Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II

The Full Wartime Tour

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert MatzenImagine you are five years old and your parents split up. I come from one of those happy homes, and through my childhood I’d walk in the door after school and find my mom sitting on my dad’s lap and they’d just be, like, in love. I saw it so often from such an early age that I never found it gross. It’s just the way it was. But if you’re five and your parents go the other direction and there’s screaming and slamming followed by the silence of separation, that’s got to be murder.

That was Audrey Hepburn’s reality; it’s the dominant reason she wore a deer-in-the-headlights look for much of her private life, because she never got over that breakup and her father’s abandonment of their home.

But then, kids are resilient, you hear, and they bounce back. Well, yeah, except what if your gadfly mother immediately after the breakup decides to send you off to boarding school in another country for months on end over a course of years under the pretext of “Oh, it’ll do her good.”

Man, now the damage is starting to accumulate. Luckily, the important half of Audrey’s family was Dutch, and the Dutch are tough, practical, down-to-earth, stable—and did I mention tough? The Dutch can take a punch and then show you the other jawline and invite you to hit that too. And the Dutch side of the family was titled, chock full of barons and baronesses going back upwards of a century and a half, meaning they were stoic on top of everything else. Audrey’s veins coursed with all this good stuff to combat the ick of divorce and exile.

Her son Luca tells me she adored her time in England and loved the people she lived with there. Remember, Audrey began her schooling in England, not in Belgium where she was born or in Holland where she sometimes stayed. She learned to read and write in English. It was in England where she first became enchanted with ballet. Mum came to visit and would stay a couple of weeks at a time; on occasion she would spirit Audrey and her half-brothers—also exiled but to The Hague and not England—off to London or Rome or some other exotic place. But the bulk of Audrey’s time was spent in the often-gloomy country village of Elham.

At long last after more than four years, Mum called the little girl home to Arnhem in eastern Holland, not far from the German border. Finally, Audrey at age 10 would enjoy some stability in the bosom of her family.

Whoa, not so fast. Mum stuck the little English misfit in year four of Dutch grade school, where she took a psychological beating, unable to understand a word being said around her and ridiculed for not only pitiful attempts at Dutch but also painful shyness. And a few months after that, the Germans invaded, beginning just about exactly five years of an ever-tightening grip until the Netherlands was wrung dry of resources, food, entertainment, electricity, running water, and hope.

Audrey got the full wartime tour, soup to nuts. She witnessed executions. She saw body parts in the street after bombs tore up her neighborhood. She stemmed the bleeding of wounded soldiers and civilians until she too was covered in blood. She had guns pointed at her by Germans and Brits alike, and stood in the direct path of machine guns as they rattled away. Your Audrey Hepburn endured all that.

In essence, you could say that Audrey Hepburn was robbed of her childhood. But the cool thing about her is, she didn’t let that happen. She found ways to cope with World War II—by communing with nature, reading books, sketching scenes, growing close to her grandfather and aunt, and above all, dancing, surmounting painful shyness to become the most famous ballerina in a city of considerable size.

I guess after you read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you might have perspective on the rough road one kid had. Then the next time someone asks you how your childhood was, maybe you’ll answer, “Well, at least they weren’t shooting at me.”

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.

Duckling and Swan

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

Spoiler alert: Except for a mention in passing, I didn’t touch the subject of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. The book focuses squarely on the war and defers on topics like the production of her films to existing biographies on the Hollywood years.

I first saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s long ago and wasn’t impressed. The other night it played on TCM/US and I watched it again, this time with knowledge gained after two years in close quarters with Audrey and an understanding of all she had seen and done during the war.

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

The one sheet can fetch $15K, although usually it auctions around 5.

I remembered only two scenes from past viewings: That magnificent opening series of shots as the cab glides down deserted Fifth Avenue and deposits Holly Golightly in front of Tiffany’s for her impromptu opening-credits breakfast, and the scene near the end when she abandons Cat in the rain. I sort-of recalled being annoyed at Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of a Japanese landlord without remembering any of his scenes in particular, and I very vaguely recalled liking George Peppard as boyfriend Paul as much as I always like Peppard, which is to say, not at all.

