Dutch Girl Audrey Hepburn

Schooled by a Sixth Grader


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

Dutch Girl trade paperback edition, due out May 12, 2020.

Writing the kinds of books I write depends on research—talking to eyewitnesses, digging through archives, combing through newspapers, walking the earth where action happened. I’ve explored castle dungeons, dodged swooping bats inside a German bunker, and flown in warbirds from one to four engines. All the research has to be laid out as if on a big table and then corroborated so nothing is left to chance. OK, so-and-so said this happened then, and, oh, OK, this newspaper verifies, yeah, that happened then. To me the worst outcome is to put bad information out there that creates a false foundation for future historians.

Research is a science that I respect. And I’m a Virgo, which makes me a perfectionist and hard on everybody, especially myself. So when I learn I’ve made an error in my research, it stings, and I made a whopper in Dutch Girl that was spotted and corrected very soon after pub date in April 2019. I indicated in the first printing of the book that Anne Frank and her sister Margot died in Auschwitz after the family’s capture in their Amsterdam hiding place. Some family members did die in Auschwitz, but the sisters did not. In fact, they were at first sent to Auschwitz but then went on to another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, where they died shortly before the end of World War II. The author wrote they died in Auschwitz, it slipped past the fact checkers, the ink dried, and out it went.

Early on a Dutch Girl reader contacted GoodKnight Books, and I learned of the mistake. Of course I was red-faced with embarrassment. I had done quite a lot of research on Anne and her diary and so I knew better—the correct information was floating around in my brain. But it’s the supposedly simple “facts” that don’t get laid out on the table, scrutinized, and verified.

The correction was made for subsequent editions of the book, and flash forward to this past week, when I was informed through the publisher that a letter had come in from sixth grader Abigail Jacob of Smyrna, Georgia. Abigail wanted to inform the publisher about an error in Dutch Girl, which she corroborated by double-checking The Diary of Anne Frank, which she obviously had also read. I hadn’t spread out my facts about the demise of Anne and Margot Frank on that research table, because I was in too big a hurry and assumed I knew what I was doing. But in Smyrna, Abigail was looking at Dutch Girl on her own research table, and completed the research step I had missed.

What if Abigail didn’t have an eagle-eye? What if she had written a book report on Dutch Girl, say on the connections between Anne Frank and Audrey Hepburn, and repeated my error in her report, only to have her teacher catch it? It’s bad, bad medicine to let mistakes get out there in the cosmos, only to have them caught by the next generation of readers and researchers, or worse, repeated.

I’m proud of Abigail Jacob for so many reasons. For reading Anne Frank’s diary. For reading Dutch Girl. For caring enough about both books, and about history as a science, that she felt compelled to track down the publisher’s address and send a letter.

Lesson learned, Abigail. Every single fact needs to be checked, even when—especially when—you think, yeah, yeah, I got this.

Abigail-letter

… Forever

I caught part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade here in the U.S. on television this morning. Featured were the usual assortment of giant aerial balloons to enchant the kiddies—the Grinch, Spider-Man, Pikachu—all the usual suspects. But then my friend Eric tipped me off to a past Thanksgiving parade that featured a disturbing sight for any child.

pinocchio 1937

No, I’m not talking about the horrifying Pinocchio that terrorized New York beginning in 1937. If you lie, Junior, your fate will be an excruciating, inflamed erection on your face!!

As scary as that no doubt was, I’m speaking of the guy below, who was promoting Hammer’s then-new Frankenstein monster as portrayed by Christopher Lee in The Curse of Frankenstein. The new and improved version of Frankie appeared in 1957, a dramatic reboot by the British Hammer Studios of Universal’s creaking old black-and-white series that had begun in 1931.

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE

THANKSGIVINGFRANKIE2

Imagine you’re an 8-year-old minding your own business in front of Macy’s flagship Manhattan store at the holidays 1957 and this guy comes floating into view.

The tag line of the picture was, The Curse of Frankenstein…will haunt you forever! I think maybe I just explained a generation of vivisectionists who patrolled the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 70s.

Happy Holidays.

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.

The Dark Horizon

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

Look out! The Germans—I mean, the Spanish—are about to invade, warns Errol Flynn as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk. A few months after this photo was taken, the battle of Britain commenced.

Errol Flynn and his home studio of Warner Bros. made a picture in 1940 that’s highly regarded as one of his best—well, by many devotees of classic cinema if not by me. I’ll readily acknowledge some brilliant moments, but I have too many nits to pick with The Sea Hawk to love it. One of my chief complaints is the script, and the funny thing is, The Sea Hawk didn’t make any sense to me until yesterday when I finally had a huge and hilarious aha moment. Compounding my problem is that way back in college I had first seen the 1947 reissue print of this picture, multiple times in fact, and that memory had stuck with me. The reissue print had more than 20 rather key minutes removed, including the opening strategic speech by King Philip II of Spain and the closing strategic speech by Queen Elizabeth I of England.

