a + b = c, anyone?

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

Once in a while people ask me for recommendations for good WWII pictures. Obviously, Casablanca stands as the masterpiece of war-era romance and intrigue, but another Warner picture released exactly a year after Casablanca made an all-new impression on me when I watched it just last night.

I’d seen it before, but this time I cried at Edge of Darkness. I mean really cried in several scenes—which is funny because it had never affected me like that. In a nutshell, it’s autumn 1942 and Errol Flynn is the local resistance leader in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village of 800 as the Germans in charge ratchet up the pressure. They take food from the village and ship it off to Germany. They impose punitive sanctions against the citizenry, and the situation escalates to the point that all the resistance leaders in town are condemned and ordered to dig their own graves before they’re shot by firing squad.

For most of my life the story in Edge of Darkness seemed like just your usual wartime plot; a backdrop for Errol Flynn and crew to perform some onscreen heroics. Then I wrote Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (now in paperback–get your copy today!) which involved many trips to the Netherlands to learn about a town under Nazi occupation. I was able to see the building that served as SS headquarters—the place where locals were tortured to reveal information. I walked streets once German-held. I met many people who lived under German rule, including the children of Dutch resistance leaders. These are the people depicted in Edge of Darkness, and boy, do they now ring true. The resistance leader who resents German presence. His girlfriend who is raped by a German soldier. Her father the doctor who doesn’t favor fighting the Germans and her mother the dim and detached hausfrau. Many realistic characters are portrayed and they have one connecting purpose: They are ready to fight the Germans and they know that to do so, “We must be like steel.”

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

After the rape of Gunnar’s girlfriend Karen by a German soldier, Norwegian resistance leaders must decide when and how to strike. Soon the decision will be taken out of their hands.

I cried because I now know people like this. I cried because I know their story, what they suffered with spirits unbroken, and how they fought the oppressor day by day, week by week as the war dragged on and their lives became ever more unbearable.

Edge of Darkness begins at the end of the story—a German patrol plane spies a Norwegian flag flying above a town inhabited only by masses of dead soldiers and civilians in what a German investigator arriving on scene assumes was a battle of annihilation for both sides. Then we flash back to witness the series of events that led to massacre. The picture unspools like a macabre whodunit, tension increasing with very little in the way of comic relief. The resistance movement solidifies under German oppression just as it did in the Dutch village of Velp that I investigated for Dutch Girl. The restrictions imposed on the Norwegian village of Trollnes were exactly the same as those imposed on the Dutch village of Velp. The reaction of locals—death over cooperation with the Nazis—mirrors what happened in Velp; in fact, Audrey was among those who participated in Dutch resistance activities, just as did pretty much everyone in the village portrayed in Edge of Darkness. And when the resistance leaders of Trollnes are seen digging their own graves, well, chills ran down my spine because of a key episode described in Dutch Girl involving a member of Audrey’s own family.

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

Villagers advance toward the final, probably fatal confrontation with occupying German troops.

There’s a subplot involving a Norwegian woman who falls in love with a German soldier, but given the film’s release date of 1943, she of course fights the urge because he’s an occupier. The only good German in 1943 was a dead German, and there are scores of them before long in Edge of Darkness.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about the crazy-strong cast and their performances. As directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Milestone, Ukrainian-born and fluent in German, the climactic battle sequence pulls no punches for 1943. The Norwegians attack German machine gun nests with suicidal fury to match the ruthlessness of the oppressors. The body count is shockingly high on both sides and I can only wonder how those trying to escape wartime reality by going to an Errol Flynn picture—you know, the guy from Robin Hood—reacted at a story even grimmer than the day’s headlines.

I’d love to hear from people who a) read Dutch Girl and as a result b) cried at the courage and sacrifice in Edge of Darkness. If a + b were to equal c for any of you, that would make my day.

The Actor’s Dream

the-killers2

The killers.

Imagine the world is the old world—the world before March. Imagine you work in an office with a bunch of other people. Imagine you step out for lunch without really saying goodbye to the people, because it feels like you’re always there, and always will be.

