The War About the War

Olivia returns to the Loew’s Grand in Atlanta in 1961 for the re-premiere of her favorite picture.

All my life, the film version of Gone With the Wind was a big deal. In my wonder years, my mother adored Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. Huge crush. And I remember being dragged to see a reissue in a Pittsburgh movie palace where, as a red-blooded boy, I waited impatiently for Civil War battle scenes that never materialized. Just endless talk of war and a bunch of girl stuff. The closest I got to interest was a scene showing the aftermath of a battlefield, but for my four-hour forced investment, I was left embittered.

Some years later I became interested in Hollywood history and ultimately made a career of it, and GWTW became a different animal to me—a cornerstone of that history and a turning point in motion picture production.

So, yes, Gone With the Wind has been a big deal. While researching my book Errol & Olivia in 2009, I came across some photos of the 1961 Civil War Centennial re-release of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta with festivities that mirrored the 1939 premiere, including a relaunch at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, which had been the focus of all in December 1939. Selznick came back for the series of events, along with Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Evelyn Keyes, Victor Jory, and some others, and they relived the glory of that December 1939 moment when the world turned to Atlanta and audiences finally, officially, got to see Selznick’s version of Margaret Mitchell’s vision flickering in the dark.

For 76 years of her life, Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a spotlight for being central to the Gone With the Wind experience. More than any other topic, even Errol Flynn, people wanted to talk about GWTW and her Academy Award-nominated performance as Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, and she was always delighted to oblige.

Then in June 2015, New York Post entertainment columnist Lou Lumenick posed a then-shocking question: Wasn’t it time to send Gone With the Wind “the way of the Confederate flag?” Oh, the uproar among lovers of Old Hollywood. I can only surmise now how firmly Lou’s tongue was planted in his cheek as he asked the question because he knew it would stir up a hornet’s nest. More than that, it earned him late-career multimedia headlines.

Since then, for some, GWTW has transitioned from pleasure to guilty pleasure as consciousnesses have been raised to issues of racism in society worldwide, including and especially in the U.S. Deep South, and Lumenick has been revealed as a visionary for his question and its context.

Full disclosure: At first I thought Lou’s argument to be silly, just as I found the uproar over Confederate statues to be nonsense. Now I think, yes, let’s learn, grow, and move on. We shouldn’t be defending the politics that found it necessary to glorify the post-war Southern cause with monument after monument. In the Declaration of Independence, written four-score prior to the Civil War, all men were granted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If anything is the American way, this is it. And we should be honoring that concept at the expense of pieces of bronze or granite.

As an historian, I view Gone With the Wind, both the book and the film it inspired, as artifacts of their day—snapshots of early 20th century Southern perspectives on race as written by reclusive Margaret Mitchell, a product of her culture and times. Selznick’s picture based on the Mitchell manuscript drowned box offices in cash nationwide. To hold a 1935 fictional book billed as a “romance” to 2020 social and historical standards seems to me to compare apples and vacuum cleaners. And banning it screams fascism—sometimes the Left extends so far left that it ends up on the Right.

Why not just let the legion of GWTW fans enjoy Selznick’s picture for the fantasy it is? To me Rhett Butler represents the devil’s advocate and conscience of the South; never does he take “the Cause” seriously. I would love it if the fans of this picture could acknowledge the goings-on as fantasy and acknowledge the institutionalized racism that has been embedded in our society since long before the Civil War. Racism that endures to present day.

Of course Gone With the Wind is a racist tome; it has to be, based on subject matter that views the Antebellum South as Camelot burned to the ground by damn Yankees.

My point is, OdeH lived so extraordinarily long a life that she got to see her greatest accomplishment tarnished black. When she turned 100 and proclaimed that she planned to live to 110 and then reevaluate, of course I believed her. I had seen her iron will on display both from afar and up close. But then two things happened, either of which may have made her question her extended longevity plan. In 2018 the courts ruled against her lawsuit with the makers of the TV series Feud. Such a bitter pill for the victor of the de Havilland Decision to be forced to swallow. She was just as right this time as that time—one may not defame living people—but the ruling went against her. To be blunt, the grand dame took big business’s sucker punch.

When George Floyd was murdered, the nation quaked, and the shock waves hit her beloved Gone With the Wind full force. I can only wonder if she then reasoned, It’s time for me to go. Who knows?

I still don’t love Gone With the Wind the movie, but I admire the filmmaking and the drama of its production and release. Recounting the epic months on Hollywood soundstages as seen through the eyes of OdeH rates among my favorite aspects of researching and writing Errol & Olivia. And I feel sad that the fallout over racism as it applies to Gone With the Wind occurred in the final reel of the life of Olivia de Havilland, the last titan of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

Author’s note: I wrote this piece seven weeks ago but due to various factors am only posting it now. Aside from a broken bone, the issue is completion of my next book, which I’ll be discussing soon.

Complicated

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

My favorite image of Olivia de Havilland, taken in 1942. Though she be but little, she is fierce.

It’s pretty weird living in a world that doesn’t have Olivia de Havilland in it. Columnists and bloggers have been singing Olivia’s praises since her passing a week ago, justifiably so of course. She was the last major star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. In taking OdeH for granted as one does since she’s been around all our lives (unless you happen to be age 105 and up), I was awestruck last Sunday to scroll through Facebook and see tribute after tribute in an unbroken string that went on and on. Even the latest from the White House couldn’t crack the de Havilland hit parade.

That’s on the one hand. The day after her passing I was contacted by Barnett Parker from a FOX TV affiliate in California and put on alert to appear on-air via Zoom to speak about OdeH. Then an hour later the idea was nixed because the 40-year-old news editor had never heard of Olivia de Havilland, and so obviously her passing wasn’t newsworthy. That is the other hand; time has marched on.