In the past 30 years, the missing footage was reconnected into a full 126-minute print of The Sea Hawk, and I only ever applied my brain to that print yesterday when it played on TCM/U.S. I realized just yesterday that the only way the absurd, confusing plot of The Sea Hawk can be comprehended is to substitute the word Germany every time you hear the word Spain. Any time they say the word Philip, insert the word Hitler. Then and only then does any of the nonsense make sense.

Guess what: It’s history time!

The Sea Hawk went into production at the end of January 1940 after delays of a few weeks while Flynn rested up following the exhausting production of wild and wooly Virginia City, chronicled previously on these pages.

CUT TO: King Philip of Spain’s opening speech: “The riches of the new world are limitless, and the new world is ours, with our ships carrying the Spanish flag to the seven seas; our armies sweeping over Africa, the Near East and the Far West. Invincible everywhere but on our own doorstep. Only northern Europe holds out against us? Why? The reason is a puny rock-bound island as barren and treacherous as her queen, who secretly gives aid to our enemies while her pirates plunder our commerce. We cannot keep northern Europe in submission until we have had a reckoning with England.”

He goes on at great length to say how short his lifetime is and how he must fulfill his destiny (Hitler had said this time and again). Then Philip stands beside a massive, and I mean 20-foot high, 30-foot wide, world map, and in silhouette, his finger pointing directly at Germany, recaps the global spread of Nazism—er, Spanish domination—concluding, “One day, before my death, we shall sit here and gaze at this map upon the wall. It will cease to be a map of the world. It will be Spain!”

As actor Montagu Love recited his lines on a Warner soundstage, Hitler had conquered Poland just four months earlier, completing the first round of European real estate acquisition—Austria, the Sudetenland, then the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and now Poland. Cameras rolled on The Sea Hawk during the time period known later as the Sitzkrieg, when it became quiet. Too quiet, and Hitler was apparently making Western Europe guess what he would do next. In reality, little Germany was trying to recover from war with Poland because what seemed to be a rollover was anything but, and the Poles had packed more of a punch than Hitler would allow in public. Germany always stretched its limited resources to the max any time it made an attack; history has lost sight of the fact that the Germans only had so many guys, weapons, fuel, and food to go around, which is why gobbling up territory became so important—to replenish all these things.

I can’t imagine that any kid in the audience, and there had to be scads of them because this was an Errol Flynn pirate picture, had any clue what all the speechifying was about, but their parents got an earful about the looming threat of Nazism and the inevitability of war. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of spreading the word after drawing a line in the pavement with production of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939—it was a picture that pissed Hitler off and he said so. But pounding the message home was a gamble for the studio because the United States was still an isolationist nation determined to let the Europeans work out their problems.

It never made any sense to me why in this movie English pirate ships captained by “sea hawks” were allowed to raid Spanish shipping in time of peace. But careful listening reveals the British admiral in charge explaining to the queen, “Our privateers have made substantial contributions for the very purpose of providing a navy.”

And only Errol Flynn’s Geoffrey Thorpe, coolest of the “sea hawk” captains, has the guts to proclaim in the queen’s court: “Spain is at war with the world.”

There, the “puny, rock-bound island” needs defenses from the looming threat, and German—er, Spanish—ships deserve to be attacked because of the ruthless ambitions of Hitler—er, Philip.

The last half of the 1930s in European history is covered concisely during two hours of plot time in The Sea Hawk, courtesy of a hasty rewrite of the original script by Warner screenwriter Howard Koch. There’s the expansionism of Germany, the attempted appeasement by the British Chamberlain regime, and most important, the imminent threat of a German invasion of England as exposed in communications intended for the chief Nazi—er Spanish—agent working near the queen but intercepted by Thorpe in the last reel.

The picture concludes with a grim speech by the queen that was cut from reissue prints: “A grave duty confronts us all: to prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have tried by all means in our power to avert this war. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or of any other country. But when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.” And she goes on from there with even more flag-waving.

No kidding, this is how a major motion picture ended in 1940, with a political speech! But Warner Bros. wasn’t run by fools, and the U.S. print faded to The End right after the queen knights her favorite sea hawk and before she holds her political rally. Only the British print contained the full Elizabethan address.

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

Queen Elizabeth, played by Flora Robson, knights Geoffrey Thorpe, and the U.S. version of The Sea Hawk fades out. In the British edition, Elizabeth goes on to inspire attendees with a speech about the world war dead ahead.

