Missing Ingredient

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenI sit here and write this on two notable anniversaries. On this date, Audrey would have turned 90 years old. And on this date 74 years ago, the Netherlands was declared free of German occupation.*

Sister Celluloid, hostess of the Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, suggested I write on the subject of “Spending time ‘with’ Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars,” and that suits me fine because I’ve had an interesting group in my head for the past 13 years. First came Errol Flynn, then Olivia de Havilland, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and James Stewart before I found myself with Audrey Hepburn.

You might or might not be surprised at the real Errol Flynn, who was the product of a dominating mother and passive, emotionally absent father. The result was a bitter son who didn’t like himself and used whatever means to alter reality, first booze and then drugs—anything so he didn’t have to deal with his own tortured mind. Here he was, tall, impossibly handsome, athletic, and portraying one hero after another in the movies, while offscreen he disdained mirrors and spent his life restless and unhappy, lashing out at anyone in close proximity and committing suicide by substance abuse at age 50.

I bring up Flynn because he and Audrey shared the experience of a dominant mother and absent father, but while Errol proved to be a toxic presence through the course of research and writing Errol Flynn Slept Here (with Michael Mazzone) and Errol & Olivia, Audrey was anything but.

I think authors share a common experience in that the people they’re writing about become family, whether it’s a beloved brother or sister or (in Flynn’s case) a creepy uncle. With Audrey, I went through the usual awkward get-acquainted stage and then suddenly found myself living with a sweet, upbeat daily presence. She had gone through her life like we all do, experiencing its triumphs and tragedies, but in Audrey’s case, there was also the war.

Errol Flynn and Audrey Hepburn lived through the same World War II. Errol couldn’t serve because of physical imperfections that designated him 4F, an experience that kept him in Hollywood where his self-loathing twisted into even tighter knots. A continent away, Audrey lived through the worst the Nazis could throw at a conquered people and emerged with sweetness intact. I laugh as I write that sentence because how could this possibly be? She went through all the rules and restrictions of the Nazi regime. She saw her favorite uncle wrenched away from the family and imprisoned, then learned he had been executed. She witnessed the suffering of the Jews firsthand, with friends and acquaintances simply “disappearing,” never to be seen again. She saw the battle of Arnhem up close and watched the destruction of her world, and then lived through a tortured existence on the front lines of battle for the next eight months. She endured famine that almost killed her. Then came the biggest trial of all: She entered adulthood with the knowledge both parents had been pro-Nazi, including that most dominant person in her life, the omnipresent one who was supposed to be teaching lessons of right and wrong. Yes, it was true, in a post-war world determined to rub out any memory of the Nazis, Audrey had to guard the secret that her mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, had been an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the occupying regime. Audrey bore that cross through her career as an entertainer and kept dragging it into retirement and then on grueling trips as a UNICEF ambassador. And still she remained a sweet soul.

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

When Luca provided access to Audrey’s personal photo collection, I was thrilled to find this shot taken in 1935 showing Audrey with Aunt Meisje and Uncle Otto on the back steps of Villa Roestenburg, the van Heemstra home in the Dutch village of Oosterbeek.

I guess the question becomes, how. How did Flynn turn out one way and Hepburn the other? How did I end up living in The Old Dark House with one and a garden with the other? And I think the answer is that Audrey had an ingredient that Errol didn’t. Audrey had Tante Meisje, her Aunt Wilhelmina as a constant presence through the war. From the time Audrey returned to the Netherlands at age 10 to the end of the war when she turned 16, her “wonder years,” Meisje was her de facto mother, providing cuddles, positive reinforcement, and lessons to last an adult lifetime. Ella wore the pants of the family in the absence of Audrey’s deadbeat father, and Meisje added love and a constant upbeat attitude even in the most dire conditions, including the murder of her husband Otto.

I learned all of this from inside the family, from Audrey’s son Luca Dotti. Pardon my clichés but the apples didn’t fall from the tree; Luca is a chip off the ol’ block. In working with him on the book, I felt the familiar energy of his mother—the great sensitivity and compassion, the honesty, humility, and unshakable belief in positive outcomes.

It’s always interesting to get inside the heads of famous people because of the surprises that await. Then you’re either, like, oh, or, Ohhh! Errol was the former, and Audrey was definitely the latter. Thank you, Audrey, for welcoming me into the midst your wonderful family, and Happy 90th Birthday.

____________

*Liberation in the Netherlands is celebrated on May 4 and 5; Audrey’s village of Velp was liberated on April 16, 1945.

 

Tangled Web—Conclusion

In the last installment we read the inspiring British newspaper story printed in January 1947 about young ballerina Audrey Hepburn returning an RAF man’s signet ring that had been handed off in 1943 after that airman had been shot down near Arnhem. Since it was printed just after the war, this article would seem to qualify as a “primary source” about wartime Audrey, and authors love primary sources. But as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in 1943, and there was no peaceful mechanism for a fugitive Allied aviator to be handed over to the Germans unless the van Heemstras were in league with those Germans.

The article itself is full of clues as to its source:

  • The 1947 reporter has been supplied with information by someone that Baron van Heemstra had an estate when he didn’t have one. No one in the press yet knew background about Audrey Hepburn because she wasn’t yet a celebrity.
  • Whoever supplied the information used the term “peasant” twice. It’s the kind of word an aristocrat would use.
  • The article states that the airman was treated beautifully by the van Heemstras in their estate (that didn’t exist, except in the mind of a certain aristocrat).
  • At the time the article was written, Audrey and her mother the baroness had the goal of coming to England “for good” within a year.

Regarding the last point, what was stopping them? Well, only the fact that the Dutch police were investigating Ella for pro-German activities during the war, an investigation that made it impossible for England to accept her without exoneration. This police case dragged on through 1948 and wasn’t completed until February 1949. In the meantime, Ella was “cooking the books,” destroying evidence, altering dates in her timeline, and creating good press about what she had done in the war—like taking in British fliers on the run.

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

Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston around the end of the war.

Because of the above clues, and Ella’s needs at the time, I believe she spoke to the reporter and created the fiction of the well-to-do, loyal-to-Oranje van Heemstras on their estate, complete with peasants. Otherwise, where would the reporter have gotten such details? In fact, unless airman Max Court had come down squarely atop Villa Beukenhof, there’s no way he was under the van Heemstra roof for a moment in 1943. And if he had landed in the middle of Velp, the Germans would have captured him instantly, and somebody in Velp would have noted the occasion of a flier dropping into the middle of town in a diary. I found no such entry in any wartime diary.

But there was a gold ring, and Dutch girl Audrey did turn it over to Max Court of Tonbridge, so he did interact at some point with someone close to Audrey or Audrey herself.

I’m going to give you two possible scenarios that would fit within the facts I know after three years of research.

