Audrey Hepburn

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 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.

Blind Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

War and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Painting Pictures

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

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

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

Hi, Robert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake for an introvert.

Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

The advance once sheet with a hackwork tag line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could you do this to Audrey Hepburn?

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Men

Who will remember you when you’re gone? Personally, I hope to leave a gaping hole in many lives when I shake the mortal coil, but I probably won’t. I guess the reality is it’d be great if they don’t say, “Good riddance!”

Which brings us to Otto Ernst Gelder, Graaf (which is Dutch for Count) van Limburg Stirum, Audrey Hepburn’s uncle. When Audrey was interviewed over the course of her screen career, she very occasionally mentioned an uncle who had been shot by the Nazis. Never his name, never any specifics, never an emotional reaction. At the beginning of my project that became Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, I wondered who this man was and why she didn’t talk about him. His name was easy to find, but facts about “Uncle Otto” proved, at first, elusive.

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

Wilhelmina, her husband Otto, and Ella before the war.

Slowly, through my own digging and that of two researchers, Maddie in the Netherlands and Marina in the States, Uncle Otto’s story emerged. He was a scholar, a lawyer, a Presbyterian, and a man of compassion, good humor, and optimism. He was deeply in love with his wife Wilhelmina, sister of Audrey’s mother Ella. Otto enjoyed, up until May of 1942, a good life and a career he believed in—as a reform-minded district attorney in Arnhem.

Then the war came, bringing with it the occupation of the Netherlands, and Otto’s principles didn’t allow for Nazi doctrine. His outlook on life didn’t change a bit; he was certain he must not cooperate with the Nazis and he remained a cheerful optimist.

The more I learned about him, the more I realized how central Audrey’s uncle was to her life. His fate changed the history of the van Heemstras, Audrey’s family, and shaped beliefs that drove a movie star to become UNICEF’s good will ambassador.

I went from knowing nothing about Otto to thinking, what a guy! His story inspired a chapter in the book, a chapter that barely mentions Audrey. I knew I was gambling to do such a thing in a book about “Audrey Hepburn and World War II,” and yet I came back to the fact that his fate drove hers. I didn’t feel I had any choice but to proceed.

The mystery of Audrey’s connection to loved ones lost in the war deepened when she mentioned “a cousin” who had also been executed by the Nazis. Same situation as with Otto; never a name, just a vague descriptor. It turned out this cousin was Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, who did indeed appear in her family tree, way over on the other side. And lo and behold, Otto and Alexander died the same morning in the same place, executed by green police. Now they lie side by side at the execution site.

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

Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck van der Oye.

As of 2017, the names of Otto, Count van Limburg Stirum, and Alexander, Baron Schimmelpenninck, seemed to exist only in Dutch archives and on their grave markers. What an injustice this was for men who died heroes of the people. The place of the execution of Otto, Alex, and their three companions—Willem Ruys, Christofel Bennekers, and Robert Baelde—is located on private property near the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. The Germans wanted to carry out the executions in a place so remote that it couldn’t become a shrine to martyrs. The spot can be accessed only by foot or on treacherous dirt roads that could easily flatten a tire or snap an axle. Signs reading “15 Augustus 1942” point the way for the curious, but even the signs are in disrepair. Yet every August 15 determined Dutch men and women attend a service at the murder site to remember “The Five” who were taken by the Nazis.

Year by year, the attendees of this remembrance age. Now it’s been 77 years since that awful morning and generations have come and gone. At this late date, who beyond family members will bear the torch for these five who died heroes in the cause of freedom from oppression?

If I can accomplish one thing for the legacy of Dutch Girl, one thing above all else, even above filling in the gap in Audrey’s timeline, it’s for this book to return to the Netherlands a piece of its own history, stories not only of Otto and Alex but also of the van Heemstras and many brave individuals and groups who refused to knuckle under to tyranny, whatever the cost.

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

Schimmelpenninck and van Limburg Stirum rest side by side at the execution site.

