Audrey Hepburn World War II 2

“Good Luck, Dear Rose”

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.

That first lunch in June 2017 with Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, Rosemarie Kamphuisen, and me. After Ben’s mother was killed in an Allied fighter attack late in 1944, it was hospital volunteer Audrey Hepburn who comforted him.

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.

With many in my Dutch family in September 2019. From left, Patrick Jansen, whose father wrote the most important diary of the war from the perspective of Velp, Mary Matzen, Gety Hengeveld, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, me, Johan Vermeulen, whose home was destroyed by the Germans in the battle of Arnhem, Rosemarie Kamphuisen, Josje Mantel, and Dick Mantel, whose job as a teenager was to make the lives of the occupying Nazis as miserable as possible. Dick lived across the street from the van Heemstras on Rozendaalselaan and Baron van Heemstra and Audrey would sneak over to listen to Radio Oranje on the Mantel’s secret radio set.

Lives of Adventure

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Left to right, Yvonne Waller, Mel Ferrer, Sandra Waller, Ian Quarles van Ufford, Miesje, and Audrey in Burgenstock, 1964.

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.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Ian Quarles van Ufford, just back from Berlin where he was forced to work as a slave laborer in a munitions factory until liberated by the Russians during the climactic battle of World War II in Europe. He walked from Berlin back to his home, Villa Beukenhof, in Velp.

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.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
Audrey’s half-brother Ian Quarles van Ufford and his bride Yvonne Scholtens, November 1951.

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 [1965] 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.

Warrior: Audrey Hepburn by Robert Matzen
According to Yvonne: “Christmas 1967 Villars sur Ollon:  left to right: Oma, Hubertine Scholtens, my mother’s mother who survived a Japanese war camp in Indonesia , me, Granny – Ella van Heemstra, my mother Yvonne Quarles van Ufford, then sitting down is my sister Sandra and in the sleigh is my brother Andrew.”

In the Time of the Germ

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.

The Rathbones in 1938. Great actor and fine gentleman, but I had to pass.

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.

Dorothy Parker and second husband Alan Campbell in Hollywood in 1936. After due consideration, I refused to become a statistic.

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.

Audrey greets Pakistani peacekeepers, warrior to warrior, at Mogadishu Airport, Somalia in September 1992. She sensed this mission would kill her, but undertook it anyway.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Missing Ingredient

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenI sit here and write this on two notable anniversaries. On this date, Audrey would have turned 90 years old. And on this date 74 years ago, the Netherlands was declared free of German occupation.*

Sister Celluloid, hostess of the Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, suggested I write on the subject of “Spending time ‘with’ Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars,” and that suits me fine because I’ve had an interesting group in my head for the past 13 years. First came Errol Flynn, then Olivia de Havilland, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and James Stewart before I found myself with Audrey Hepburn.

You might or might not be surprised at the real Errol Flynn, who was the product of a dominating mother and passive, emotionally absent father. The result was a bitter son who didn’t like himself and used whatever means to alter reality, first booze and then drugs—anything so he didn’t have to deal with his own tortured mind. Here he was, tall, impossibly handsome, athletic, and portraying one hero after another in the movies, while offscreen he disdained mirrors and spent his life restless and unhappy, lashing out at anyone in close proximity and committing suicide by substance abuse at age 50.

I bring up Flynn because he and Audrey shared the experience of a dominant mother and absent father, but while Errol proved to be a toxic presence through the course of research and writing Errol Flynn Slept Here (with Michael Mazzone) and Errol & Olivia, Audrey was anything but.

I think authors share a common experience in that the people they’re writing about become family, whether it’s a beloved brother or sister or (in Flynn’s case) a creepy uncle. With Audrey, I went through the usual awkward get-acquainted stage and then suddenly found myself living with a sweet, upbeat daily presence. She had gone through her life like we all do, experiencing its triumphs and tragedies, but in Audrey’s case, there was also the war.