This time around I enjoyed Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and what struck me above all was Audrey’s luminescence cast against type as a gentleman’s paid companion—allusions to which are so vague it had to be explained to me, and only then did I start to notice the references, as when Holly peered in the window and saw Paul’s older lady-friend drop cash on his nightstand; a little later she told Paul that she understood his situation. Well, how did she understand? Because she was used to being paid to be various men’s girlfriend, content that strayed into the realm of pay-for-play and scraped against the waning days of Production Code censorship.

I now get why a Tiffany’s one-sheet movie poster sells for a consistent five grand and why this is Audrey’s iconic role. She’s mesmerizing—chic, poised, articulate, mysterious, always dressed to the nines but wearing the clothes not as clothes but as skin like she was born in it and born to do it. She had played the Pygmalion-ugly-duckling-turned-fashion plate twice already, in Sabrina and Funny Face, and by now was using hats, sunglasses, and cigarette holders in her performance like Astaire used lamps or coat racks as dance partners. Everything she did on film became suddenly cool. Even the highlights in Audrey’s swept-back hair hypnotized me.

I did a little investigating afterward. Truman Capote wrote the story on which the film was loosely based. It first appeared in Esquire and the resulting sensation had Hollywood calling. Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe as Holly, and what a different film that would have been because there would be no doubt how Holly made money and why men were hanging around. Capote vocally and loudly hated Audrey in the role because she spun it in directions he never intended. There was speculation about who had served as the role model for Capote’s main character when in likelihood it was bits and pieces of several prominent women he knew, none of whom were anything like one-of-a-kind Dutch aristocrat Resistance fighter war veteran ballerina doctor’s aide Audrey Hepburn, she of multinational roots and vaguely European accent and sensibilities when all the models for Holly had been 100-percent well-bred New York City American.

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

Even when motionless for a mundane hair and makeup test, yikes.

It occurred to me how unconventional was this story for 1961, never adhering to the formula of the endless stream of factory-produced romantic comedies that had come before. Literally the studios would each have a big pile of scripts and produce a story, and then the script would sink back to the bottom of the pile and get pulled out and made again every so many years; this had gone on for decades, but this strange story by the strange little author was different. Offbeat, infantile in places, adult in places, and then out of left field Holly’s husband from Texas appears and explains that Holly was once a barefoot hayseed and you’re like, suuuuuure she was. I can see Audrey Hepburn as that. Because it was so different, I don’t mind George Peppard as the love interest; he was then new and different too and unlike the string of conventional golden era leading men cast against the Dutch baroness-by-birth. Peck had been older, as had Holden, Bogart, Ferrer, and Cooper. But here came young pretty-boy Peppard who passed the side-by-side test with Audrey even if he was cold and distant—oh, and a total sonofabitch of whom nothing good was ever said. When Audrey Hepburn doesn’t like you, and word had it she didn’t like Peppard, then you’ve got issues.

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

Holly observes Paul with his sugar-mommy, played by Patricia Neal.

Henry Mancini’s Moon River is a terrific melody. In the first couple minutes at Tiffany’s window it grabs you and never lets go to the extent I kept waiting for it to play in some variation as underscoring to reinforce Holly Golightly’s mood of the moment. Having Audrey sit on her brownstone’s fire escape strumming a guitar and singing Moon River makes no sense at all in terms of the story; she could as easily have hummed it brushing her teeth and the effect would have been the same, but no, she sang it. What’s telling is that Audrey Hepburn had been around music her whole life, not as a singer but as a dancer. Her comfortableness with music shows in the way she sings the song. The two drifters in the lyrics are Holly and Paul, both bought and paid for and making their way in the concrete jungle, but, um, the huckleberry friend? I read it’s a reference to Huck Finn of Mark Twain fame and I guess that makes huckleberry about wide-eyed adventurers? I don’t like it in the song. The word huckleberry doesn’t roll off an aristocrat’s tongue, and at least for me it broke the illusion of this woman sitting there singing this song. Even if the situation of Audrey Hepburn on a fire escape with a guitar is ridiculous, which it is, it all works until she sings the word huckleberry and then it took me a while to get back into the story.

