Audrey Hepburn Dutch Girl

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.

Ghosts—Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live Oranje!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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