The book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn that I wrote in close collaboration with Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son, will be released September 28. It tells the story of a side of her that’s been touched on in other biographies but never explored. And it’s a common human theme, particularly among women: “I left the workforce to raise my children and now they’re grown. What do I do next?”
Audrey Hepburn found Audrey Hepburn a tough act to follow. An impossible act to follow. As an ingenue she had won a Best Actress Academy Award and been nominated four other times. She had won three British Film Academy Best British Actress awards and her mantel also held Golden Globes, New York Film Critics Circle Awards, and on and on. She had conquered Broadway and won a Tony and as a sidelight became the world’s most important clothes horse. Even after she was long retired, publishers hounded her to write a memoir.
At age 57, with older son Sean working in L.A. and younger son Luca on his own in Italy, Audrey stood at this important and vexing crossroads in frustration. She may still possess some vestige of the face that had launched a thousand magazines, and some sense of the talent that had earned her all those honors, but film roles for women in her age bracket were in 1986 what they are today: scarce. She had dutifully kept the same agent into the 1980s that had represented her in the Sabrina days, Kurt Frings, and he reviewed script after script and sent many on and always Audrey reviewed them with disappointment. Too violent, too depressing, too gory, too vulgar.
But despite her chronological age, she knew she was still young. Inside she felt the same exuberance that had gotten her through two shows a night dancing in West End choruses 35 years earlier. She ate healthily and loved long walks in the Swiss countryside. She traveled often—one week would find her in Paris and the next in Hollywood.
Staying in film was the obvious answer. She had never loved film work and yet films had earned her a nice living and it’s what she knew, so she kept looking at the scripts and even threw her hat in the ring for the role of a society matron in a television miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, and it was here she learned the latest of life’s lessons: When you jump into such a casting pool as this, you better be ready for sharks. Not only did Academy Award-winner Claudette Colbert want that part; so did Academy Award-winner Bette Davis, and Colbert got it and would earn an Emmy nomination.
Funny thing about Audrey Hepburn: She had an ego that resulted inevitably from decades of success and an inferiority complex several times wider. Fame bewildered her because she didn’t consider herself pretty enough or talented enough to have earned it. All she could say with certainty and a lot of pride was that she worked damn hard and gave herself with total commitment to any job she took on. She had to work twice as hard as everybody else because she was, in her mind, only half as good an actress.
So what about that memoir? She probably could have commanded a million-dollar advance but no way would she ever do such a thing. Because of the war she had some skeletons in the family closet that she must keep locked away. More than that, editors would expect the inside story on her life and career and that meant dishing about friends and co-workers. She may have known that Humphrey Bogart was a bitter man who had no patience for her on the set of Sabrina, but that was her business, just like her affair with co-star William Holden on the same picture was her business. She would never dream of sharing these matters with the world.
The life she was living in retirement wasn’t exactly torture. She owned a Swiss farmhouse tended by a wonderful staff. She maintained a world-class fruit and vegetable garden that provided bounty for the table almost year-round. She had minded her money to the extent that she could provide for herself and her family. And she had finally at long last found the love of her life, former actor Robert Wolders. She could easily live out her years at home, or visiting family, honoring famous friends, endorsing the occasional product, and presenting at the Oscars.
But that was just it—Audrey Hepburn had never done things the easy way, so why start now? And that is the jumping-off point for Warrior. Other authors always treated this as just another chapter in the story of her life. The final chapter. To me, it’s the beginning of an epic adventure.
I have a Dutch family. None of my ancestors are Dutch, but I inherited a whole family in the Netherlands by researching and writing Dutch Girl, an effort that began in 2015 with our first visit to Arnhem. It was there I discovered Audrey Hepburn’s connection to that spot on the map, which intrigued me all the more when I tried to research her wartime years in Arnhem and found little available information, with much of that conflicting. What I did learn pretty quickly was that Audrey lived in Arnhem from December 1939 to sometime in the middle of the war, and then moved to the next village to the east, Velp.
In the spring of 2017, I contacted Velp’s leading historian, Gety Hengeveld, to request her help with information; at once she marshaled forces there and served as a point of contact for my upcoming research visit. Gety put together a luncheon so I could interview several wartime survivors at once, and there, in June 2017, I met my Dutch family, which included several names you’ll recognize if you have read Dutch Girl. I sat next to Rosemarie Kamphuisen that day, and we didn’t exactly hit it off because I believe trust didn’t come easily to her, and who was this American author and what were his intentions? Through lunch she held in her lap a published history of her family, including the war years, and she would refer to it to refresh her memory and conjure up dates related to the German occupation.