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

At a later viewing she quipped that couldn’t imagine abandoning a cat as Holly did. Although the reunion was pretty spectacular.

Audrey was at this time 32. She had been out of the war for 16 years, and I want you to think about what you were doing at the beginning of 2003 and that’s how close to Hitler’s oppression Audrey Hepburn was as she portrayed Holly Golightly. Even past the turn of 1960 she was dodging questions about the war as she would always dodge them. She could bob and weave like a prizefighter and steer clear of any interviewer’s probing that she didn’t like, and there were many questions about the war she wouldn’t or—she felt—couldn’t address. Acting on location in New York City in that story wearing those clothes is as far away from war-torn Velp as she would ever find herself, and yet the war cast a shadow in which she would forever walk. Throughout her career she appreciated every perfectly tailored dress on the wardrobe rack because she had survived to April 1945 in clothes that were threadbare and would always remember after liberation walking into a room that was piled high with clothes that had been donated by the people in America “who must be rich,” she thought.

Quibbles aside, knowing what Audrey had endured earlier as a disease-ridden duckling in a steady rain of bombs made two hours with 1961’s beautiful swan in a steady rain of, well, rain, a magical experience.

 

Audrey in 2020!

This morning, Audrey Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti announced in Variety a new dramatic television series about his mother’s life that will begin shooting in 2020. The Rome-based production company, Wildside, has a wealth of experience, including success with the series The Young Pope and My Brilliant Friend, which has recently been renewed. Wildside is in growth mode, which can only benefit a project about Audrey.

A TV series that digs into what Luca calls Audrey’s “formative years” could rip your guts out without ever straying into embellishment. She lived through a war, and those big brown doe-eyes saw it up close. She provided thousands of words about her wartime experiences to interviewers, and the amazing thing is, she kept most of what she experienced secret, “under lock and key in her heart,” as Luca put it. As she was raising him, he always sensed there was a lot she wasn’t revealing, and he was right.

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

Audrey at about the time she started working for the Dutch Resistance.

I have to believe an unknown talent is about to explode onto the scene playing Audrey. Casting is still a ways off, but Audrey’s story really started when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands just after she had turned 11. This fact will call for the casting of a gifted young actor who could conceivably grow through the seasons of the series. Or do you cast a different actress each season, as in Dr. Who?

The dramatic demands will be harsh. At 11 Audrey took up ballet and developed iron-willed discipline; at 12 she danced in public for the first time; at 13 she lost her first family member to the war; at 14 she risked her life to work on behalf of the Dutch Resistance; at 15 she was stepping over body parts in the streets and nearly dying of disease. And we haven’t even gotten to the secrets yet.

Casting of Audrey’s mother will likely draw interest from A-list actresses because it’s a plum assignment for many reasons. Ella van Heemstra was many things—socialite, partyer, provocateur, and rebel, not to mention a vibrant woman with a wicked sense of humor who inspired a lifetime of love and loathing in her daughter. It won’t be an easy relationship to capture in screenplay form or render on film.

Luca Dotti himself was one of two authors of the draft treatment that serves as a starting point for the as-yet unnamed TV series. In 2016 and 2017 he was involved in development of an exhibit at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek called “Ella and Audrey” about the years of Audrey Hepburn and her mother in Arnhem and vicinity under Nazi occupation. He and I have talked about his deep desire to do his mother’s story justice, so I feel the conceptualization is in good hands.

I’m as anxious as anybody to see the plan evolve and learn the scope of the production, including shooting locations. Today’s announcement is just the beginning of what is sure to be an interesting 18 months leading up to when cameras roll.

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

Audrey and Ella in 1953.

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.