A-soon-to-be-dead-workmate

A girlfriend and workmate, soon to be dead.

You come back and they’re all dead, murdered in grisly fashion. Blood still drips off the ceiling and runs down the walls. Your brain can’t process what’s happened or what you should do next. Are the killers still here? Do you report it to the police? Do you run?

That’s the premise of one of the creepier pictures I saw in the 1970s, Three Days of the Condor. I saw it either first run or soon thereafter, I can’t remember, but for me it was a nightmare scenario that I proceeded to live many times in the predawn darkness. Just writing this I had to go order a 1974 hardcover of the novel Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which I never read. For me the film version was grueling enough, but now I’m curious.

I’m not writing about this picture as a picture. If I were, I’d tell you I loved it then and still love it now. I’d talk about how plausible it was and how much I thought of Robert Redford in the lead and Faye Dunaway, an actress I never cared for but found appealing here. What’s creepiest about the picture is you never know who the evil is or where the evil comes from, and it turns out the evil listens to classical music and paints in meticulous detail lead soldiers from past eras. And that, my friends, is the subject of my piece.

Swedish actor Max von Sydow passed on to his reward March 8, 2020. Max had been the Exorcist back in the day and Jesus before that. I remember spending a lifetime one afternoon watching The Greatest Story Ever Told at the Hollywood Theater in my hometown as a young boy, back when my parents tried the populist method of teaching me religion. (It didn’t work.) As an adult I’ve watched this picture and thought it wasn’t that bad, and that von Sydow had an impossible task in playing Jesus. Really, I ask you, who the hell can play Jesus? Any actor would love the chance, sure, but it becomes a cautionary tale because Jesus will never be able to be played in a motion picture. And you can quote me.

I remember maybe 10 years ago I read something about Max von Sydow and I thought, WHAT? He’s still alive?? You just assume that because Father Marin was 70 when (spoiler alert) he didn’t make it through The Exorcist, he can’t possibly be alive 40 years later, in 2010. The math doesn’t add up. But, bulletin: Max von Sydow was freakin’ 43 when he played the old priest! Really, 43! Now that, my frienda, is acting.

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Circling back to Three Days of the Condor, released in 1975, von Sydow played the head assassin as a charming gentleman who wouldn’t hurt a fly. For me this was definitive; it defined Max von Sydow and the role I will always think of when he is mentioned. In the last reel he has Robert Redford dead to rights. He can kill him any second, but (another spoiler alert) it turns out he no longer has a contract out for Joe Turner (Redford’s character), so he offers him a lift! He’s so beautifully calm about it, just so masterful in his performance, that you want to go home with the assassin and look at his toy soldiers!

I’ve met many Hollywood stars over the years, but I never met Max von Sydow, and I’m sorry I didn’t. Of course he has a tremendous body of work that includes Bergman pictures and The Exorcist and another personal favorite, Flash Gordon, when he played Ming the Merciless. But when I finally do see Max von Sydow, I’ll say to him, “Bravo, sir, for Three Days of the Condor. You gave me nightmares.” I know he’ll appreciate hearing that. It’s an actor’s dream.

The Wisdom of Audrey Hepburn

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

This portrait taken in Arnhem three months after the death of Uncle Otto showed a face that already knew war too well.

Where is Audrey Hepburn when we need her? I’m reminded of Audrey’s experiences daily now as we all get a taste of life in a wartime setting. Audrey endured World War II as a youngster in the Netherlands—11 when the Germans marched into the Netherlands in 1940, and 15 the day Canadians liberated her town in 1945. If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (GoodKnight Books), you know that for the last eight months of the war, Audrey, her mother Ella, Aunt Miesje, and Grandfather the Baron van Heemstra were limited for large stretches of time to their modest home, Villa Beukenhof, in the affluent Dutch village of Velp. At the worst of times they were driven to a cramped cellar and huddled there as bullets and bombs thudded into the house.

I’ve been stuck at home for nine days now. Just nine days. It’s inconvenient, but I haven’t been driven to my basement. Most stores and restaurants are closed, and the few stores that remain open have run out of many products basic to human life. Well hello, welcome to the Netherlands of January 1945!