Scenario 1:

Court was one of the many downed fliers hiding at the northern edge of Velp or in the Veluwe just beyond. It was dangerous territory because of the close proximity of the Luftwaffe air base at Deelen with its top-secret Diogenes command bunker. Despite the danger, the Resistance counted on Audrey to run messages and food to these men because of her age—at 14 she could be “dressed down” to appear younger and therefore not a threat. She also had the stamina of a dancer on her side and fluency in English. During what would have been a brief encounter with Court measured in seconds or minutes rather than days, he thought to pass her the ring, perhaps because she suggested it, and also provided his name and address. And soon, yes, he was captured. This may even be the encounter where she handed flowers to the patrolling enemy and was allowed to pass. Who knows?

Scenario 2:

Another even more likely possibility is that the story involves not the van Heemstra estate, but that of the van Heemstra kin, the van Pallandts, at Kasteel Rozendaal. The van Pallandts did indeed have a grand estate, complete with peasants, located just up the road from the van Heemstras—an estate that saw its share of World War II. And Audrey and Ella may have been players in the drama of an airman stumbling to Rozendaal (located in quite “pleasant” countryside) because both mother and daughter spoke fluent English. The ring may well have been in safekeeping at the castle behind 15-foot-thick walls until war’s end. Under this scenario, Baron van Pallandt had but to ring up the authorities and report an airman on his property and they would have rounded the miscreant up, no problem, with no harm to the titled landholders at the castle. As the master of Rozendaal, which included his property and the village next to it, the van Pallandts sought to remain neutral, or at least appear so.

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

Kasteel Rozendaal, estate of the van Pallandts just north of the van Heemstra home in Velp.

Depending on which scenario is true, all the details fed to the reporter in 1947 sound like they came from Ella—playing up her part in the drama, which would come around to benefit her with the Dutch police as they conducted their investigation about whether Ella van Heemstra was a loyalist or a Nazi collaborator.

There’s a notable lack of quotation from Max Court himself other than to report that Audrey was beautiful. So I’m convinced Ella provided the story, which no local reporter from Kent would be able to fact-check with an Arnhem that had been devastated in the “Bridge Too Far” battle and was just beginning to stir back to life at the time the article was written.

The KentLive website piece of April 19 suggests that Max Court was likely the Tommy described in Dutch Girl as hidden in the van Heemstra cellar after the battle of Arnhem. I feel strongly he was not due to the time in the war of the Court story (1943) and location of Villa Beukenhof. As noted, an RAF man could not have walked through German-occupied Velp without being discovered. Maybe the Resistance found Court, at which point he would have been placed in a safe house, but definitely not the van Heemstra house—Ella had been labeled by the Resistance as “Gestapo” in 1942! One year later, after her conversion away from the Nazi cause, she was beginning to earn the trust of the Resistance but still would not have been handed a flier for safekeeping. On the other hand, after the failed Allied invasion at Arnhem and defeat of British Airborne, there were dozens of “Tommies” in the vicinity of Velp in need of shelter. Then the desperate Resistance would have placed one of these men, or perhaps even two (Audrey’s son Luca Dotti wasn’t sure), in the van Heemstra cellar until they could be smuggled out. So in September 1944 there was motive and opportunity for an Allied soldier to be placed in the care of the van Heemstras. But there’s no plausible way for Max Court in 1943 to end up inside the van Heemstra house after coming down in the countryside. He could easily, however, made it to secluded Kasteel Rozendaal in the countryside north of Velp.

All of which demonstrates the importance of on-the-ground research in Arnhem and Velp; without it, I wouldn’t have known the geographical challenges of the story or the close relationship of the van Pallandts and van Heemstras. I wouldn’t have known about Ella’s vested interest in spreading heroic stories about herself because she was at that moment being investigated by Dutch authorities—this I learned in the secret police files kept at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague.

The story of Max Court’s signet ring also shows how even seemingly solid primary sources can be anything but and without some cross-reference, they need to be discarded in the name of historical accuracy.

Truly, my hat’s off to Ella for a great yarn, and for giving me material for not one but two columns. You, Baroness, remain full of surprises more than 30 years after your passing.

Tangled Web—Part 1

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

On Friday April 19 Google Alerts pointed me to an article on the KentLive website for the county of Kent in southeastern England. The article linked an episode from the Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II narrative with a Kent man who—said the story—had been sheltered by the van Heemstras in 1943.

The appearance of Dutch Girl prompted a Kent reporter to dig out a Courier newspaper story from January 1947 about Max Court, a Tonbridge man and RAF radio operator, who was on a plane shot down over Arnhem. Court parachuted onto “the estate of Baron van Heemstra” where he was directed to a 14-year-old girl (Audrey Hepburn Ruston) who spoke English. Court was then taken in by Audrey’s mother Ella Baroness van Heemstra, and sheltered for a day before the Germans captured him. Prior to arrest, Audrey suggested that Court give her his gold family signet ring because the Germans would confiscate it. She promised to return it to him after the war.

What a terrific story! The recent KentLive web page links to the original newspaper item that appeared in January 1947 long before Audrey was a star and in need of publicity, so it must be true, right?

Well, the story doesn’t appear in Dutch Girl for a reason. Actually several reasons.

I had come across the signet ring story, aspects of which didn’t ring true, and because I couldn’t determine its authenticity, I left it out of the narrative. In his book Audrey Hepburn, Barry Paris attributed a similar story to Audrey’s friend, reporter Anita Loos, who covered Audrey in biographical articles that appeared around the time of Roman Holiday. In the Loos version, a downed airman on the run passed to Audrey “a silver locket with the Lord’s Prayer engraved on it,” which she returned to him in England in 1947. It’s a wonder Audrey had any time for dance, with all these valuables to distribute around the UK!

Below I am going to put this newspaper story on the witness stand (it will appear in italics). As you read, I will be portraying a district attorney like Otto Count van Limburg Stirum. Taking it from the top:

Shot-Down Flyer Made Lifelong Friend

RING HIDDEN FROM NAZIS RETURNED

High over enemy-held Holland an RAF plane fell like a blazing torch, and from it parachuted a young Tonbridge man. As he drifted towards the pleasant countryside near Arnhem, Wireless Operator Max Court expected immediately to fall into German hands.

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

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in 1943.

D.A.: No challenges, but I have a problem already. Since the countryside is described through the parachutist’s eyes as “pleasant,” it seems to mean this wireless operator is descending to earth in daytime. However, radio operators flew on bombers, and in 1943 the RAF flew its bombing missions targeting Germany at night. The missing detail of day or night raises suspicion. But yes, every flier parachuting to earth over enemy territory day or night expected to be seized the moment he hit the ground.

