.
Yvonne and I hit it off from hello. After working so closely for so long with Audrey’s son Luca, I feel like I know many of the people in the family, and Yvonne really did know them and so we had plenty to talk about. As for her life of adventure, she was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, where her father worked as an executive for Unilever Corporation in what turned out to be a very successful career that took him and his family to various posts around the world.
Early in the conversation Yvonne provided new information about Ella’s marriage to Hendrick Quarles van Ufford and their brief life together in the Dutch East Indies. “My grandfather was an operations guy [for Shell Oil] and he would go around to the different oil rigs and he’d be gone for months at a time, and this is one of the stories that I have to tell you. One day my grandmother, Granny, Grandmother Ella, sat with my mother—we were at that time living in Paris—she sat with my mother and she said, ‘You know, I was only 24 years old and Fafa, that was his nickname, he would be gone for months at a time. And I’m 24 years old! I need a life too!’ And that’s how she met Ruston. Imagine, it was colonial times, so she would have to go with all of her servants. All the ladies who looked after her, you know, keep her cool, fan her, and they would all have to go with her to see Ruston!”
Now for a correction to the history I had presented in Dutch Girl: According to family history as Yvonne heard it, Ella deserted Quarles van Ufford and her sons Alex and Ian for Ruston: “This is what I heard,” said Yvonne. “She left [with Ruston]. My grandfather took his boys, went back to Holland, set up in Holland, met a Norwegian lady, and lived with her and she took care of the boys. Then one day as the boys are napping—and this is one of those crazy Quarles stories—she [Ella]comes in through the servants’ quarters, takes the boys, and from that moment on, they live with her.” In other words, Ella didn’t have her children in tow when she embarked on the impetuous liaison with Joseph Ruston that led to marriage and Audrey. At some point as the boys were living near The Hague after many years apart from their mother, she reclaimed them.
Yvonne told me about her life on the road with a Dutch business executive-father who was always on the move, from Indonesia to Holland, then Tehran, then Bangkok, then Rangoon, then briefly in Sweden before heading back to Indonesia. On the way, at Christmas 1963, they stopped at Bürgenstock, Switzerland, for Christmas with Audrey, Mel, and infant Sean. “Aunt Miesje was the first person to ever give me a Toblerone bar,” said Yvonne with a laugh, “so I have wonderful memories of Miesje—she was truly a great lady. We were walking in the mountains and she stopped and pulled it out of her bag and said, ‘Here, you can have this.’” I asked for more detail on Miesje and she said, “She was very sweet. With Grandma Ella you had to watch your Ps and Qs. She could be very severe; if you’d go out to lunch or dinner with her, she’d always appear with a stern face on, almost like a mask. But Aunt Miesje was much more approachable and very sweet. I have only fond memories of her.” Yvonne noted the dry humor of the van Heemstra family and a constant twinkle in Miesje’s eye, which jibes with Audrey’s many comments to the effect that humor had gotten the van Heemstras through occupation’s darkest moments in Velp.
Ella, on the other hand, Yvonne described as a “tough cookie. She never shouted, but oh boy, you really sat up and watched your manners. It wasn’t that you were scared of her. That’s just the way Granny was and you behaved!”
Interestingly, there was very little discussion in the family about the death of Otto van Limburg Stirum; the topic seems to have remained too painful a memory for subsequent generations. “All I know is he was a wonderful man,” said Yvonne. And Ian’s big brother Alex seems to have been a mystery to his own family and didn’t remain close to Ian or Audrey. He lived in Japan and had nothing to do with the family. “I don’t think I ever met him,” said Yvonne.
Back to the story, with Yvonne’s family in Jakarta again after a hasty move from Sweden: “Just before the coup d’état of Sukarno  we left very early in the morning. My dad stayed behind, and my mother, my sister, and I went to Switzerland where Audrey welcomed us and we stayed at Tolochenaz for a couple of months before we found an apartment. The company had been nationalized, Dad stayed, went through the coup d’état … and that was a bit tricky. He was on the list of 60 people who would have been shot if Sukarno had won the coup d’état.” Historical note: An Indonesian coup attempt that began in Jakarta would lead to hundreds of thousands of murders throughout the country and its islands over the span of a year, and Ian showed remarkable courage to remain at his post for Unilever during this time.