Shops in Velp had been receiving food and other goods sporadically at best. You could tell when something new had come into one of them because of the long lines of customers that assembled out of nowhere. If you saw a long line of people in front of a shop, you just queued up without hesitation. It didn’t matter what was being offered—odds were your family needed it.

But that January you didn’t need to queue up because the ruling Nazi government had halted all food shipments to the entire country. Since it was winter, little could be produced by local farms anyway—their livestock had been pilfered and fields were frozen. The Dutch were starving even in the eastern Netherlands where Audrey lived; farms dotted the countryside around Velp, but there just wasn’t enough of anything to go around.

Adding to the misery, typhus had broken out in Velp, and Audrey and everyone else received a series of three inoculations. V1 buzz bombs fell randomly on the village at night, and daily Allied fighter attacks sent villagers rushing back into their cellars. By the day news spread that a family member or neighbor had died; the nightmare went on and on.

Here in 2020 we aren’t driven inside by bullets and bombs. It’s germs that have us ducking for cover. But the result is the same: We are stuck at home and longing for days of freedom and stocked store shelves. The future is an unknown, and it’s reached a point where we fear for the lives of those we care about. Audrey once looked back on that last awful semester of World War II and told an interviewer, “In those days I used to say to myself, ‘If only this comes to an end, I will never grumble about anything again.’”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenIt’s up to us what we do with this experience. Audrey the optimist took everything negative that happened to her in the war and flipped it into a positive. As a 15 year old she had almost starved, so she became the tireless champion of starving children. The Germans had been cruel, so she promoted love. She had witnessed war up close, so she preached peace.

Yes, we need Audrey Hepburn’s guidance today to smile that smile and tell us things aren’t so bad. She claimed on many occasions that gallows humor got the family through the war—how they’d giggle in the night as the battle raged. To the world of spring 2020, she would offer guidance that everything going on now will help each of us be a better person in the future. She’d tell us, ‘Just hang on. Get through this—you’ll see.’

Schooled by a Sixth Grader


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

Dutch Girl trade paperback edition, due out May 12, 2020.

Writing the kinds of books I write depends on research—talking to eyewitnesses, digging through archives, combing through newspapers, walking the earth where action happened. I’ve explored castle dungeons, dodged swooping bats inside a German bunker, and flown in warbirds from one to four engines. All the research has to be laid out as if on a big table and then corroborated so nothing is left to chance. OK, so-and-so said this happened then, and, oh, OK, this newspaper verifies, yeah, that happened then. To me the worst outcome is to put bad information out there that creates a false foundation for future historians.

Research is a science that I respect. And I’m a Virgo, which makes me a perfectionist and hard on everybody, especially myself. So when I learn I’ve made an error in my research, it stings, and I made a whopper in Dutch Girl that was spotted and corrected very soon after pub date in April 2019. I indicated in the first printing of the book that Anne Frank and her sister Margot died in Auschwitz after the family’s capture in their Amsterdam hiding place. Some family members did die in Auschwitz, but the sisters did not. In fact, they were at first sent to Auschwitz but then went on to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, where they died shortly before the end of World War II. The author wrote they died in Auschwitz, it slipped past the fact checkers, the ink dried, and out it went.

Early on a Dutch Girl reader contacted GoodKnight Books, and I learned of the mistake. Of course I was red-faced with embarrassment. I had done quite a lot of research on Anne and her diary and so I knew better—the correct information was floating around in my brain. But it’s the supposedly simple “facts” that don’t get laid out on the table, scrutinized, and verified.

The correction was made for subsequent editions of the book, and flash forward to this past week, when I was informed through the publisher that a letter had come in from sixth grader Abigail Jacob of Smyrna, Georgia. Abigail wanted to inform the publisher about an error in Dutch Girl, which she corroborated by double-checking The Diary of Anne Frank, which she obviously had also read. I hadn’t spread out my facts about the demise of Anne and Margot Frank on that research table, because I was in too big a hurry and assumed I knew what I was doing. But in Smyrna, Abigail was looking at Dutch Girl on her own research table, and completed the research step I had missed.

