Audrey Hepburn Robert Matzen

The Vision

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

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

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

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

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in the dream ballet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

One-way Mission

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

Jamie Dornan as Jan Kubis and Cilian Murphy as Josef Gabcik, two heroes of Czech history.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II covers Audrey Hepburn’s life under Nazi rule in the Netherlands from May 1940 through April 1945. We’ve all grown up with movies and TV shows depicting the Nazis and what they were like, but such a lifetime bombardment can only desensitize the viewer. Yes, the Nazis were terrible and yes, they committed unspeakable acts upon millions. We know that; can’t we move on? Well, no, let’s not. Let’s never truly move on because we had better learn from this history so we never have to repeat it. Hate whipped up against innocents must never again point a democracy toward extremism that puts the free world in peril.

Friday night I watched a feature that you probably missed, detailing the attempt to assassinate a German high commander you probably never heard of. The picture is Anthropoid, which sounds like science fiction but details Operation Anthropoid, the Allied mission to take out Reinhard Heydrich, the number three Nazi as of 1941 and Hitler’s SS executioner known as “the butcher of Prague.” Heydrich was key to implementation of the Final Solution—when Hitler admires you for your ruthlessness, that’s saying something.

Late in 1941 a group of Czech special ops soldiers parachuted into their country on a top-secret mission to kill Heydrich. Anthropoid isn’t the first picture to cover this mission, but I’m not sure I need to see the others—I’m still recovering from this one. As I watched, I kept thinking, this was Audrey Hepburn’s world, living in a Nazi police state where civilians must not so much as make eye contact with the occupier, where no one was trusted and everyone might be a betrayer, where locals heard random gunshots echoing off the buildings as their neighbors were murdered. The only difference is that Anthropoid depicts life in Prague, Czechoslovakia, rather than in the Dutch city of Arnhem and its neighboring village, Velp. Both countries were occupied by the Third Reich.

I spend quite a lot of time in Dutch Girl discussing the Nazi regime because everything they did mattered to everyone in the countries they had invaded. It so happened that the village in which Audrey lived with her family for the worst part of the war, Velp, was the same village used in the latter part of the war as headquarters for the top Nazi rulers in Holland. In fact, the Reichskommissar of all the Netherlands was Audrey’s neighbor. As in, can I borrow a cup of sugar? He lived that close by.

This intimacy with evil and with death permeates every frame of Anthropoid, which displays a few sentences painting a picture of the butcher of Prague and devotes all its run time to putting us in close quarters with the heroes sent on what they have to know is a one-way mission. When they reveal to local Prague resistance leaders why they are there and who they plan to kill, the reaction is equal parts anger and fear. Even aiming a bomb or bullets in Heydrich’s direction will mean the deaths of thousands of innocent Czechs whether the attempt succeeds or not. This action will start a war of annihilation no matter the result.

With stakes so high, no one can be trusted and moment to moment we wonder where and when the plan will break down, when the Germans will come bursting in with guns blazing or worse, when they will take prisoners. German torture was very real and we see it in Anthropoid. Audrey told a chilling little story of walking along the street in her village and hearing screams coming from a building that had been turned into an SS jail. Her mother explained that men inside were being tortured. Do me a favor and take a moment to let that sink in. Your gentle humanitarian heard the screams of neighbor Velpenaren being tortured (and believe me, she endured much worse than that during the war).

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

An elegant gingerbread turret marked the Rotterdamsche Bank in Velp. In 1944 it became an SS prison and Audrey heard screams from within as she walked past.

Anthropoid pulls no punches; even this extraordinary trailer packs a wallop that’s true to the picture. The war is presented as the war really was, and this mission is recreated down to the names of the patriots who participated and the floor tile in the apartment where the plot was hatched. The attempt to kill Heydrich plays out in human terms, with no computer-generated assist and no one defying the laws of physics. The fate of the assassins is depicted with gut-wrenching clarity, and we see what real heroes looked like and what they sacrificed in this war. I salute you, Sean Ellis, writer, director, and cinematographer, for the searing vision you presented in this, a motion picture I will never forget. Shooting it in Prague using Czech actors and crew as much as possible injected extra adrenalin into the proceedings.

One last thing: As the story of Anthropoid unfolded, I thought of Audrey describing how in the darkest times gallows humor got her family through. She remembered bombs falling, tanks droning past, and the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire—as she, her mother, aunt, and grandfather cracked jokes and giggled in the cellar of their besieged home. That spirit triumphed over Adolf Hitler and all his hate, and it remained within Audrey as she made the transition from actress to beacon for peace.

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

As the assassination attempt unfolds, and immediately goes wrong, Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe) stands to shoot a patriot blocking the road ahead. At left, Jan Kubis attempts to toss a bomb at the car. Actor Jamie Dornan had portrayed Christian Grey in three films based on the erotic “50 Shades” novels. Let’s not hold that against him because in Anthropoid, he’s quite good.

Friends

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

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

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

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.