Instead, on the estate of Baron van Heemstra, he met a kindly peasant who told him he would fetch a girl living nearby who could speak English.

D.A.: Objection! At no point in the war did Baron van Heemstra have an estate. Until the beginning of May 1942 he rented rooms at an “estate,” but it wasn’t his estate. It was managed by a woman named van Zegwaart who had every reason in the world to stay on the good side of the ruling German government. Already the story is blazing like that poor aircraft on its way to earth.

Shortly afterwards the peasant returned with Audrey Hepburn Rutson [sic], 14-year-old daughter of Ella Baroness van Heemstra, who took Max to her home.

D.A.: Objection! Audrey Hepburn-Ruston was 14 from May 4, 1943 to May 3, 1944 and during that time she didn’t live in Arnhem; she lived about four miles east in the village of Velp. Ella lived with Audrey there. And as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in Arnhem. For Audrey to take RAF man Court to the van Heemstra home, she would have been forced to lead a uniformed enemy combatant on a long trip through, at the very least, many blocks of houses and buildings because her home, Villa Beukenhof, was located in the heart of the occupied town of Velp. And civilians didn’t have automobiles by 1943; they had been confiscated or were hidden, and there was no petrol for them anyway.

For a day he stayed, enjoying the Dutch folk hospitality, and before he was taken prisoner by the Germans Audrey took his gold signet ring for safe keeping. “The Germans will only take it away from you,” she told him, “and I promise to give it back to you after the war.”

D.A.: Objection! I grant you two things: 1) many a downed flier enjoyed the hospitality of many a Dutch home, and 2), the Germans would have taken his gold ring. But any Dutch family risked arrest and a quick forwarding to the Westerbork Transit Camp for aiding the enemy. How did the Germans find Wireless Operator Court without arresting the van Heemstras? And how did Audrey know in 1943 that the war was going to end favorably for the Allies? I state to the jury that now we’ve entered the realm of pure fantasy.

For over three years she wore Max’s ring on a chain around her neck. Then, a few weeks ago she and her mother came to England to return it.

D.A.: Objection! The last place Audrey would place a gold ring for safekeeping was around her neck. This was war. The Germans coveted gold, and any civilian on the street would be arrested at any time for any offense, meaning the gold ring would have been a magnet for trouble. Plus imagine a gold ring on a chain jangling on a ballerina’s neck. If it had been in easy reach, that gold ring would likely not have survived the Hunger Winter of 1944 when it could have bought food from the black market for the baron, Ella, Meisje, and Audrey. I submit that if the van Heemstras had such a ring, it was hidden well out of sight and mind as the war raged, and perhaps not at Villa Beukenhof at all.

Audrey, whom Max describes as a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality,” is now 17 and in training to be a ballerina. In a year’s time she and the Baroness hope to come to England for good. She was educated for some time at a girls’ school near Folkestone, and went to Holland when she was ten.

D.A.: No challenges here. But there are two clues in this paragraph alone—and several in this piece—that I’ll come back to.

Max, now 24, went to Sussex-road School, and afterwards helped in his father’s High-street fruit shop. Joining the RAF at the age of 18, he was shot down three years later. A prisoner for two years, he returned to England in April 1945, and was demobilized last May. Now he has his own nursery in Higham-lane.

D.A.: No challenges. The math has him shot down in 1943, which matches Audrey’s stated age.

He and Audrey have maintained regular correspondence, but there is no romance, says Max. He has a girl friend, and on New Year’s Eve took both her and Audrey to a dance in Maidstone.

D.A.: No challenges, but imagine you’re Max’s girlfriend and he tells you he’s ringing in the new year with you on one arm and a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality” on the other. Not sure I’m putting money on the longevity of Max’s relationship with his poor girlfriend.

Just before Christmas, Audrey was interviewed in the BBC programme “In-Town To-night” and when asked the reason for her visit, said, “I promised to give Max back his ring.”

D.A.: No challenges. At Christmas 1946 Audrey was on a mission to deliver a ring to a British airman and on a radio broadcast told the British nation about it. I believe her statement to be true.

So there’s the story, originally published in January 1947, that appeared on KentLive this past Friday as well as my reaction to the “facts” as presented. It’s an article from just after the war that you’d be inclined to believe if you hadn’t spent three years researching the van Heemstras and lots of time on the ground in Arnhem and Velp. In the next installment, I’m going to use the evidence collected during the Dutch Girl project to reveal how this story made it into print and the most likely scenario involving Max Court and Audrey Hepburn. Stay tuned!

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

Ghosts—Part 2

Note: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II will be released in the United States by GoodKnight Books on April 15 and in Italy by Piemme in June. The Polish (Albatros) and Dutch (Overamstel) editions will follow, with others hopefully being announced soon.

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

The Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem. From the first row of the balcony, known as the Queen’s Circle, Adriaantje watched her first ballet performance in December 1939. Within a few years she would be performing as Audrey Hepburn-Ruston on this stage as Arnhem’s most famous ballerina.

I’m not one who sees ghosts, but I sometimes can feel them, or simply the weight of history hits me—understanding what happened in a place and how the people felt who lived it. Following the WWII trail in and around Arnhem as background for writing Dutch Girl, there were many occasions when I felt the gravity of the war and those who experienced it, or in some cases, affected the course of history.

I felt it in the streets of Oosterbeek where the van Heemstras lived in the 1930s and years later SS Panzer troops fought to the death with British Airborne house to house and room to room in one of the most savage melees of the Western Front.

I felt it in the Diogenes command bunker at Deelen Air Base just a few miles from Audrey’s home in Velp. Diogenes was a massive concrete building that served as German fighter central command for all the Netherlands. It was so formidable a structure it couldn’t be destroyed during or after the war. It stands today and always will, and down in the bowels of Diogenes where Luftwaffe staff worked for years, there are said to be ghosts and I don’t doubt it for a moment.

I felt it in a hangar of the air base that had been disguised as a Dutch home and is now a farmer’s barn. Inside, warning signs remain painted on the walls in German: RAUCHEN—VERBOTEN! SMOKING—FORBIDDEN! And the place still smells of petrol after all these decades.

I felt it in the corridors and stairwells and balconies of the Stadsschouwburg—Arnhem’s City Theatre where Audrey performed from 1941 into 1944.

I felt it at Kasteel Zijpendaal where Audrey’s grandfather Baron van Heemstra lived from 1939 into 1942 along with Audrey’s Aunt Meisje and Uncle Otto. Audrey’s presence is there on the grounds by the lake where she communed with nature and read her books during a short and happy time before the war became personal.

I felt it at the site of the Arnhemsche Muziekschool, the most important building in Audrey’s world until it was blown to bits by German tanks to root out British paratroopers during the battle.