What if Abigail didn’t have an eagle-eye? What if she had written a book report on Dutch Girl, say on the connections between Anne Frank and Audrey Hepburn, and repeated my error in her report, only to have her teacher catch it? It’s bad, bad medicine to let mistakes get out there in the cosmos, only to have them caught by the next generation of readers and researchers, or worse, repeated.

I’m proud of Abigail Jacob for so many reasons. For reading Anne Frank’s diary. For reading Dutch Girl. For caring enough about both books, and about history as a science, that she felt compelled to track down the publisher’s address and send a letter.

Lesson learned, Abigail. Every single fact needs to be checked, even when—especially when—you think, yeah, yeah, I got this.

Abigail-letter

90 pounds in the middle

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

Aidid’s clansmen in Black Hawk Down on the warpath in Mogadishu.

The 2001 Ridley Scott action picture Black Hawk Down, based on the “battle of Mogadishu” in October 1993, tells a gut-wrenching, cautionary tale of a foreign power attempting to meddle in the affairs of another country half a world away. For me the Audrey Hepburn connection is palpable—the battle depicted in Black Hawk Down took place about a year after Audrey’s UNICEF visit to Somalia in September 1992 and covers the same geographical area and the same warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid, that UNICEF had to deal with for Audrey’s visit to be possible. She’d been attempting to visit Somalia, a country devastated by both civil war and famine, for more than a year. She’d been turned down every time by both UNICEF and the ruling powers in Somalia over security concerns that were many and all too real.

The government had been overthrown at the beginning of 1992, and its national arsenal had been raided by clans that now ran the show in Somalia. That arsenal included American M-16 and Russian AK-47 automatic weapons—and heavier weaponry including artillery and rocket launchers—that had been used as collateral to buy Somalia’s backing by both sides in the Cold War.

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

Audrey with a child so fragile she feared “it would break” if picked up. UN photo by Betty Press.

The events shown in Black Hawk Down involved the day U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force personnel attempted to arrest Aidid for war crimes in downtown Mogadishu. But he was tipped off and thousands of his militia armed with all that Cold War weaponry rose up to defend him against four gunships of U.S. personnel. This was the situation Audrey, her companion Robert Wolders, and other UNICEF field workers had walked into a year earlier—skittish, over-armed gunmen from two subclans ready for a showdown in the streets at any instant, and 90 pounds of Audrey Hepburn in the way.

I spoke recently with the captain of the U.S.S. Tarawa, the aircraft carrier Audrey visited during her stay in Somalia. He remembered the chaos that ruled at that time and remarked to me how brave she was. “You couldn’t pay me to set foot in Somalia,” he said, “not unless you sent a detachment of Marines with me, and even then I’m not sure.”

A United Nations camera crew followed the course of Audrey’s Somalia visit, and at first you don’t even notice the machine-gun-toting clansmen around her, offering protection on her visit. But in some shots you can’t miss the “technical” that led her convoy, the light truck mounted with a .50 caliber machine gun in its bed, a guard standing there ready to blow any threat to next Tuesday. And that’s the way she and “Robbie” traveled through the country, with .50 caliber mounted protection and five bodyguards with M16s and AK-47s. She never gave those guns a glance because she set her gaze only on the children, but that weaponry was close by as she made her way through the most dangerous place on earth.

Why, you ask? Why did she insist on going there when everyone had begged her not to. Even her physician noticed how worn out she seemed and urged her not to travel to a place where basics like electricity and running water had been claimed by war. Hell, she responded, she’d lived that way for months during the final death throes of the Reich in World War II, and besides, the children needed her. She felt it her obligation to force the world’s gaze on a million starving children in Somalia. It literally killed her to do it—four short months after that visit, Audrey was dead.

To me the fact that she went and braved death by machine gun, “running out of gas” as she admitted she was, says everything you need to know about Audrey Hepburn. As can be seen in Black Hawk Down, she went for her cause to the most dangerous corner of the world, a place she described as “hell on earth.” That, my friends, is a hero for the ages.

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.

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… 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.

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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.