In the end she allowed me to photograph the relevant pages of her family history when lunch had concluded. Why? I guess she had judged me to be OK and beyond that, “You are our liberators!” she said to me with what I can only describe as awe and wonder in her voice. Just by being an American, I had qualified in her mind as one of the liberators, and I was honored and a little embarrassed to be lumped into the same group as the Allied troops that had attempted to liberate Velp in 1944 and succeeded a year later.
Mary and I saw Rosemarie on our next research trip in April 2018 during Velp’s solemn Liberation Day ceremony that takes place the Sunday closest to 16 April, the date everyone in the village, including Audrey Hepburn and her family, were freed from German occupation. Rosemarie greeted us like family and we sat and talked after the ceremony for a long time. We agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant a few days later and when Mary and I arrived at the restaurant, there was Rosemarie waiting for us, standing beside a bicycle that seemed much too big for her—she must have been at that time somewhere around 88 years old, and she had biked to our meeting! I will never quite get over that, but bicycles are the Dutch way of life and key to their sense of independence and health.
That day we learned all about Rosemarie and her family. She’d had a hard life including a bad marriage that forced her to start over from scratch while supporting five children. She had also become a force in the local community, a volunteer for senior citizens’ groups and historical preservationist.
Just for some perspective, Rosemarie was a bit younger than Audrey but also Audrey’s contemporary in Velp. She remembered the van Heemstras and was very fond of Dr. Henrik Visser ’t Hooft, the Velpsche doctor for whom Audrey volunteered and local Resistance leader.
Of this fascinating man she said, “I have known hard times in my life, and he supported me without many words, but by respecting me and giving a boost to my self-confidence. In one way or another he gave me the feeling that he loved me in the most decent way possible. At his farewell reception [in the 1970s] he hugged me with the words: “Good luck, dear Rose.” It was just what I needed.”
Rosemarie participated in the committee that placed a historical marker and statue at the site of Villa Beukenhof in Velp and staged their unveiling in September 2019. The committee invited Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and me to speak at the ceremony, which was simply spectacular, attended by about a thousand people, brass band, parade, and a lavish book signing of the Dutch version of Dutch Girl. Those events marked the last times we saw Rosemarie. Our planned 2020 return visit was canceled by Covid and we couldn’t provide in-person moral support when she suffered a debilitating heart attack about a year ago. The best we could do was speak to her on the phone and keep touch via email.
Rosemarie Kamphuisen passed away yesterday in hospice, but not without one last battle. She kept warning us that her heart was giving out, but we kept believing that nothing could really stop her. She came from good stock that had helped defeat the Nazis, and she’d beaten the odds and successfully raised her children and gone on to help me write Dutch Girl. I’m so happy to report she also provided important reminiscences that appear in my latest book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, due September 28.
One of the hazards of writing books about World War II is that an author meets and works with wonderful, important people in the autumn of their lives and they become family and then they move on. It happens over and over and it hurts. But above the sense of loss is such gratitude that we met to establish new and loving relationships in the course of capturing stories important to history. These people live on in my books, and in my heart, forever.
Anyone who knows me can tell you without hesitation: that Matzen, he’s never satisfied. And it’s true. Something about my DNA makes it difficult to just stop and smell the rose for the rose and say, yes, this is a perfect moment. Case in point: When you write a book, you cast your subject in cement and it dries and what you’ve written is what there is, the problem being that your subject, whether Carole Lombard or James Stewart or Audrey Hepburn, continues to be affected by the physics of history. New facts emerge, perspectives change, and your book becomes ever more a snapshot in time, leaving the author to think, Damn, I wish I had known about this or that back when it mattered! The nature of biography makes me grateful for my blog, this little historical annex where I can update the record as needed.
SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: I’ve written another book that you will be hearing about called Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, which will be released by GoodKnight Books in September. In it you will meet a super-cool relative of Audrey’s named Vero Roberti “who lived a life of adventure,” as I say in the narrative. I think you will love Vero like you loved Otto, Count van Limburg Stirum if you have read Dutch Girl. Anyway, in the past few weeks I heard from another member of Audrey’s family who lived a life of adventure. This woman said in email that she knew Ella, and Miesje, and of course Audrey—Aunt Audrey, in fact—and I had to get on the phone with her and find out more.
Yvonne Waller is the daughter of Ian Quarles van Ufford, Audrey’s half-brother. Ian as you’ll remember was the younger son of Hendrick Gustaf Quarles van Ufford and Ella van Heemstra (Alexander being the older son). They were Audrey’s older half-brothers who lived mostly apart from her until 1939 on the eve of World War II, when Audrey’s mother Ella van Heemstra had Audrey flown over from boarding school in England and all the van Heemstras reunited in Arnhem.