I could go on and on about this fascinating new friend. Yvonne has lived California, U.S.A., for 25 years now. She told me about her visits with Aunt Audrey in Paris and other places, about attending Luca’s christening, and about Audrey’s attendance at Yvonne’s wedding and her sister’s wedding. “She was very generous, Audrey, very generous, extremely generous. When you’d see her it was like a party. It was always wonderful to see her—there was nothing better.”
Yes, Yvonne Quarles van Ufford Waller has lived a life of adventure, just like Vero Roberti, and Audrey Hepburn for that matter. Thank you, Yvonne, for a great hour on the phone. I hope we can meet up again soon.
Last night I watched the 1978 political thriller, The Boys from Brazil. I didn’t like it, which isn’t surprising because I don’t like many movies, actually most movies, but what I stumbled upon in my analysis afterward is what I consider to be a (for me) fatal flaw of some 1970s all-star vehicles like this one.
For example, I am endlessly bothered when I think about A Bridge too Far, the 1977 Joseph E. Levine WWII epic about the Market Garden campaign. It’s a true story with an all-star cast including Sean Connery as the British major-general who leads a parachute attack on a key Dutch town in the riskiest part of a risky operation. The mission is supposed to be a cakewalk and turns into anything but, and this British general ends up hiding in a Dutch family’s attic surrounded by Germans while his command is ripped to shreds. Imagine the psychology of this man, a British bigshot, sitting impotent for 24 hours in a civilian attic.
The script skims the surface of this incident and Connery plays it accordingly. Where’s my mark? What are my lines? Between an uncaring screenplay and a work-for-hire performance, history lovers are left 44 years later with a cardboard cutout of Sean Connery in a British uniform standing here and standing there, with nothing meaningful revealed about his character other than that every situation aggravated him. Clearly, the script of A Bridge too Far prioritized balanced screen time for its all-star cast above characterization.
On to The Boys from Brazil, the Lew Grade epic of 94 clones of Adolf Hitler placed into hand-chosen families around the world during the 1960s by Nazi war criminal Dr. Joseph Mengele. Oops, sorry, I guess I should have warned, “spoiler alert,” because the fact they are clones of Hitler is revealed at plot point 2. Gregory Peck plays Mengele and Laurence Olivier plays the Jewish Nazi hunter chasing Mengele. Pardon me, but a little of these two in this circumstance goes a long, long, very long way, and after a while Peck, as creepy Mengele, dissolved into Peck the actor, ever-broadening his performance as if realizing how silly the whole thing was and deciding what the heck, let’s chew some scenery. In The Boys from Brazil, Olivier played the exact same character in the exact same makeup and using the exact same accent as he had in A Bridge too Far the previous year when he was cast a Dutch doctor (Where’s my mark? What are my lines?). Which is to say, this was Olivier’s stock performance by the latter 1970s, and what scraps of scenery Peck left behind Olivier grabbed at and gobbled up.
I remember what a big deal The Boys from Brazil was on first run, two titans of the screen in opposition, which didn’t interest me as a kid, so I didn’t see the picture then and I’m gratified these four decades later that my instincts were right. Now all grown up, I got to thinking what is it about these all-star epics from the 1970s that doesn’t hold up for me? The Boys from Brazil does boast an interesting and offbeat all-star cast that includes, below the top-liners, James Mason, Lili Palmer, Steve Guttenberg (still in his baby-fat youth), Anne Meara, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Michael Gough, and even TV veteran John Dehner.