Upon the picture’s splashy release at the end of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging, and wise ones in the audience knew the “great armada” of Spain, whose use had been threatened throughout the picture, wasn’t seaborne but rather airborne in the form of hundreds of German bombers and their fighter escorts.

I imagine little boys walked out of the theater wondering what the hell, but there had been enough action, pirates, and ships and cannon, to hold their interest. Who knew or cared about Nazi spies?

It would be another 16 months until the United States entered the war, and the conflict would indeed become a nightmare. The queen’s speech, shot at the beginning of February 1940, became prophetic about ruthless ambitions engulfing the world, and many in the audience who watched The Sea Hawk would die in the conflagration ahead. Then followed long decades and re-releases of edited prints of what would become just another pirate movie, if a revered one, with a plot that made no sense. At least to me. Until yesterday.

 

Outcasts

monkeybusiness

The Marx Bros. smuggle themselves into the port of New York in Monkey Business (1931).

I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately for just about everything from my youth. It’s funny the things that make us who we are. I bleed nitrate after most of a lifetime in classic film that began with a sudden and deep love of the Marx Bros. toward the end of 1973. I can’t remember how it started, but I jumped on the Marx bandwagon as a youngster during their college campus resurgence and enjoyed the hell out of many Marx double-bills with my dad at the Guild Theatre in Squirrel Hill, near the University of Pittsburgh.

My pal, Greenbriar’s John McElwee, asked not long ago if the Marxes could possibly play to college audiences today—I wonder the same thing. Imagine a 300-seat theater as the Guild was then, shoehorning in kids aged 18-21, and here I was, much younger than that. The double-bills paired The Cocoanuts and Monkey Business, Horsefeathers and Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, At the Circus and The Big Store, and A Night in Casablanca and Love Happy. I know I’ve never laughed as hard as I did in the Guild in the dark, a lot of that the sharing of the experience with so many others so eager to laugh. I remember one particular Friday evening with a blue haze hanging in the air and the smell of pot so thick I choked on it. But son of a gun if the boys weren’t funniest of all on that occasion.

guild

The Marxes made my scrapbook of 1970s memories. They even played a week at a suburban walk-in–can you imagine that happening today?

America needed a laugh back then, mired as the nation was in nightly reports of carpet bombing and dead soldiers, but that was life coming out of the turbulent ’60s. Now let’s do some math. In 1972, Horsefeathers—the story of Professor Wagstaff at Huxley College—was just entering middle age at a tender 40. Now let’s think of what was popular 40 years ago right now, way back in 1979, and that was the dead spot between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back; the year of Alien and Apocalypse Now. Those pictures hold up well today, but can you believe that in 1972, college kids were happy to watch black-and-white prints full of splices and sprocket damage representing pictures that reached back not only to the depths of the Great Depression but to Prohibition as well?

Do you even know who I’m talking about with the Marx Bros.? I imagine some of my younger visitors have never seen a Marx picture. There was cynical, wise-cracking Groucho, ingenuous and silent Harpo, loyal and good-hearted Chico, and up through 1933, handsome young straight man Zeppo. They resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s as iconoclasts, challengers of authority, afraid of nothing and contemptuous of strait-laced society. Maybe audiences understood that off-screen the brothers were just the same—what you saw was what you got out of this collection of Jewish boys from New York City’s mean streets. No airs or pretentiousness with these guys. Chico was “a restless Aries who lived so fast he could hardly keep up with himself” (said biographer Joe Adamson); Harpo an onscreen imp who was IRL an intellectual who loved children and with his wife Susan adopted several and retired to a grapefruit farm; Groucho a serious thinker by nature who could rustle up any number of reasons not to do what he was supposed to do; and Zeppo a shrewd businessman who became Hollywood’s top talent agent.

4-marxes

Chico, Zeppo, Groucho, and Harpo. Only the two in the middle would live to see their counterculture renaissance.

They started in the wild west of pre-Code Hollywood and landed at Paramount, where they ruled a roost that turned out to be crooked—their studio was cooking the books and not paying them. The ornery brothers then moved to MGM where production chief Irving Thalberg thought they needed a makeover and it killed them. They retired a mere four years later and made only one real Marx picture after that, in 1946 for UA. Now it’s 86 years since the end of their Paramount heyday and the boys have slipped into obscurity. They didn’t fit in 1933 and they don’t fit in 2019, except to a small and loyal legion that includes yours truly. I will always love these guys for the experiences they gave me with my dad, and for the way they introduced me to classic Hollywood.

