Audrey Hepburn Velp

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.