Budgets are always a problem in Hollywood and they certainly proved a factor in 1970s blockbusters. Your Joseph E. Levines and Lew Grades followed a formula where you hired known names up and down the cast and slotted them into this week in this location and flew them in and here’s your lines and here’s your mark and, Action! The screenplay merely connected the stars to the situation. Levine and Grade as filmmakers were slaves to a big-name formula and an unforgiving bottom line, and that’s why Sean Connery trudged into the middle of location shooting in the Netherlands and hit his marks, delivered his lines, collected his paycheck, and flew home without an iota of interest in who Maj.-Gen. Roy Urquhart really was or what he endured psychologically in the battle of Arnhem.
Part of the filmgoer experience back then in pictures like The Boys from Brazil was, oh, there’s Michael Gough! Oops, there was Michael Gough because he was murdered after a single line of dialogue. Hey there’s John Dehner! Oops, there was John Dehner after Mengele murdered him in the cellar. Cameos here, cameos there, cameos everywhere in a Lew Grade picture. It’s high-gloss surface entertainment with nothing much to make you think, except maybe that in 1978 bad people ran around plotting to set up authoritarian regimes and rule the world just like they do today.
I finally checked The Boys from Brazil off my list. I do admit to enjoying these time capsules of production in the 1970s, and it’s nice to see Gregory Peck alive again and working in a big-budget spectacular. The print was beautiful, as fresh and crisp now as it was during the Carter administration. But after a first reel that sucked me into creepiness and murder in Paraguay, I caught on that the filmmakers didn’t take this picture seriously, so why should I? I went into the viewing feeling the creeps and came out two hours later drenched in camp and a gallon of Mengele’s blood.
I’m curious what you think about any number of these all-star WWII-related spectacles of the 1960s and 70s. Battle of the Bulge, Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, A Bridge too Far, and so on. Was it The Longest Day that began the trend of big names slotted into here’s-your-lines-here’s-your-mark roles? John Wayne as the world’s oldest and most out-of-shape parachute colonel? Richard Burton as a pilot held together with, uh, safety pins? Connery again as a cynical Scottish private hitting the beach?
Actors still say it today: “It’s a living.” They take the paychecks where they can get them and the pictures float around in the cloud forever, waiting to be streamed. I guess you could argue that all these movies are escapism to entertain you for two hours, mindlessly or not, and maybe I’m too picky and too demanding. If that’s the case, never mind. I am a Virgo after all.
If you want to understand It’s a Wonderful Life, watch the 1949 20thCentury-Fox production of Twelve O’Clock High. Then sit there, digest what you’ve seen, and watch it again. Twelve O’Clock High has been recognized as the most accurate depiction of life in the Eighth Air Force, as proven by the fact it became required viewing at U. S. service academies in the 1950s.
The war depicted in Twelve O’Clock High was Jim Stewart’s war, marked by Quonset huts, mounting pressure, mud, and boring routine punctuated every so often by terror at 20,000 feet and the sudden death of your roommate.
Before D-Day in June 1944 the only Americans fighting in Northern Europe flew for the Army Air Forces and Jim was one of those guys, not in the first wave of bombers over Europe but in the second that came up as reinforcements. The first wave can be seen in Twelve O’Clock High, flying missions from southeastern England over the Channel to the coast of France, which in mid-1943 was dangerous and highly defended German territory as proven by the losses and stress on a bomb group that Gen. Frank Savage has to bring back to life through discipline. The story was written by veteran Hollywood screenwriter Sy Bartlett and former bomber pilot and journalist Beirne Lay, Jr., both of whom served in Eighth Air Force Bomber Command during the war—served, in fact, in close proximity to Captain, then Major, James Stewart of the 445thBomb Group.