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

This was one of only two photos I could find of Audrey’s beloved Muziekschool at Boulevard Heuvelink 2 in Arnhem, not far from the bridge. Not much remained after German tanks and self-propelled guns were through with their work ferreting out British paratroopers from the area. (Courtesy Gelders Archive)

I felt it in the streets of Velp, at the site of Villa Beukenhof, the van Heemstra home; at the site of the Velp hospital, center of Resistance activities where Audrey volunteered; and at the site of the Rotterdamsche Bank that had been converted into a prison in 1944. It was from there that Audrey heard the screams of Dutchmen being tortured.

I felt it as I walked the route she took along back streets from Villa Beukenhof to the hospital, a walk of just a few minutes that had to be tension-filled for a 14-year-old girl with German soldiers always present.

I felt it at St. Michielsgestel where Audrey’s Uncle Otto was imprisoned. I was fortunate to be able to stroll the halls of the seminary building, a spooky old building, and walk the forest where Otto met his fate. This man and his four companions are national heroes who unfortunately have been, in a sense, lost to time as the Dutch tried to move on from the war. There’s still a commemoration at the 15 August 1942 site every year, but the attendees are aging and growing fewer. My hope is that Dutch Girl will shine a new light on The Five and bring them back to a prominence so richly deserved.

For me the immersion in Audrey’s history was total, and on many occasions I felt myself going back in time, aided by eyewitnesses, to a history in Velp shared with all the van Heemstras, especially the Dutch girl.

The title of the book reads Audrey Hepburn and World War II for a reason—it’s not just her story. She lived in a place and time affected by so many external factors that to understand what she went through, one needs to understand a global situation. Why did she work for the Resistance, and why would Resistance leaders rely on a 14 year old? Why did the British try to take Arnhem from the Germans? Why did the battle go the way it did, with devastating results for Audrey and her family? Why was Velp so critical to the Western Theater, causing the battle line to harden in that spot? Why did the food run out? How did the food start flowing again? As my friend Tom would say, “It’s all connected, maaan.”

I sit here writing this on the last day before Dutch Girl’s official release on April 15—the very next day, April 16, is Liberation Day in Velp, which is still remembered with a ceremony every year. The first time I met and interviewed Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who was Audrey’s contemporary in Velp, I thanked her for agreeing to lend her time to the project. She squared her shoulders and said, “I am happy to! After all, you are our liberators!” Imagine.

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

Each year the people of Velp gather at the statue of a small Jewish onderduiker to commemorate Velp’s Liberation Day, 16 April. The moving ceremony culminates with each attendee laying a tulip at the feet of the little girl.

For his New Books in Film podcast, Joel Tscherne had interviewed me in past years for Fireball and Mission, and the other day for Dutch Girl. After hearing me talk about the experience of writing it, he said, “This sounds like your most personal project of all.” He’s right; it really is. I wrote the book that was in me about my now-close-friend Audrey Hepburn. It’s backstory that explains who she became and why she lived the life she did. It’s a very human tale constructed with the help of many wonderful people in the Netherlands and it honors all of them for what they surmounted—so much so that I dedicated Dutch Girl to the people of Velp.

Long Live Oranje!

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

The massive Diogenes Luftwaffe command bunker just north of Arnhem. Those blotches on the wall are patched bullet and shell holes.

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

Inside Diogenes, German staff workers known as “blitz maidens” shine light beams on a sophisticated, wall-sized glass map of the Netherlands to note the locations of bomber formations during 1943. Now the interior of the bunker is silent and the lower level is said to be haunted.

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

Note the painting to resemble curtained windows for what looks from a distance to be a Dutch farmhouse–the Germans did this to confuse Allied bombers. In reality this is a hangar for a German fighter aircraft, either a Focke Wolf 190 or a BF-109.

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

Inside, warnings in red remind German airplane mechanics not to smoke in a room that after 75 years’ use as a barn still smells of petrol.

Ghosts – Part 1

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

Utrechtseweg in Arnhem after the battle, with a dead British paratrooper on the sidewalk in foreground. This is the sidewalk leading to SD headquarters, which is where all the German vehicles are parked farther up the hill. Late-evening walks here cause the ghosts to stir. (Image courtesy robertjkershaw.com.)

Note: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II will be released in the United States by GoodKnight Books on April 15 and in Italy by Piemme in June. Other foreign editions will be coming soon.

Night is my favorite time in Arnhem, a Dutch city along the Rhine 40 miles west of the German border. I’d go on exhaustive excursions for days on end in a wide radius around the city, visiting the places of Audrey’s youth or key German sites; I’d interview people who lived through the war and go on guided battlefield tours, and there’d be miles of walking. Then back at Hotel Haarhuis in the heart of Arnhem, I’d want to go for one last walk along the Utrechtseweg, the city quiet, its ghosts just beginning to stir.

I like to take late-night walks up to the old headquarters building of the SD, the German intelligence service, also known as the SS. If you were Dutch and taken here during the war, you knew you were about to be tortured. It might or might not be your last day on earth. SD headquarters sits six or seven minutes from the Haarhuis by foot, but it’s a piece of ground loaded with history. That little slice of street was the farthest the relief column made it in an effort to relieve Frost at the bridge during the battle of Arnhem. Fighting on this street was desperate on 18 September 1944. There’s a photograph I always think about as I stroll the sidewalk of Utrechtseweg—it shows dead British paratroopers lying right where I walk, shot down in their desperate attempt to make it onto the bridge.

Arnhem is a modern, rebuilt city, but a very old one. If you know where to look (and I do thanks to my friend Robert Voskuil), there are scars of battle everywhere. The battle of Arnhem, also known as the “Bridge Too Far” battle, was as ferocious as D-Day but not fought on wide-open beaches. It was fought in a city built on the wealth of the Dutch East Indies—businessmen would make their fortune in the east and bring it back to Arnhem and neighboring Oosterbeek and retire there. The German general staff knew the Arnhem and Oosterbeek area from pre-war days when it had served as a resort destination.

This was Audrey Hepburn’s home. Her grandfather, former mayor of Arnhem and governor of Suriname, owned a villa in Oosterbeek before moving to rented rooms in a castle in Arnhem. Because he’d lived as a civil servant, Baron Aarnoud van Heemstra hadn’t accumulated great wealth in his career and lived humbly so he could distribute his funds among six children, including Ella, Audrey’s mother. From Arnhem the baron moved to the equally wealthy village of Velp and his small, rented Villa Beukenhof became Audrey’s vantage point for the battle of Arnhem.

I was astonished in 2015 when I stumbled upon the Audrey-in-Arnhem story and realized nobody had done it as a book. Huh? How was this possible? Oh, said her biographers, she was too young to have experienced anything. She wasn’t in any battles. She lived quietly and danced her way through the war.