Errol Flynn and Audrey Hepburn lived through the same World War II. Errol couldn’t serve because of physical imperfections that designated him 4F, an experience that kept him in Hollywood where his self-loathing twisted into even tighter knots. A continent away, Audrey lived through the worst the Nazis could throw at a conquered people and emerged with sweetness intact. I laugh as I write that sentence because how could this possibly be? She went through all the rules and restrictions of the Nazi regime. She saw her favorite uncle wrenched away from the family and imprisoned, then learned he had been executed. She witnessed the suffering of the Jews firsthand, with friends and acquaintances simply “disappearing,” never to be seen again. She saw the battle of Arnhem up close and watched the destruction of her world, and then lived through a tortured existence on the front lines of battle for the next eight months. She endured famine that almost killed her. Then came the biggest trial of all: She entered adulthood with the knowledge both parents had been pro-Nazi, including that most dominant person in her life, the omnipresent one who was supposed to be teaching lessons of right and wrong. Yes, it was true, in a post-war world determined to rub out any memory of the Nazis, Audrey had to guard the secret that her mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra, had been an admirer of Hitler and supporter of the occupying regime. Audrey bore that cross through her career as an entertainer and kept dragging it into retirement and then on grueling trips as a UNICEF ambassador. And still she remained a sweet soul.

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

When Luca provided access to Audrey’s personal photo collection, I was thrilled to find this shot taken in 1935 showing Audrey with Aunt Meisje and Uncle Otto on the back steps of Villa Roestenburg, the van Heemstra home in the Dutch village of Oosterbeek.

I guess the question becomes, how. How did Flynn turn out one way and Hepburn the other? How did I end up living in The Old Dark House with one and a garden with the other? And I think the answer is that Audrey had an ingredient that Errol didn’t. Audrey had Tante Meisje, her Aunt Wilhelmina as a constant presence through the war. From the time Audrey returned to the Netherlands at age 10 to the end of the war when she turned 16, her “wonder years,” Meisje was her de facto mother, providing cuddles, positive reinforcement, and lessons to last an adult lifetime. Ella wore the pants of the family in the absence of Audrey’s deadbeat father, and Meisje added love and a constant upbeat attitude even in the most dire conditions, including the murder of her husband Otto.

I learned all of this from inside the family, from Audrey’s son Luca Dotti. Pardon my clichés but the apples didn’t fall from the tree; Luca is a chip off the ol’ block. In working with him on the book, I felt the familiar energy of his mother—the great sensitivity and compassion, the honesty, humility, and unshakable belief in positive outcomes.

It’s always interesting to get inside the heads of famous people because of the surprises that await. Then you’re either, like, oh, or, Ohhh! Errol was the former, and Audrey was definitely the latter. Thank you, Audrey, for welcoming me into the midst your wonderful family, and Happy 90th Birthday.

____________

*Liberation in the Netherlands is celebrated on May 4 and 5; Audrey’s village of Velp was liberated on April 16, 1945.

 

Tangled Web—Conclusion

In the last installment we read the inspiring British newspaper story printed in January 1947 about young ballerina Audrey Hepburn returning an RAF man’s signet ring that had been handed off in 1943 after that airman had been shot down near Arnhem. Since it was printed just after the war, this article would seem to qualify as a “primary source” about wartime Audrey, and authors love primary sources. But as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in 1943, and there was no peaceful mechanism for a fugitive Allied aviator to be handed over to the Germans unless the van Heemstras were in league with those Germans.

The article itself is full of clues as to its source:

  • The 1947 reporter has been supplied with information by someone that Baron van Heemstra had an estate when he didn’t have one. No one in the press yet knew background about Audrey Hepburn because she wasn’t yet a celebrity.
  • Whoever supplied the information used the term “peasant” twice. It’s the kind of word an aristocrat would use.
  • The article states that the airman was treated beautifully by the van Heemstras in their estate (that didn’t exist, except in the mind of a certain aristocrat).
  • At the time the article was written, Audrey and her mother the baroness had the goal of coming to England “for good” within a year.

Regarding the last point, what was stopping them? Well, only the fact that the Dutch police were investigating Ella for pro-German activities during the war, an investigation that made it impossible for England to accept her without exoneration. This police case dragged on through 1948 and wasn’t completed until February 1949. In the meantime, Ella was “cooking the books,” destroying evidence, altering dates in her timeline, and creating good press about what she had done in the war—like taking in British fliers on the run.

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

Ella van Heemstra and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston around the end of the war.

Because of the above clues, and Ella’s needs at the time, I believe she spoke to the reporter and created the fiction of the well-to-do, loyal-to-Oranje van Heemstras on their estate, complete with peasants. Otherwise, where would the reporter have gotten such details? In fact, unless airman Max Court had come down squarely atop Villa Beukenhof, there’s no way he was under the van Heemstra roof for a moment in 1943. And if he had landed in the middle of Velp, the Germans would have captured him instantly, and somebody in Velp would have noted the occasion of a flier dropping into the middle of town in a diary. I found no such entry in any wartime diary.