I have found no record whether Jim saw this picture or if he avoided it, which he might well have because of his close personal connection to events depicted. Right after the war Beirne Lay had written a two-part Saturday Evening Post exposé on Jim’s military service; had in fact written it from the inside, from knowing Jim during his 20 months in-theater. Jim would have remembered too well, from too close a proximity the life depicted in Twelve O’Clock High—those claustrophobic half-moon Nissen huts and the bad overhead pendant lighting, Franklin stoves that never alleviated the damp and cold, relentless English rains, all-night mechanical sessions to get ships that had been shot to pieces one day airworthy for the next, and the black curtain that opened to reveal not only the day’s target but also the place where some of the men being briefed were going to die. He’d have known the terms that are never explained, the I.P. (initial point of the bomb run) and the D.P.I. (desired point of impact of the bombs). He’d have recognized the boyish face of Lieutenant Bishop because Jim had known a hundred Lieutenant Bishops. And Jim would have known the feeling when Bishop is lost in combat because, as a squadron commander, Jim lost pilots and had to live with any error in judgment that had led to their deaths.
Like General Savage, played by Gregory Peck, Maj. Jim Stewart believed in group integrity, which was a disciplined approach to formation flying that maximized machine gun coverage from each ship’s ten machine guns and raised the odds of actually hitting any target. All the men I talked to who served under Stewart said he was a “by-the-book officer” both on the ground and in the air. As the decades passed, many apocryphal stories brewed up from men who said they had served under Stewart and described hapless Jimmy with the slow aw-shucks drawl who looked the other way from infractions. Don’t believe it. You don’t rise to the rank of full colonel in the USAAF and brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve by being a friend to enlisted men. Jim Stewart was tough.
I’ll touch just a moment on the Twelve O’Clock High production, with bases in Alabama and Florida standing in for Archbury, England. By my count they could muster eight stateside B-17s to represent a bomb group’s IRL complement of about fifty. Even a few years after the war they were being scrapped at a high rate. Please note as you watch the picture director Henry King’s use of long, unbroken takes under those stark pendants. I counted one scene between Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe as the “coward” Colonel Gately that ran more than five mesmerizing minutes, just the two of them in a scene of complex dialogue to match anything from The Caine Mutiny. One take! And it happens several times with Peck and his cast, the camera rolling and rolling on a two-shot, swooping in, moving back, but never a break. Everything they discuss, every issue they face, was based on what Bartlett and Lay saw during the war. Savage is really Col. Frank Armstrong and Maj.-Gen. Pritchard, played by Millard Mitchell, is really Maj.-Gen. Ira Eaker, first in command of the fledgling Mighty Eighth. Down to the sergeant who needs a zipper on his stripes because they keep getting put on and taken off, the characters are based in fact. The issues were just as real, as when Dean Jagger as Ground Exec Stovall gets drunk and says he can’t remember anyone’s face who has died in combat except they were all “very young faces,” or when Paul Stewart, the group’s doc, likens these young men to light bulb filaments burning bright one minute and burning out the next.
The parallels to Stewart’s war keep coming in this picture. Tough-as-nails Savage finally cracks after seeing the pilot he had counted on most die in the air. When you see Peck come apart right there on the perimeter track, think of Jim because the same thing happened to him. The exact same thing. He returned from somewhere around his twelfth mission and his plane cracked in two on landing, and Jim cracked with it. He went “flak happy” and had to go away to recover in the English countryside. It happened to many of the fliers; in fact, early in the film a navigator commits suicide after fouling up and that happened quite a lot as well—men blowing their brains out with their .45s because they couldn’t take it anymore.
Twelve O’Clock High only misses on a couple of things and both are understandable. The cast is simply too old. The officers who flew the missions at the front of the plane were in reality 20 at the youngest and 26 at the oldest, while in the picture the primary fliers were relatively ancient: Hugh Marlowe at 38, Gary Merrill 33, and John Kellogg 32. Robert Patten at 25 looked the part and was in fact the only actor in the cast with Eighth Air Force experience, serving as a navigator. The other miss is high-altitude flight as represented by the combat sequence that takes place an hour and a half into the picture. Yes, the cockpit crews are on oxygen and in helmets and goggles, but you never get the sense of life below zero degrees at 20,000 feet. It’s something Hollywood has never managed to capture and probably never will, but it’s another key to understanding the PTSD of those men on the front lines in 1943 Europe.