Word to the wise: Nobody in Europe lived quietly through that war. There had to be a story, and brother what a story it turned out to be.

In his review of Dutch Girl, John McElwee of Greenbriar Picture Shows Blogspot said of his reading experience, “You actually wonder if Audrey will make it through such harrowing ordeal, despite evidence of beloved film roles she did later….” Even pre-release, I’ve heard this theme several times: You the reader know intellectually that she’s going to live, but the book’s still a page-turner because you can’t imagine how she’s going to live.

The violence of war first hit Audrey full force in 1942. In 1944 came the paratroopers, then bombings, strafings, V1s, and finally tanks and machine guns. You look at Princess Ann, you look at Holly Golightly, and in that serene and innocent face you see no hint of a girl in a blood-stained dress, a girl who had to show her Ausweis just to be permitted to go to shops at the end of her street.

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

Villa Maria in Oosterbeek, home of the family of Audrey’s sister-in-law, Miepje Monné.

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

Bullet holes in the iron fence in front of the Monné home all these decades later. In Oosterbeek, the battle raged for a brutal week.

The trick is, you had to go poking around in the Netherlands to learn these things. You had to bump into the ghosts. It was really the job of some Dutch author after Audrey’s death to root out the war story when so many were still alive who had lived it with her. Up until her passing no one dared because Audrey felt she had a lot to hide about her mother Ella, as explored by the Daily Mail this week. Then the story sat all these years, waiting.

In the next installment I’d like to talk about the experience of visiting Audrey’s world, traveling back in time.

Nexus

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Ocean’s 11 is one of those pictures, like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that’s a time capsule of a bygone era. In fact, Audrey was making the latter while the former continued a long and successful run as the hip and swingin’ hit of 1960. Ocean’s 11 was what Frank Sinatra considered to be “a gas.”

First of all, let’s get this straight: The remake with Clooney doesn’t exist to me; it never has, it never will. I’m sure they one-upped the smugness and self-satisfaction of the original; hell, I’m sure they boosted it to modern-day excess, but it really doesn’t matter because I won’t ever see that particular version or its sequels.

Ocean’s 11, directed by already-a-legend Lewis Milestone and starring Sinatra and his cronies, is a personal picture for me because of my own connection to Las Vegas. As explored in Fireball, Vegas is where Carole Lombard and her 21 companions last walked the earth, departure point of TWA Flight 3, launch point of the rescue, nexus of Gable’s imploding world during his lost weekend of January 1942. As Ocean’s 11 was being shot at the beginning of 1960, the El Rancho Las Vegas still operated. This first attraction in Clark County, the trailblazer, sprawled at the intersection of Rt. 91 (now Las Vegas Boulevard) and Sahara Road, and it was here in the motor court where Gable holed up with his MGM handlers and stared out at Mt. Potosi across the vast brown desert plain. Ma’s up there. Ma can’t be dead. Ma’s gonna walk through that door and yell “Surprise!” and laugh her fool head off because this is her greatest prank ever.

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

El Rancho Vegas as seen from the air in the 1940s. The casino building at center would burn in June of 1960, but the motor court would continue to operate without a casino through the 1960s. Oh, to be assigned to Gable’s bungalow and feel the ghosts.

That’s my Las Vegas, which still largely existed in 1960. Hell, Gable himself still existed in 1960 as Ocean’s 11 completed production. In 1960 he was baking in the sun farther up north in Nevada making The Misfits, hands serving as sifters for a crumbling Marilyn Monroe. There are other ties between Carole Lombard and Ocean’s 11, namely Cesar Romero. How is it possible that nobody’s done a book on Butch Romero, for God’s sake? Butch escorted Carole to the White Mayfair Ball in January 1936—where on that very night she and Gable began their tempestuous, sex-filled, hijinx-laced relationship that burned like a torch until the moment plane met mountain six years later. Romero was known to starlets of the 1930s as the king of escorts, which you’d think meant he was a playboy, but word had it he was gay and therefore deemed safe for the female population of a Hollywood where every straight man was an octopus and most had the power to make or break a girl’s career. Lombard loved Butch like a brother, and when she deserted him for Gable at the ball, no problem—he knew everybody in the room and the party went on. Romero would blaze a Hollywood picture career that ran all the way from the early 1930s to 1990 when he wrapped up with some Disney live-action programmers before passing on at 86. Playing New York mobster Duke Santos, an observer as five Vegas casinos are hit by Danny Ocean and his gang of ex-paratroopers, Romero was exactly at mid-career. Ahead he couldn’t even imagine three years of steady work as the most visible and garish villain on television—Batman’s arch-enemy, the Joker.

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

Still a force at age 53, Cesar Romero pauses from a shave to steal Ocean’s 11.

Cesar Romero was an actor’s actor, six-foot-three of pure sophistication. Am I the only one who thinks Romero stole Ocean’s 11 out from under the noses of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joey Bishop? Back when Warner Bros. made Ocean’s 11, the big news, the coup, was signing veteran character actor Akim Tamiroff as the comic relief. Only problem is Tamiroff has stood the test of time about as well as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with the unfortunate complication that Tamiroff has a lot more screen time. That’s one huge problem because Tamiroff’s performance makes me want to transport back in time just so I can strangle him and save my own viewing experience 60 years in the future.

Another big drawback of Ocean’s 11 for me is that smugness of the Rat Pack and what appears to be ad-libbing in several scenes, each one dragging the narrative to a dead stop. There is so much ad-libbing, in fact, that you go, “What the hell are they talking about?” They’re having too good a time, their egos always nearing the big POP that comes with overinflation. At points like this in Ocean’s 11, or in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly jumps out of character to sing Moon River on a fire escape, I have to remind myself to relax and just go with the flow.

There’s a third debit with Danny Ocean’s picture, and that’s a representation of four types of women, and four only, populating his world:

1) Superbitch—represented by Patrice Wymore.

2) Pushover—Angie Dickenson as Danny’s estranged but loyal wife.

3) Ditz—Ilka Chase as Peter Lawford’s rich and addled mother.

4) Stripper/harem girl—all the babes who are massaging or ogling the Rat Packers or being ogled by them or merely sashaying through a scene in a tight skirt.

Women are to be seen and condescended to in Danny Ocean’s world, which was fine in the white WASP U.S. society of 1960 and still plays in Donald Trump’s America, but, boy, it’s not a world that any woman I know today in the professional world would sign up to populate.

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

Directly above the cab of the dump truck, there looms Potosi, the tallest peak in the Vegas area. Where that high stretch forms a  little saddle or V, roughly in its center, Flight 3 hit. In this shot from Ocean’s 11, Sammy Davis Jr., the dark blur at left, lugs duffel bags of cash pilfered from Vegas casinos.

