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

Instincts

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenThe other evening I felt hungry for a movie. I didn’t know what—whether it should be something new or an old favorite—but I was beckoned to find something and settled on the recent biopic Colette starring Keira Knightley. The works of French writer Colette had always run on a parallel track to my life and so I knew only two things about her: She had written Gigi, and she had “discovered” Audrey Hepburn via chance encounter at a Monte Carlo hotel—which kept popping into my mind as I watched Colette.

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

A publicity photo of the “discovery” with France’s greatest woman writer.

Viewing the motion picture was a revelation. The depiction of Colette the writer, her imagination igniting like the burner on a stove when confronted with a blank sheet of paper, touched me because I understand the siren’s call of such barren landscape begging to be populated with words.

The depiction of Colette the woman, proven to be accurate from biographical information I’ve been reading since, showed a malleable girl who through fortune and talent transformed into a fierce sexual animal, a feminist with lovers of both genders and three husbands over her lifetime, and a devotee of nature. She was also just what’s you’d expect of a woman with one name—Colette was an egotist.

At the turn of the 20th century, the young Colette’s husband ran a writing factory and when times were tough forced his wife to write a novel, Claudine at School, that he then claimed as his own. Sequels soon made Claudine the most famous literary character in France, but Colette the ghostwriter wanted credit for her own work. This conflict led Colette to challenge her nation to accept women as more than decoration. For the remainder of her life through all forms of writing, from novels to reviews and advice columns, she would struggle to understand her place, any woman’s place, in the world. Colette would not be at peace until the moment of her passing at which time polite French society, which had refused to accept her in life, provided a state funeral in death, along with acknowledgment as France’s greatest woman writer.

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

Colette the gender-bender in her 30s.

Had I known all this—had I stopped to investigate Colette amidst the frenzy of putting Dutch Girl to bed—I would have paused for some analysis of the chance encounter on the beach of Monte Carlo.

At 77, wheelchair-bound from arthritis and years of weight gain brought on by inertia, the dowager authoress spotted the dancer-turned-actress during location production of the minor British film comedy, We Go to Monte Carlo, released in the U.S. as Monte Carlo Baby.

To back up a step, Colette wrote Gigi during the Nazi occupation of Paris as a risqué novella about the grooming of a young girl to be a courtesan—a woman who pleases men sexually. Colette agreed to a tamed-down version for Broadway and that led to a frenzy of speculation about who would play the young Gigi on stage. With no actress cast, Colette became a “compulsive Gigi spotter” across France and often shouted, There! She’s the one! She’s my Gigi! So it wasn’t as if Audrey was the first and only Gigi. Colette was seeing Gigis at all hours, awake and asleep.

To back up another step, Claudine at School is an autobiographical look at Gabrielle Colette’s girlhood in the French countryside. The novel begins with our heroine a tomboy of 15 who just a few pages in is captivated by and seductive with one of her female teachers. Instantly, Claudine coaxes her unsuspecting father to engage the teacher for private tutoring. As Claudine ingratiates herself to the teacher, she’s told, “You’re a little mad, Claudine. I’m beginning to believe it. I’ve been told so often.” Claudine replies, “Yes, I’m quite aware that other people say so, but who cares?”

Colette lived her life this way and never held back in anything she did. Now, all these decades later, here came Audrey with her square shoulders and powerful, seductive dancer’s walk, which actress Keira Knightley recreated in Colette’s confident stride in the biopic. Who knows if Audrey’s boyish figure and short-cropped hair reminded Colette of Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, a cross-dressing lesbian with whom Colette had carried on a scandalous affair over several years in her youth.

To be clear, there was nothing untoward between Audrey and Colette. Quite the contrary, Colette was well past hijinx by this time, and Audrey and all those in her orbit confirmed the Dutch girl’s emotional innocence despite having recently endured a war with its thousand dark moments. It just strikes me as funny how I, and a legion of other Audrey documentarians, missed the implications of the colorful Colette and her wild life as background for the Colette-meets-Audrey scenario.

The other thing I find amusing about the Monte Carlo discovery of Audrey Hepburn by Colette is the mythology propagated by Alexander Walker and others that Audrey “didn’t know anything about acting” and had “never said a word on a stage before.” True enough, she hadn’t played Desdemona at The Old Vic, but Audrey’s experience did include live ballet performances in Arnhem’s always packed theater during the war, followed by two-plus years on stage as a dancer and performer before live audiences in well-attended West End revues. These included an occasional line or two of dialogue. She had also played small parts in big films and big parts in small films and through osmosis had learned more than perhaps even she realized. But as discussed in Dutch Girl, the plucking of nobody Hepburn off the beach in Monte Carlo served as terrific raw material for Richard Maney, “Broadway’s most celebrated press agent,” then working on behalf of Gigi. Brother, did he capitalize.

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

A lobby card for the U.S. release of Monte Carlo Baby, which was rushed to theaters after Audrey had become a Broadway star and moved on to Paramount. In it, she portrays a movie star, even though she tells Colette as she’s making the picture that she “can’t act.” Oscar and Tony awards would soon prove otherwise.