I go back to 1986 with OdeH. Like every other growing boy who came into contact with the Errol Flynn picture The Adventures of Robin Hood, I fell in love with Olivia as Maid Marian. Heck, what was not to love? She received bins of mash notes from smitten men written in care of her easily accessed Paris address, and mine was just another. She responded politely and girlishly because she knew that’s what her legion of admirers needed her to do. There was also, even then, an author inside of me, and so I started asking her questions getting at the story behind the filmmaking she had experienced, and our occasional correspondence continued.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

To promote Captain Blood in 1935, Warner Bros. dressed its newest starlet in short-shorts and leather boots for a series of  publicity pinups. By the late 1930s Olivia chafed at such exploitation and refused to participate.

Flash forward to 2009 after Michael Mazzone and I had co-written the surprise hit Errol Flynn Slept HereErrol Flynn Slept Here—a forensic look at Flynn’s life through the mountaintop playpen he had built at the height of his fame. Research conducted then suggested his life with OdeH onscreen and off warranted a separate volume and that led to Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood. During the writing of that one I got back in touch with my old pal Olivia who, it turned out, was a fan of Errol Flynn Slept Here. I told her about E&O and asked for an interview and a phone number—basically asked respectfully for what any author needs from a subject-matter expert.

(You can’t see it, but I’m sitting here looking out the window rubbing my whiskers trying to find words for the process of corresponding with OdeH.) The words I’m coming up with are “glacial.” “Tectonic.” Maybe if I had jumped in the DeLorean and gone back 10 years and written the letter in 1999, she’d have been ready to help me in 2009. But I knew she had an assistant and a particular way of handling the volume of mail she received. I also knew this is the gal who would invite people to Paris to meet with her, and tell them to give her a call at an appointed time after they’d arrived, and when they called she would say, oh, was that today? Well, let’s make it the same time next week. Which is perfectly within her rights as a legendary multiple Academy Award winner in her 90s. But over here in the real world, where there are author contracts and deadlines, her science of time didn’t really match mine. I tried violating protocol by calling and I left a couple of messages to no avail.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

In 1940, Olivia turned the tables and posed for this series of shots as if to say, You don’t own me, Jack Warner. I’m my own woman.

Also while writing E&O, I contacted Olivia’s sister Joan Fontaine (Olivia + Joan = the second or third most famous feud in Hollywood history) for an interview to talk about  her sister and Errol Flynn. Joan had jaunted into Hollywood in the later 1930s and won an Oscar under the nose of her hard-working sister, before her hard-working sister had won one, which only deepened a rivalry that went back to their childhood. The very idea of speaking about this subject for the record appalled Joan, who told me in that caramel voice of hers, “If I spoke to you about Olivia, it would be like an atomic bomb going off.” Maybe in 1969 that would have been true, or 1979, but this was 2009 when only we dedicated few movie lovers remembered the Joan Fontaine of Rebecca and Suspicion—and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, for that matter. That’s OK, Joan, I was still able to cover your crazy relationship with Olivia in a no-holds-barred section entitled Twisted Sisters.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that Olivia de Havilland was a live-by-her-own-rules firebrand, the same woman who had beaten Jack Warner’s blacklist of 1941 through ’45 in court and earned the de Havilland Decision that really was an atomic bomb going off in the middle of Hollywood. This little woman of 5’4″ brought down the studio system stubbornly and single-handedly and then carried that victory into a string of three Academy Award nominations and two wins in four years. After she had proved everything there was to prove, she left Hollywood and settled in Paris, wrote a terrific book about it, and spent the remainder of her life sipping champagne and living life on her own terms. Not my terms, certainly. Her terms.

When Errol & Olivia was published, I sent her a copy just to say, look, a coffee table book about you and Errol. It’s a beautiful volume with a couple hundred photos; I bet many she’d never seen before and I bet they brought back memories. I did this with some trepidation because I wrote something in there based on all my research that I knew she wouldn’t like—that evidence suggested she and Errol had been more than friends around the time of Santa Fe Trail when they were a couple of lonely and restless souls. The narrative nailed her as exactly what she was: a loner, a workaholic, an accomplisher, depressive and isolated her whole life. The silence coming out of Rue Benouville was deafening. She sure wasn’t that silent a couple years ago when she went after the producers of Feud for the way Catherine Zeta-Jones had portrayed her, as a cold and gossipy bitch—which was not OdeH at all. OdeH was a charmer and the soul of discretion at all times, which is, I believe, why she couldn’t deliver the memoir she’d promised to her publisher, Dutton, at the end of 1980.

Oh, that’s another story. So when she continued to miss her deadlines, and after I’d had a couple of books published, I asked if maybe I could help her get over the hump and finish her memoir and get the manuscript safely off. Well! The nerve of this whippersnapper! She told me this was quite impossible because “Every word has to be my own.” I tried, friends, but as it stands, she took every word to her grave, which is the ultimate evidence that Feud got her all wrong.

This is my long-winded way of saying, I love you, Olivia. I admired the time you gave me, and every challenge and every complication that went with it. You lived life your way and enjoyed a champagne diet past age 104. I can only hope you and Errol have had a chance to catch up—there must have been plenty to say since you outlived him by, oh, a mere 61 years.

Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood by Robert Matzen

 

a + b = c, anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Actor’s Dream

the-killers2

The killers.

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

A-soon-to-be-dead-workmate

A girlfriend and workmate, soon to be dead.

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

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

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

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

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

condor-1

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

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

The Wisdom of Audrey Hepburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schooled by a Sixth Grader


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail-letter

90 pounds in the middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of Infamy

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

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

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

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

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

Turning darkness into gold.

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

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

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

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… Forever

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays.

Blind Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.