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.

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

… Forever

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

pinocchio 1937

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

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

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE2

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

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

Happy Holidays.

Blind Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

War and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Painting Pictures

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

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

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

Hi, Robert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake for an introvert.

The Dark Horizon

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

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

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

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

Guess what: It’s history time!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

The advance once sheet with a hackwork tag line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could you do this to Audrey Hepburn?

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

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

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

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

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