Whenever Ocean’s 11 plays on television, I drop what I’m doing and wait for the panoramic exteriors of Vegas where in the distant background you can see the encircling mountains. I always look for Potosi, the mighty giant that swatted a plane out of the sky. Potosi features a distinctive knob on one end and its best cameo comes toward the climax when Sammy Davis Jr. is rescuing the duffels of looted cash from the dump. There beyond the vast, empty desert basin of old-days Vegas looms Mt. Potosi, bigger than life. I think of the wreckage up there as it must have looked in 1960 before the internet began luring souvenir hunters to the spot. I think of ethereal Carole gazing off in the distance and exclaiming, “Hey, they’re making a picture down there! Look, I can see the trucks and the reflectors and cameras!” I think of the El Rancho Vegas, soon to go up in a Viking pyre. I think of the funeral parlor on nearby Fremont Street where Gable picked out caskets for his wife, mother-in-law, and press agent. For me, Ocean’s 11 is much more than a heist picture; it’s a a set of nesting dolls, an onion of unfolding Vegas chronology, the history of a town and of Lombard, Gable, the Rat Pack, and an author who lived and re-lived a particular weekend in hell.

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

At the picture’s melancholy conclusion, the men of the heist take a walk in front of the Sands.

The Full Wartime Tour

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenImagine you are five years old and your parents split up. I come from one of those happy homes, and through my childhood I’d walk in the door after school and find my mom sitting on my dad’s lap and they’d just be, like, in love. I saw it so often from such an early age that I never found it gross. It’s just the way it was. But if you’re five and your parents go the other direction and there’s screaming and slamming followed by the silence of separation, that’s got to be murder.

That was Audrey Hepburn’s reality; it’s the dominant reason she wore a deer-in-the-headlights look for much of her private life, because she never got over that breakup and her father’s abandonment of their home.

But then, kids are resilient, you hear, and they bounce back. Well, yeah, except what if your gadfly mother immediately after the breakup decides to send you off to boarding school in another country for months on end over a course of years under the pretext of “Oh, it’ll do her good.”

Man, now the damage is starting to accumulate. Luckily, the important half of Audrey’s family was Dutch, and the Dutch are tough, practical, down-to-earth, stable—and did I mention tough? The Dutch can take a punch and then show you the other jawline and invite you to hit that too. And the Dutch side of the family was titled, chock full of barons and baronesses going back upwards of a century and a half, meaning they were stoic on top of everything else. Audrey’s veins coursed with all this good stuff to combat the ick of divorce and exile.

Her son Luca tells me she adored her time in England and loved the people she lived with there. Remember, Audrey began her schooling in England, not in Belgium where she was born or in Holland where she sometimes stayed. She learned to read and write in English. It was in England where she first became enchanted with ballet. Mum came to visit and would stay a couple of weeks at a time; on occasion she would spirit Audrey and her half-brothers—also exiled but to The Hague and not England—off to London or Rome or some other exotic place. But the bulk of Audrey’s time was spent in the often-gloomy country village of Elham.

At long last after more than four years, Mum called the little girl home to Arnhem in eastern Holland, not far from the German border. Finally, Audrey at age 10 would enjoy some stability in the bosom of her family.

Whoa, not so fast. Mum stuck the little English misfit in year four of Dutch grade school, where she took a psychological beating, unable to understand a word being said around her and ridiculed for not only pitiful attempts at Dutch but also painful shyness. And a few months after that, the Germans invaded, beginning just about exactly five years of an ever-tightening grip until the Netherlands was wrung dry of resources, food, entertainment, electricity, running water, and hope.

Audrey got the full wartime tour, soup to nuts. She witnessed executions. She saw body parts in the street after bombs tore up her neighborhood. She stemmed the bleeding of wounded soldiers and civilians until she too was covered in blood. She had guns pointed at her by Germans and Brits alike, and stood in the direct path of machine guns as they rattled away. Your Audrey Hepburn endured all that.

In essence, you could say that Audrey Hepburn was robbed of her childhood. But the cool thing about her is, she didn’t let that happen. She found ways to cope with World War II—by communing with nature, reading books, sketching scenes, growing close to her grandfather and aunt, and above all, dancing, surmounting painful shyness to become the most famous ballerina in a city of considerable size.

I guess after you read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you might have perspective on the rough road one kid had. Then the next time someone asks you how your childhood was, maybe you’ll answer, “Well, at least they weren’t shooting at me.”

Death for Wacky Donald

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

Clem Leone, age 18, graduates gunnery school.

My friend Walt Powell reminded me that 75 years ago today—today, mind you—the most amazing thing happened that I’ve ever been even remotely connected to. On February 24, 1944, my friend Clement Leone escaped out the top hatch of a burning B-24 Liberator named Wacky Donald 20,000 feet above the frozen Netherlands. The formation of B-24s in which Clem was flying had been jumped by German fighters and an FW-190 hit Wacky Donald aft with incendiary rockets. The fire blazed forward toward wing tanks still nearly full as Clem clutched the barrels of the top turret machine gun in a 200-mile-per hour slipstream. Then his impossible situation was resolved in a flash; the wing tanks caught and the ship exploded.

The blast knocked Technical Sgt. Leone out cold and blew him clear of the ship to begin a free-fall to earth. He fell maybe 10,000 feet while unconscious, and it’s a miracle he didn’t just keep on going to hit the earth at terminal velocity. Not feisty Clem. Clem came to with a face wet from blood and managed to keep his wits, locate an orange metal ring on his chest, and give it a yank. His parachute opened and he managed a controlled descent that ended with fractured ribs on impact.

You’d think that was enough adventure for a lifetime let alone one February morning, but it was just the beginning. Dutch people ran to him from the surrounding countryside, and he drew his .45 thinking they were Germans and would kill him. Instead they fed him and helped dress his wounded face and ribs. Then a member of the Nazi Green Police tried to arrest Clem, the Dutch intervened, and he took off into woodlands under the protection of the Dutch Resistance.

For historical context, Sgt. Leone was a participant in Operation Argument, which the flyboys dubbed “Big Week.” From February 20–26, 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated on bombing aviation-related targets in Germany. They had to take out the German Air Force before D-Day could be staged. That February week, spectacular aerial battles took place across Dutch and German skies, the Luftwaffe launching maximum effort to repel the American maximum effort bomber stream. I’ll let you read Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe to find out what happened next to Clem, but it just kept getting more incredible. The man was simply meant to survive and make it home to marry his sweetheart, raise four children, become a major in the Maryland National Guard, and shape thousands of young minds as a schoolteacher.