When Ian turned 16 and lived in the Arnhem suburb of Velp, the ruling Germans in the Netherlands forced him to Berlin where he worked as a slave laborer in a munitions factory until liberation by the Russians in the battle of annihilation for Hitler’s last stronghold. Ian would become another whose memories of the war were too dark to discuss. He told his daughter only two stories: one about falsifying papers and another about having a miniature radio hidden in a matchbox, but even relating this much would result in sleepless nights for a man who had seen too much.
After the fall of Berlin, Ian walked the 300 miles to Velp from Berlin, and he told Yvonne that upon arriving at Villa Beukenhof he knew he was home when he saw Audrey’s makeup box in her bedroom window. Ella would later give the makeup box to Yvonne, “and I go off to college and the poor makeup box is thrown away.” Such is life.
Another piece of family history I didn’t know was that after the war Ian worked for a cargo shipping company operating between the Netherlands and Indonesia, which led to the beginnings of his business career there.
Yvonne and I hit it off from hello. After working so closely for so long with Audrey’s son Luca, I feel like I know many of the people in the family, and Yvonne really did know them and so we had plenty to talk about. As for her life of adventure, she was born in Jakarta, Indonesia, where her father worked as an executive for Unilever Corporation in what turned out to be a very successful career that took him and his family to various posts around the world.
Early in the conversation Yvonne provided new information about Ella’s marriage to Hendrick Quarles van Ufford and their brief life together in the Dutch East Indies. “My grandfather was an operations guy [for Shell Oil] and he would go around to the different oil rigs and he’d be gone for months at a time, and this is one of the stories that I have to tell you. One day my grandmother, Granny, Grandmother Ella, sat with my mother—we were at that time living in Paris—she sat with my mother and she said, ‘You know, I was only 24 years old and Fafa, that was his nickname, he would be gone for months at a time. And I’m 24 years old! I need a life too!’ And that’s how she met Ruston. Imagine, it was colonial times, so she would have to go with all of her servants. All the ladies who looked after her, you know, keep her cool, fan her, and they would all have to go with her to see Ruston!”
Now for a correction to the history I had presented in Dutch Girl: According to family history as Yvonne heard it, Ella deserted Quarles van Ufford and her sons Alex and Ian for Ruston: “This is what I heard,” said Yvonne. “She left [with Ruston]. My grandfather took his boys, went back to Holland, set up in Holland, met a Norwegian lady, and lived with her and she took care of the boys. Then one day as the boys are napping—and this is one of those crazy Quarles stories—she [Ella]comes in through the servants’ quarters, takes the boys, and from that moment on, they live with her.” In other words, Ella didn’t have her children in tow when she embarked on the impetuous liaison with Joseph Ruston that led to marriage and Audrey. At some point as the boys were living near The Hague after many years apart from their mother, she reclaimed them.
Yvonne told me about her life on the road with a Dutch business executive-father who was always on the move, from Indonesia to Holland, then Tehran, then Bangkok, then Rangoon, then briefly in Sweden before heading back to Indonesia. On the way, at Christmas 1963, they stopped at Bürgenstock, Switzerland, for Christmas with Audrey, Mel, and infant Sean. “Aunt Miesje was the first person to ever give me a Toblerone bar,” said Yvonne with a laugh, “so I have wonderful memories of Miesje—she was truly a great lady. We were walking in the mountains and she stopped and pulled it out of her bag and said, ‘Here, you can have this.’” I asked for more detail on Miesje and she said, “She was very sweet. With Grandma Ella you had to watch your Ps and Qs. She could be very severe; if you’d go out to lunch or dinner with her, she’d always appear with a stern face on, almost like a mask. But Aunt Miesje was much more approachable and very sweet. I have only fond memories of her.” Yvonne noted the dry humor of the van Heemstra family and a constant twinkle in Miesje’s eye, which jibes with Audrey’s many comments to the effect that humor had gotten the van Heemstras through occupation’s darkest moments in Velp.
Ella, on the other hand, Yvonne described as a “tough cookie. She never shouted, but oh boy, you really sat up and watched your manners. It wasn’t that you were scared of her. That’s just the way Granny was and you behaved!”
Interestingly, there was very little discussion in the family about the death of Otto van Limburg Stirum; the topic seems to have remained too painful a memory for subsequent generations. “All I know is he was a wonderful man,” said Yvonne. And Ian’s big brother Alex seems to have been a mystery to his own family and didn’t remain close to Ian or Audrey. He lived in Japan and had nothing to do with the family. “I don’t think I ever met him,” said Yvonne.