Last word on the Monaco location shoot goes to character actor Marcel Galio, another player in We Go to Monte Carlo. It was to Galio that Audrey turned for advice when suddenly offered a starring role on Broadway that she felt ill-equipped to accept. In fact, when Madame Colette first floated the idea, Audrey told her, “I wouldn’t be able to because I can’t act!” But Colette, ever bold and unconventional, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She challenged Audrey to confront life fearlessly, to seize this opportunity, to go for it. To do anything else was nonsense.

Marcel Galio offered sanguine advice to the panicked novice. “Follow your instincts,” he told her. “If it feels right, it will be right.” It was the best counsel she ever received, these 11 words becoming her North Star. She would mention to interviewers over the next 40 years how she always trusted her instincts and it got her through many a difficult decision, not to mention guiding her through a successful film career on her way to an icon’s immortality.

Seeing Red

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

At the intersection of passion, ambition, and love lay the red shoes. I arrived late to an appreciation of the Pressburger/Powell collaboration The Red Shoes, released in England in 1948 by the Rank Organisation. Give me The Sea Hawk and pirates, or Excalibur and King Arthur, I used to grumble. Don’t give me ballet!

But then in the late 1990s I did get exposed to ballet when I worked on a video tribute to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s retiring artistic director Patricia Wilde, who had been a George Balanchine ballerina. I learned then how cool ballet was, and how much discipline it took to make a dancer. Seeing vintage footage of Patricia Wilde as she danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the New York City Ballet left me slack-jawed. And here I was interviewing this great woman on camera about that career.*

Flash forward 20 years. I trespassed in the ballet world again recently as I sat writing Dutch Girl and learning about Audrey Hepburn’s aspirations for a career in dance—sat not only here stateside but also in the very theater where she once performed, the Stadsschouwburg in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She studied for four years in Arnhem with a Dutch ballet mistress named Winja Marova and followed that with a stint in Amsterdam under Sonja Gaskell and then in London under Marie Rambert. All three are important names in European ballet—Gaskell is very well remembered and Rambert is a bona fide legend.

Ask Audrey at any point in her life what she aspired to be and she would say “a dancer.” She never answered “an actress.” Meryl Streep—there is an actress, Audrey would tell you. But even though Audrey had played Gigi on Broadway and then won a Tony Award for Ondine the next year, she claimed she faked her way through. She did what an instinct for survival told her to do and lived to tell the tale.

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

Tortured Lermontov punches a mirror.

I have to find out what Audrey thought about The Red Shoes, which is set in post-war London at a time when she studied under Rambert and began a brief but intense career as a chorus girl after coming to grips with the fact that her dreams of ballet would never become reality. The Red Shoes tells the story of the rise of ballerina Victoria Page as molded by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. He asks her at a critical point, “What do you want from life?” She answers at once, breathlessly, “To dance!” It was an Audrey moment.

I always find The Red Shoes, now digitally restored, an astonishing experience on many levels. It presents the world of professional ballet as muscular and visceral, one minute beautiful, the next nightmarish, and always obsessive; it saturates your eyes with Technicolor designed by director of photography Jack Cardiff; it lays bare the souls of a trio of characters who will break your heart for their spectacular individual talents and crippling human limitations.

I love Lermontov, played by Austrian-born Anton Walbrook. Lermontov never bends, never breaks. It’s his company and you will do it his way or get out! He rules ruthlessly, savagely, relentlessly. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of his art. If he retires to his apartment off-hours and talks sweetly to his cat, we don’t see it. He seems to live at the theatre and wields power at all hours. Once in a while he might seem to relent, but only as another way to skin a cat—as a different means to an end. [Note to readers: This is as close to me as it gets, people. I live for my whatever passes for my art, just like Lermontov.]

Then there’s Vicki Page, played by real-life-ballerina-turned-actress Moira Shearer. Vicki has it all under Lermontov, all she has said she ever wanted, ever dreamed of, and then loses her way by falling in love with composer Julian Craster. You just want to shake her by the shoulders and scream, “Snap out of it! He isn’t worth it!” But no matter how many times you watch The Red Shoes, she never listens.

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

The confrontation: Craster, played by Marius Goring, confronts Lermontov with his love for Vicki.

What a fascinating woman Moira Shearer was. She had been a Sadler’s Wells ballerina and a great rising star—until The Red Shoes. After that she claimed the traditional ballet world considered her a sellout for lowering herself to act, and her career never recovered. She continued to dance for a while and then tried acting full time, but neither worked out. Later on she would lecture and write and finally she died in 2006 at age 80. Boy, I wish I had known this woman.

One more link between Audrey and The Red Shoes: Fourth billed is Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Robert Helpmann of Australia. On May 9, 1940, Audrey sat in the city theatre of Arnhem and watched the Sadler’s Wells touring company featuring Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn dance. It was a turning point in the life of an 11 year old, and she would tell the story of stepping onto the stage with these forces of British ballet to deliver flowers to ballet mistress Ninette de Valois.

Please forgive me for stumbling blindly through the first decades of life avoiding The Red Shoes. I’ve learned the error of my ways. Ballet rocks. And, for me at least, never does it rock harder than in The Red Shoes.

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*Thinking about the Patricia Wilde video caused me to dig it out and upload it to Youtube. It was my first job as a producer (co-producer, actually) and one of my first creative experiences in the edit suite working with post-production ace Kathy Kruger. This video hasn’t seen the light of day for 21 years, but it’s part of the historical record of American ballet and I believe for that reason it should be preserved.