Twelve O’Clock High and It’s a Wonderful Life ought to be a double feature, and it doesn’t matter which you show first. When Jim Stewart came back to become George Bailey, he had just left the world of General Savage behind. He had lived in that base with those men in the same conditions under the same stress flying the same missions, and he too had cracked under the strain. The adult children of these fliers tell of a certain distance, sadness, and blind rage that could be experienced from “Pop” at any moment, and Twelve O’Clock High explains it all. Jim’s kids will tell you the same thing, that the war must have changed him because of that distance, sadness, and occasional blind rage.
When I see Jim first appear in It’s a Wonderful Life as an adult, when the camera freezes and his arms are wide and he’s supposed to be playing a young guy of 21, I squirm because I see an old man and the face of war. A hairpiece and makeup can’t hide the horrors he had just encountered, which is why Twelve O’Clock High should be mandatory viewing for anyone who loves It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s the prequel that tells the story of an actor’s redemption and remarkable return to peacetime.
I first noticed the trend with a Google Alert December 2 for a Closer magazine article about Kelly Stewart Harcourt’s Christmas memories; holidays in the Stewart household included an annual viewing of her father’s most memorable picture, It’s a Wonderful Life.
What interested me most (of course) was that my 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe turned up in every piece as journalists investigated the magic of IAWL and the stark and ravaged nature of the Stewart performance. Then journalist Rachael Scott of CNN.com interviewed me for what turned out to be an excellent look at Jim’s experiences in war and its impact on his performance in IAWL.
Then The Federalist took a look at Jim the war hero and his return to make IAWL and again, there was Mission. And World War II magazine released a solid piece of work by David Kindy, who has interviewed me a few times over the years. That feature is The Dark Place and explains how Jim’s mind-altering 20 combat missions influenced the second half of his acting career.
At this point a producer from MSNBC’s Morning Joe contacted me to come on-air along with my favorite historical biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss Jim’s military career and return for IAWL. Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Guest asked insightful questions, and the resulting 10 minutes of television blew up Amazon’s orderly inventory system and Mission went out of stock. (Twitter blew up as well with often-hilarious criticism of the room in which my Skype interview took place, but that’s another story.)
Doris offered wonderful insight on Morning Joe about why IAWL resonates with such power this year—George Bailey considered himself to be “stuck” in Bedford Falls just as all of us have been “stuck” at home through the pandemic. George’s life is such a dark place and the walls press in on him until he’s nearly crushed, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in 2020? When I described Jim’s combat career and its inevitable impact on his brain and his acting style, wasn’t I also describing the impact of Covid on the psyche of people worldwide as the germ wages war on all of us? Jim experienced combat fatigue; we are getting a taste of Covid fatigue. The Germans aren’t shooting at us at 20,000 feet, but the strain is real and ongoing.
As per the plot of IAWL, just in time for Christmas, George Bailey experiences redemption and realizes he’s living, after all is said and done, a wonderful life. It’s the kind of miracle comeback we all want to experience after such a bleak time in the history of our still-pretty-new century.
I can only wonder if playing George Bailey made Jimmy Stewart see himself as one lucky guy. The former playboy settled down after the war, married a mature divorcee with two sons, saw the addition of twin girls, and lived on. He survived the war when so many of his “boys” hadn’t. He lost many fliers from his squadron and bomb group in combat and took personal responsibility for this fact—it was one of the wartime memories he kept locked inside, and one of the reasons he would sit in quiet solitude at times and just stare at nothing, as Kelly Harcourt described to me.
Stewart’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was already a crazy-complicated picture, so warm and bright at times, so dark and unsettling at others. This year you may find watching it to be a deeper and more rewarding experience, and if true, we must give a nod to director Frank Capra, who sought, against conventional wisdom, to bring this story to the screen. In 1946 Capra was considered too sentimental and old school for a cynical post-war Hollywood. Now, I admire his vision as never before. It’s as if he foresaw our 2020 reality and brewed up what vaccine he could, and that’s why this year in particular the world is riveted by It’s a Wonderful Life as never before.