Wave

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

When the boys hit the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, they created a shock wave that crashed through Europe. The subjects of two of my books felt that wave, Jim Stewart in Old Buckenham, England, and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in Velp, the Netherlands. As much as we remember D-Day, as much as it’s celebrated, we simply can’t recreate or recapture the level of adrenalin felt anywhere on or near the European continent that particular day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

First came the anticipation. Everyone felt that, too; the tension, relentless and building—Allied forces in England, German forces in France, and the occupied peoples of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Where would the Allies attack? When would it happen? Word leaked out about Patton’s impressive First Army assembling in Kent. Not Patton, fretted the Germans. Anyone but Patton!

Tick, tick, tick. Time crept by. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. March turned into April. April into May. As detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, brisk action in barracks pools at Jim’s 453rd Bomb Group and elsewhere handicapped where and when the invasion would finally take place. In 453rd Operations, Jim knew the invasion was getting close because bombing missions by the group’s B-24s had transitioned from strategic flights against German cities and factories to tactical raids of key sites in France. It might be a railroad yard one day and a bridge the next, but the targets would be a couple hundred miles apart to reveal nothing about the intended invasion site. Would it be the Pas-de-Calais? Surely, yes, the shortest point between England and France. More daring gamblers said Normandy just because it was the last place Hitler would expect. For the Allied invaders, Normandy meant a long, torturous boat ride on choppy seas while rugged and heavily defended beaches awaited at the end.

A few hundred miles due east, the Dutch lived quite a different reality, as detailed in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. At age 15 and a junior member of the Resistance, Audrey was at this time helping downed Allied airmen avoid capture by day, while in the evening, dancing illegally to raise money for Jews in hiding. All the while her country experienced slow strangulation by ruling Nazi authorities who had extracted from the Netherlands all the food, coal, rubber, clothing, paper, and petrol they could in an ongoing effort to support the war effort on the Eastern Front. Dutch civilians had begun to suffer malnutrition that reached in and twisted bellies, all the while facing the anxiety of executions by firing squad for any random Resistance offense. By now, the Germans had confiscated radios from the Dutch—except for illegal sets that still operated on the sly. Officially sanctioned Nazi radio and newspaper reports boasted that invasion of the “Atlantic Wall” was no threat. According to the Germans, Allied attack was welcomed so the Americans and British could be defeated once and for all.

So the Dutch waited, hoped, and prayed. Every day those with radios listened secretly to regular broadcasts from Radio Oranje on the BBC. The Dutch listeners dared not speak the word that hung at the front of every mind: Liberation! If the day ever actually arrived, an Allied invasion would give hope to the hopeless, not just in small towns and large cities in the Netherlands but across occupied Belgium, throughout occupied France, and in all the concentration camps in Germany and Poland where Jews died by the day and Allied prisoners held out against disease and lice and inertia. In America, hope would spark through millions of mothers and fathers praying for the safe return of their children, the young people actually fighting this war.

If you watch The Longest Day, you get a sense of how the Germans on the Normandy coast felt when they beheld the invasion armada that misty dawn. If you watch Saving Private Ryan, you get horrifying glimpses of the killing machine the liberators faced on the beaches that day. And yet there’s no way history, let alone film, can do this day justice. As the news spread of military action at Normandy, as the titanic struggle played out on those beaches, as men fought and screamed and died, struggling dune to dune, hill to hill, hearts swelled in the United States and across Europe. Hands shook. Tears flowed. The free world held its breath through the longest day in history.

Seventy-five years later we can tour the beaches and imagine what the battle looked like. We can marvel at the crosses representing supreme sacrifice. We can revisit stirring eyewitness accounts. But we can’t feel the shock wave because it remains unimaginable. Jim was positioned to feel it in Operations at Old Buck when gates locked down and orders dictated what targets would be hit; Audrey felt it on a quiet street in Velp as secret radios barked out play by play and the Dutch dared hope they might break free of the oppressor.

What a day, that Tuesday in the fifth year of war—the day when everything changed, when the world felt a shock wave that tilted it in a new direction.