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

Clem (lower left) with his crew. Top center is Lt. Robert Blomberg, an up and comer with the 445th Bomb Group who died at the controls when his ship blew up. Others in the crew were also KIA. Notable in this team photo is the small man next to Blomberg, Lt. Donald Widmark, co-pilot and brother of future actor Richard Widmark. The co-pilot would grab a parachute and leave Blomberg behind 75 years ago today. Clem’s personal rule was to stay with the ship as long as the officers did, but when he saw Widmark bail out, he said, “It was time for this guy to go.”

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

The ring on his parachute became a wall decoration for Clem.

I met Clem in 2014 when he was a spring chicken of 90 and spent many hours on the phone and in his living room learning about the air war, B-24s, combat missions in the European Theater, his time with Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group, and his adventures with the Dutch and Germans. In November 2016, Clem and I played a double bill in his hometown of Gettysburg, PA—before a packed house I lectured about Stewart and introduced Clem, who with humor and humility told his story. Afterward, we sat and autographed books side by side for an hour and a half, and I doubt either of us ever had a better time.

So let’s take a moment to thank Clement Francis Leone for his service, and marvel at an incredible life that barrels full steam ahead toward birthday number 95. Another wacky thing: B-24s were always catching fire, and Clem had bailed out of another one on a training mission in England and broken his leg. It hadn’t even healed before he was bailing out again, this time over Holland. So 70 years later his daughters decided it would be fun to buy their dad a ride in a vintage B-24 that was touring in an air show. When he heard about it, he said, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new! I’m sure as hell not getting into one that’s 70 years old!”

That, my friends, is the working mind of a survivor.

And oh, by the way, without Clem Leone, there would be no Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, because it was while following Clem’s trail south from the Dutch town of Gramsbergen that I made a stop in Arnhem, and the rest is history. So, thank you for the gift of Dutch Girl, Clem. If I ever grow up, I want to be just like you.

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

We each signed more than a book a minute for 90 minutes as Gettysburg paid tribute to its hero.

The Vision

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

When the director of La La Land, Damien Chazelle, was asked why he put a dream ballet at the end of the picture, he responded, “Why wouldn’t you put a dream ballet at the end of the picture?” La La Land tells the story of lovers Mia and Sebastian—she’s an aspiring actress and he’s a struggling musician—from the inception of their relationship to its unraveling. When they spot each other five years after breakup, the dream ballet takes them to an alternate universe where each makes different decisions that result in a thriving long-term bond, all set to music and dance.

I took great satisfaction from his answer about the dream ballet because he delivered it with equal parts incredulity and disdain; it felt right, so he did it. He’s a creative; he followed his instincts and created. He’s also a student of film history and knew from pictures going all the way back to silents that alternate-universe endings can slay an audience.

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

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the dream ballet.

I’m in awe of creativity like what Damien Chazelle did with La La Land because it’s magical and I don’t know where it comes from, in anybody. From nothing comes something, a painting, a film, a book, a song, a performance with the power to entertain or even change lives. It all begins with an inspiration, a vision of art that needs to be created.

I’ve told the story before about sitting alone in my dead-quiet office writing Fireball as a dual-track narrative that converges in the middle. I was using many points of view, including minor characters like a crash investigator and a rescuer, and putting myself into the heads of real people in a work of non-fiction. I remember saying to myself on a particular day, “Man, is anybody gonna go for this?”

I didn’t have an outline, just a vision that the story must open with a plane flying over Las Vegas in the night. To breathe life into an old headline, I went by instinct, and instinct told me to do it this way and for better or worse, I did. Over and over I saw it and heard it, that plane flying over in the blackness of a Vegas night sky, its motors droning on into the distance.

I also knew where Mission would start, with a man (it’s Jimmy Stewart but he isn’t names in the prologue) plagued by PTSD from the war standing in a town covered in fake snow in the Mojave Desert in a heat wave, about to shoot a scene where he goes around shouting “Merry Christmas!” when it was really June. To me it had to start there, in the land of make-believe—the last time Jimmy Stewart had seen snow, it was while he was risking life or death on a rough bombing mission against Nuremberg and could see the Alps off to his south. Now he was back in Hollywood, and what must that have been like for a soldier who had seen too much action?

While in the Netherlands researching Mission, I discovered the city of Arnhem and learned that Audrey Hepburn had spent the war there. So began the journey as I tried to research Audrey’s life in Arnhem and came up with surprisingly little. I looked at all the biographies and each had, at most, a chapter about the war. A chapter! About the war! It was Jimmy Stewart all over again because that’s what I had found with Jim—biographers would basically say, “So Jim went off to war.” And the next sentence would be, “When he came back…” WHAT?

Because of a number of factors—key Dutch people willing to help and key archives I could access—I decided to go for it and write a book about Audrey in the war, which became Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, to be released in the U.S. on April 15. Embarking on the project, I faced the same challenge I had with Jim, who refused to go on the record about certain aspects of the war. Audrey was another very private person and there were episodes she would discuss, and many she would not. However, this time I had about 6,000 of Audrey’s own words about the war to go on, which was about 5,800 more than I had from Jim, so that was a start.

But how do you structure a narrative about Audrey in the war? All I knew was that once again I had a starting point, a scene that had to begin the book: In the spring of 1935, Audrey’s mother met Adolf Hitler in Munich. Hitler was then the name on lips worldwide, a vibrant and charismatic superstar who had brought pride and prosperity back to a Depression-plagued Germany that had recently lost the Great War. This time around, the reader begins in Hitler’s office and looks into his blue eyes and shakes his hand, all the while wondering, on page one, where in the world is this going?

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

Pamela Mitford, Ella van Heemstra, Michael Burn, J.C. Hills, and Coleridge Hills stand on the steps of the Braunes Haus in Munich the day the group met Adolf Hitler, who was then a friend of Pamela’s sister Unity Mitford. It was such a memorable occasion that Ella kept this photo framed in the Arnhem apartment where Audrey spent the first two years of German occupation.

Well, I promise, not where you’d expect. There are two main characters to drive the narrative this time, Audrey, who enters adolescence under Nazi occupation in Arnhem, and Ella, Audrey’s mother, the Dutch baroness who had been enamored of Hitler. The twist is that occasionally we flash forward to see Audrey at different points of her adulthood, being who she became because of the war and living with the pain of all that had happened. There’s also a lot of history in this book, about the war, the Nazis, the Dutch Resistance—some joker on Goodreads already slammed the advance reading copy for too much history. “Cut it by a third; lose the history,” this person said.

So now I’m thinking, man, is anybody gonna go for this? I don’t know now any more than I knew when I was writing about a plane on a mountain. I’ll probably be asked in an interview, “Why did you start in Hitler’s office, for heaven’s sake?” And I will respond, hopefully with an appropriate mixture of incredulity and disdain, “Why would I not start in Hitler’s office, for heaven’s sake?”