But there was a gold ring, and Dutch girl Audrey did turn it over to Max Court of Tonbridge, so he did interact at some point with someone close to Audrey or Audrey herself.

I’m going to give you two possible scenarios that would fit within the facts I know after three years of research.

Scenario 1:

Court was one of the many downed fliers hiding at the northern edge of Velp or in the Veluwe just beyond. It was dangerous territory because of the close proximity of the Luftwaffe air base at Deelen with its top-secret Diogenes command bunker. Despite the danger, the Resistance counted on Audrey to run messages and food to these men because of her age—at 14 she could be “dressed down” to appear younger and therefore not a threat. She also had the stamina of a dancer on her side and fluency in English. During what would have been a brief encounter with Court measured in seconds or minutes rather than days, he thought to pass her the ring, perhaps because she suggested it, and also provided his name and address. And soon, yes, he was captured. This may even be the encounter where she handed flowers to the patrolling enemy and was allowed to pass. Who knows?

Scenario 2:

Another even more likely possibility is that the story involves not the van Heemstra estate, but that of the van Heemstra kin, the van Pallandts, at Kasteel Rozendaal. The van Pallandts did indeed have a grand estate, complete with peasants, located just up the road from the van Heemstras—an estate that saw its share of World War II. And Audrey and Ella may have been players in the drama of an airman stumbling to Rozendaal (located in quite “pleasant” countryside) because both mother and daughter spoke fluent English. The ring may well have been in safekeeping at the castle behind 15-foot-thick walls until war’s end. Under this scenario, Baron van Pallandt had but to ring up the authorities and report an airman on his property and they would have rounded the miscreant up, no problem, with no harm to the titled landholders at the castle. As the master of Rozendaal, which included his property and the village next to it, the van Pallandts sought to remain neutral, or at least appear so.

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

Kasteel Rozendaal, estate of the van Pallandts just north of the van Heemstra home in Velp.

Depending on which scenario is true, all the details fed to the reporter in 1947 sound like they came from Ella—playing up her part in the drama, which would come around to benefit her with the Dutch police as they conducted their investigation about whether Ella van Heemstra was a loyalist or a Nazi collaborator.

There’s a notable lack of quotation from Max Court himself other than to report that Audrey was beautiful. So I’m convinced Ella provided the story, which no local reporter from Kent would be able to fact-check with an Arnhem that had been devastated in the “Bridge Too Far” battle and was just beginning to stir back to life at the time the article was written.

The KentLive website piece of April 19 suggests that Max Court was likely the Tommy described in Dutch Girl as hidden in the van Heemstra cellar after the battle of Arnhem. I feel strongly he was not due to the time in the war of the Court story (1943) and location of Villa Beukenhof. As noted, an RAF man could not have walked through German-occupied Velp without being discovered. Maybe the Resistance found Court, at which point he would have been placed in a safe house, but definitely not the van Heemstra house—Ella had been labeled by the Resistance as “Gestapo” in 1942! One year later, after her conversion away from the Nazi cause, she was beginning to earn the trust of the Resistance but still would not have been handed a flier for safekeeping. On the other hand, after the failed Allied invasion at Arnhem and defeat of British Airborne, there were dozens of “Tommies” in the vicinity of Velp in need of shelter. Then the desperate Resistance would have placed one of these men, or perhaps even two (Audrey’s son Luca Dotti wasn’t sure), in the van Heemstra cellar until they could be smuggled out. So in September 1944 there was motive and opportunity for an Allied soldier to be placed in the care of the van Heemstras. But there’s no plausible way for Max Court in 1943 to end up inside the van Heemstra house after coming down in the countryside. He could easily, however, made it to secluded Kasteel Rozendaal in the countryside north of Velp.

All of which demonstrates the importance of on-the-ground research in Arnhem and Velp; without it, I wouldn’t have known the geographical challenges of the story or the close relationship of the van Pallandts and van Heemstras. I wouldn’t have known about Ella’s vested interest in spreading heroic stories about herself because she was at that moment being investigated by Dutch authorities—this I learned in the secret police files kept at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague.

The story of Max Court’s signet ring also shows how even seemingly solid primary sources can be anything but and without some cross-reference, they need to be discarded in the name of historical accuracy.

Truly, my hat’s off to Ella for a great yarn, and for giving me material for not one but two columns. You, Baroness, remain full of surprises more than 30 years after your passing.