Back to the story, with Yvonne’s family in Jakarta again after a hasty move from Sweden: “Just before the coup d’état of Sukarno  we left very early in the morning. My dad stayed behind, and my mother, my sister, and I went to Switzerland where Audrey welcomed us and we stayed at Tolochenaz for a couple of months before we found an apartment. The company had been nationalized, Dad stayed, went through the coup d’état … and that was a bit tricky. He was on the list of 60 people who would have been shot if Sukarno had won the coup d’état.” Historical note: An Indonesian coup attempt that began in Jakarta would lead to hundreds of thousands of murders throughout the country and its islands over the span of a year, and Ian showed remarkable courage to remain at his post for Unilever during this time.
I could go on and on about this fascinating new friend. Yvonne has lived California, U.S.A., for 25 years now. She told me about her visits with Aunt Audrey in Paris and other places, about attending Luca’s christening, and about Audrey’s attendance at Yvonne’s wedding and her sister’s wedding. “She was very generous, Audrey, very generous, extremely generous. When you’d see her it was like a party. It was always wonderful to see her—there was nothing better.”
Yes, Yvonne Quarles van Ufford Waller has lived a life of adventure, just like Vero Roberti, and Audrey Hepburn for that matter. Thank you, Yvonne, for a great hour on the phone. I hope we can meet up again soon.
A number of new subscribers have come aboard, which I very much appreciate. Thank you all! This fact reminds me how derelict I’ve been in posting new content of late. So, here’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to instead of writing columns for this blog.
FLASH BACK to autumn 2019, before Covid—if you can remember life before Covid. Dutch Girl had been a success in the U.S. and abroad, and I started to think about what I’d write next since it’s always a struggle finding something book-worthy. After Mission and before Dutch Girl I almost took on the task of attempting a biography of actor Basil Rathbone, but his relationship with narcissist wife Ouida was too f’ed up and although Rathbone wove his way into the fabric of Hollywood history, I refused to be locked in a room with an overt narcissist and her co-dependent husband through the course of 90,000 words. Because her toxicity poisoned too much of his career, I felt I had to throw that one back into the cosmic stream, which was OK because then Audrey came along.
After Dutch Girl I was poking around again and received a hot tip out of the blue about unexplored content in a university archive related to Dorothy Parker. You know, Algonquin Roundtable short story writer and renowned wit Dorothy Parker who ended up in Hollywood with her husband writing and fixing screenplays in the Golden Age. Well, she and I had a booze-soaked little fling and I read a lot of her stuff and it was an interesting life with lots of Hollywood ties and I thought, yeah, maybe Dorothy Parker. But then at 3 a.m. one morning—I wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes and start to process things and can’t stop—my eyes snapped open at the realization that if I thought Basil and Ouida Rathbone were unappealing as a subject, they’re child’s play compared to a mean drunk who drove not one but both husbands to kill themselves. I decided right then to not become a filler item for the newspaper, as in, “DID YOU KNOW that Dorothy Parker drove not only two husbands but also her biographer to commit suicide?” Dottie and I broke up the next morning.
I was back at square one when a friend heard me talking about my problem of not knowing what to do next and joked, “Why don’t you do a book on Audrey Hepburn?” I laughed along because I had addressed the only area of Audrey’s life that hadn’t already been squeezed dry like an orange at the Sunkist factory. Some days later I said on the phone in a ha-ha way to Luca, Audrey’s son, “Hey, wanna hear a good one? Somebody said I do another book about Audrey—isn’t that crazy?” And there was a pause, and Luca said, in effect, I was thinking the same thing!
It’s now more than a year later and here I sit with a completed manuscript in my lap titled, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and the Fight for Children. It’s the other shoe to drop, the mate to Dutch Girl that completes the story and answers the question, “What did Audrey Hepburn do with the horrific wartime memories she kept locked inside?” If you think you know the answer to that question, I’ll bet you really don’t. I discovered in talking to her closest surviving friends and the many UNICEF field workers who accompanied her on Third World missions that the history of what she did and how she did it was about to be lost. And what this is as she charged into war zones and took on world leaders. I had no idea until Luca pointed me in the right direction just what a treasure chest waited to be opened. As it happened, with the world in lockdown for most of the time I spent researching and writing, no matter whom I called or where in the world they were located, guess what? They wanted to talk!
Granted only a few people have seen the resulting manuscript and maybe it sucks. Some of my favorite creative projects have inspired reactions like, “What were you thinking?” But the experience for me has been pure magic. I mean, really, I just spent another year locked in a room with Audrey Hepburn. That, my friends, is not a bad way to endure a pandemic. It certainly beats being sentenced to prison with Dorothy Parker or Basil and Ouida Rathbone.
Depending on a number of factors led by Covid and my publisher’s reaction, you may be seeing Warrior in about a year. Between now and then, I hope to turn my attention to this blog on a regular basis.
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.”
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.
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.
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.’”
It’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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Audrey 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.
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.
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)