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

Unity Mitford sits with Hitler in Munich. A rebellious young British aristocrat, she was an avid Hitler groupie and jealous of Ella and anyone else who threatened to horn in on ‘her man.’ Supposedly a souvenir photo of Ella with Hitler was taken the day of their meeting, but it’s been lost to posterity.

 

But how do you structure a narrative about Audrey in the war? All I knew was I had a starting point, a scene that had to begin the book: In the spring of 1935, Audrey’s mother met Adolf Hitler in Munich. Hitler was then the name on lips worldwide, a vibrant and charismatic superstar who had brought pride and prosperity back to a Depression-plagued Germany that had recently lost the Great War. This time around, the reader begins in Hitler’s office and looks into his eyes and shakes his hand, all the while wondering, on page one, where in the world is this going?

A long shot of the Nazi Party’s Munich bastion, the Braunes Haus, which was destroyed by U.S. and British bombs during the war.

Instincts

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenThe other evening I felt hungry for a movie. I didn’t know what—whether it should be something new or an old favorite—but I was beckoned to find something and settled on the recent biopic Colette starring Keira Knightley. The works of French writer Colette had always run on a parallel track to my life and so I knew only two things about her: She had written Gigi, and she had “discovered” Audrey Hepburn via chance encounter at a Monte Carlo hotel—which kept popping into my mind as I watched Colette.

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

A publicity photo of the “discovery” with France’s greatest woman writer.

Viewing the motion picture was a revelation. The depiction of Colette the writer, her imagination igniting like the burner on a stove when confronted with a blank sheet of paper, touched me because I understand the siren’s call of such barren landscape begging to be populated with words.

The depiction of Colette the woman, proven to be accurate from biographical information I’ve been reading since, showed a malleable girl who through fortune and talent transformed into a fierce sexual animal, a feminist with lovers of both genders and three husbands over her lifetime, and a devotee of nature. She was also just what’s you’d expect of a woman with one name—Colette was an egotist.

At the turn of the 20th century, the young Colette’s husband ran a writing factory and when times were tough forced his wife to write a novel, Claudine at School, that he then claimed as his own. Sequels soon made Claudine the most famous literary character in France, but Colette the ghostwriter wanted credit for her own work. This conflict led Colette to challenge her nation to accept women as more than decoration. For the remainder of her life through all forms of writing, from novels to reviews and advice columns, she would struggle to understand her place, any woman’s place, in the world. Colette would not be at peace until the moment of her passing at which time polite French society, which had refused to accept her in life, provided a state funeral in death, along with acknowledgment as France’s greatest woman writer.

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

Colette the gender-bender in her 30s.

Had I known all this—had I stopped to investigate Colette amidst the frenzy of putting Dutch Girl to bed—I would have paused for some analysis of the chance encounter on the beach of Monte Carlo.

At 77, wheelchair-bound from arthritis and years of weight gain brought on by inertia, the dowager authoress spotted the dancer-turned-actress during location production of the minor British film comedy, We Go to Monte Carlo, released in the U.S. as Monte Carlo Baby.

To back up a step, Colette wrote Gigi during the Nazi occupation of Paris as a risqué novella about the grooming of a young girl to be a courtesan—a woman who pleases men sexually. Colette agreed to a tamed-down version for Broadway and that led to a frenzy of speculation about who would play the young Gigi on stage. With no actress cast, Colette became a “compulsive Gigi spotter” across France and often shouted, There! She’s the one! She’s my Gigi! So it wasn’t as if Audrey was the first and only Gigi. Colette was seeing Gigis at all hours, awake and asleep.

To back up another step, Claudine at School is an autobiographical look at Gabrielle Colette’s girlhood in the French countryside. The novel begins with our heroine a tomboy of 15 who just a few pages in is captivated by and seductive with one of her female teachers. Instantly, Claudine coaxes her unsuspecting father to engage the teacher for private tutoring. As Claudine ingratiates herself to the teacher, she’s told, “You’re a little mad, Claudine. I’m beginning to believe it. I’ve been told so often.” Claudine replies, “Yes, I’m quite aware that other people say so, but who cares?”

Colette lived her life this way and never held back in anything she did. Now, all these decades later, here came Audrey with her square shoulders and powerful, seductive dancer’s walk, which actress Keira Knightley recreated in Colette’s confident stride in the biopic. Who knows if Audrey’s boyish figure and short-cropped hair reminded Colette of Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, a cross-dressing lesbian with whom Colette had carried on a scandalous affair over several years in her youth.

To be clear, there was nothing untoward between Audrey and Colette. Quite the contrary, Colette was well past hijinx by this time, and Audrey and all those in her orbit confirmed the Dutch girl’s emotional innocence despite having recently endured a war with its thousand dark moments. It just strikes me as funny how I, and a legion of other Audrey documentarians, missed the implications of the colorful Colette and her wild life as background for the Colette-meets-Audrey scenario.

The other thing I find amusing about the Monte Carlo discovery of Audrey Hepburn by Colette is the mythology propagated by Alexander Walker and others that Audrey “didn’t know anything about acting” and had “never said a word on a stage before.” True enough, she hadn’t played Desdemona at The Old Vic, but Audrey’s experience did include live ballet performances in Arnhem’s always packed theater during the war, followed by two-plus years on stage as a dancer and performer before live audiences in well-attended West End revues. These included an occasional line or two of dialogue. She had also played small parts in big films and big parts in small films and through osmosis had learned more than perhaps even she realized. But as discussed in Dutch Girl, the plucking of nobody Hepburn off the beach in Monte Carlo served as terrific raw material for Richard Maney, “Broadway’s most celebrated press agent,” then working on behalf of Gigi. Brother, did he capitalize.

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

A lobby card for the U.S. release of Monte Carlo Baby, which was rushed to theaters after Audrey had become a Broadway star and moved on to Paramount. In it, she portrays a movie star, even though she tells Colette as she’s making the picture that she “can’t act.” Oscar and Tony awards would soon prove otherwise.

Last word on the Monaco location shoot goes to character actor Marcel Galio, another player in We Go to Monte Carlo. It was to Galio that Audrey turned for advice when suddenly offered a starring role on Broadway that she felt ill-equipped to accept. In fact, when Madame Colette first floated the idea, Audrey told her, “I wouldn’t be able to because I can’t act!” But Colette, ever bold and unconventional, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She challenged Audrey to confront life fearlessly, to seize this opportunity, to go for it. To do anything else was nonsense.

Marcel Galio offered sanguine advice to the panicked novice. “Follow your instincts,” he told her. “If it feels right, it will be right.” It was the best counsel she ever received, these 11 words becoming her North Star. She would mention to interviewers over the next 40 years how she always trusted her instincts and it got her through many a difficult decision, not to mention guiding her through a successful film career on her way to an icon’s immortality.