P.S. After this column went live, MSN’s The Wrap published a trivia slideshow with Mission content.
A number of new subscribers have come aboard, which I very much appreciate. Thank you all! This fact reminds me how derelict I’ve been in posting new content of late. So, here’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to instead of writing columns for this blog.
FLASH BACK to autumn 2019, before Covid—if you can remember life before Covid. Dutch Girl had been a success in the U.S. and abroad, and I started to think about what I’d write next since it’s always a struggle finding something book-worthy. After Mission and before Dutch Girl I almost took on the task of attempting a biography of actor Basil Rathbone, but his relationship with narcissist wife Ouida was too f’ed up and although Rathbone wove his way into the fabric of Hollywood history, I refused to be locked in a room with an overt narcissist and her co-dependent husband through the course of 90,000 words. Because her toxicity poisoned too much of his career, I felt I had to throw that one back into the cosmic stream, which was OK because then Audrey came along.
After Dutch Girl I was poking around again and received a hot tip out of the blue about unexplored content in a university archive related to Dorothy Parker. You know, Algonquin Roundtable short story writer and renowned wit Dorothy Parker who ended up in Hollywood with her husband writing and fixing screenplays in the Golden Age. Well, she and I had a booze-soaked little fling and I read a lot of her stuff and it was an interesting life with lots of Hollywood ties and I thought, yeah, maybe Dorothy Parker. But then at 3 a.m. one morning—I wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes and start to process things and can’t stop—my eyes snapped open at the realization that if I thought Basil and Ouida Rathbone were unappealing as a subject, they’re child’s play compared to a mean drunk who drove not one but both husbands to kill themselves. I decided right then to not become a filler item for the newspaper, as in, “DID YOU KNOW that Dorothy Parker drove not only two husbands but also her biographer to commit suicide?” Dottie and I broke up the next morning.
I was back at square one when a friend heard me talking about my problem of not knowing what to do next and joked, “Why don’t you do a book on Audrey Hepburn?” I laughed along because I had addressed the only area of Audrey’s life that hadn’t already been squeezed dry like an orange at the Sunkist factory. Some days later I said on the phone in a ha-ha way to Luca, Audrey’s son, “Hey, wanna hear a good one? Somebody said I do another book about Audrey—isn’t that crazy?” And there was a pause, and Luca said, in effect, I was thinking the same thing!
It’s now more than a year later and here I sit with a completed manuscript in my lap titled, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and the Fight for Children. It’s the other shoe to drop, the mate to Dutch Girl that completes the story and answers the question, “What did Audrey Hepburn do with the horrific wartime memories she kept locked inside?” If you think you know the answer to that question, I’ll bet you really don’t. I discovered in talking to her closest surviving friends and the many UNICEF field workers who accompanied her on Third World missions that the history of what she did and how she did it was about to be lost. And what this is as she charged into war zones and took on world leaders. I had no idea until Luca pointed me in the right direction just what a treasure chest waited to be opened. As it happened, with the world in lockdown for most of the time I spent researching and writing, no matter whom I called or where in the world they were located, guess what? They wanted to talk!
Granted only a few people have seen the resulting manuscript and maybe it sucks. Some of my favorite creative projects have inspired reactions like, “What were you thinking?” But the experience for me has been pure magic. I mean, really, I just spent another year locked in a room with Audrey Hepburn. That, my friends, is not a bad way to endure a pandemic. It certainly beats being sentenced to prison with Dorothy Parker or Basil and Ouida Rathbone.
Depending on a number of factors led by Covid and my publisher’s reaction, you may be seeing Warrior in about a year. Between now and then, I hope to turn my attention to this blog on a regular basis.
Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.
All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.
Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.
So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.
For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.
Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.
Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.
Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.
As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.
Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.
Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.
My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.
When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?
I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.