The Marx Bros. and their admirers had it best in those crazy counterculture days, after Chico and Harpo had passed on and Groucho was in his dotage selling out one-man shows all over the place, including Carnegie Hall—and with that one, Groucho the contrarian had the last laugh: He got there without practicing.

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.

Wave

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

When the boys hit the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago, they created a shock wave that crashed through Europe. The subjects of two of my books felt that wave, Jim Stewart in Old Buckenham, England, and Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in Velp, the Netherlands. As much as we remember D-Day, as much as it’s celebrated, we simply can’t recreate or recapture the level of adrenalin felt anywhere on or near the European continent that particular day, Tuesday, June 6, 1944.

First came the anticipation. Everyone felt that, too; the tension, relentless and building—Allied forces in England, German forces in France, and the occupied peoples of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Where would the Allies attack? When would it happen? Word leaked out about Patton’s impressive First Army assembling in Kent. Not Patton, fretted the Germans. Anyone but Patton!

Tick, tick, tick. Time crept by. Minutes. Hours. Days. Weeks. March turned into April. April into May. As detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, brisk action in barracks pools at Jim’s 453rd Bomb Group and elsewhere handicapped where and when the invasion would finally take place. In 453rd Operations, Jim knew the invasion was getting close because bombing missions by the group’s B-24s had transitioned from strategic flights against German cities and factories to tactical raids of key sites in France. It might be a railroad yard one day and a bridge the next, but the targets would be a couple hundred miles apart to reveal nothing about the intended invasion site. Would it be the Pas-de-Calais? Surely, yes, the shortest point between England and France. More daring gamblers said Normandy just because it was the last place Hitler would expect. For the Allied invaders, Normandy meant a long, torturous boat ride on choppy seas while rugged and heavily defended beaches awaited at the end.

A few hundred miles due east, the Dutch lived quite a different reality, as detailed in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II. At age 15 and a junior member of the Resistance, Audrey was at this time helping downed Allied airmen avoid capture by day, while in the evening, dancing illegally to raise money for Jews in hiding. All the while her country experienced slow strangulation by ruling Nazi authorities who had extracted from the Netherlands all the food, coal, rubber, clothing, paper, and petrol they could in an ongoing effort to support the war effort on the Eastern Front. Dutch civilians had begun to suffer malnutrition that reached in and twisted bellies, all the while facing the anxiety of executions by firing squad for any random Resistance offense. By now, the Germans had confiscated radios from the Dutch—except for illegal sets that still operated on the sly. Officially sanctioned Nazi radio and newspaper reports boasted that invasion of the “Atlantic Wall” was no threat. According to the Germans, Allied attack was welcomed so the Americans and British could be defeated once and for all.

So the Dutch waited, hoped, and prayed. Every day those with radios listened secretly to regular broadcasts from Radio Oranje on the BBC. The Dutch listeners dared not speak the word that hung at the front of every mind: Liberation! If the day ever actually arrived, an Allied invasion would give hope to the hopeless, not just in small towns and large cities in the Netherlands but across occupied Belgium, throughout occupied France, and in all the concentration camps in Germany and Poland where Jews died by the day and Allied prisoners held out against disease and lice and inertia. In America, hope would spark through millions of mothers and fathers praying for the safe return of their children, the young people actually fighting this war.

If you watch The Longest Day, you get a sense of how the Germans on the Normandy coast felt when they beheld the invasion armada that misty dawn. If you watch Saving Private Ryan, you get horrifying glimpses of the killing machine the liberators faced on the beaches that day. And yet there’s no way history, let alone film, can do this day justice. As the news spread of military action at Normandy, as the titanic struggle played out on those beaches, as men fought and screamed and died, struggling dune to dune, hill to hill, hearts swelled in the United States and across Europe. Hands shook. Tears flowed. The free world held its breath through the longest day in history.

Seventy-five years later we can tour the beaches and imagine what the battle looked like. We can marvel at the crosses representing supreme sacrifice. We can revisit stirring eyewitness accounts. But we can’t feel the shock wave because it remains unimaginable. Jim was positioned to feel it in Operations at Old Buck when gates locked down and orders dictated what targets would be hit; Audrey felt it on a quiet street in Velp as secret radios barked out play by play and the Dutch dared hope they might break free of the oppressor.

What a day, that Tuesday in the fifth year of war—the day when everything changed, when the world felt a shock wave that tilted it in a new direction.

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.

Tangled Web—Part 1

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

On Friday April 19 Google Alerts pointed me to an article on the KentLive website for the county of Kent in southeastern England. The article linked an episode from the Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II narrative with a Kent man who—said the story—had been sheltered by the van Heemstras in 1943.

The appearance of Dutch Girl prompted a Kent reporter to dig out a Courier newspaper story from January 1947 about Max Court, a Tonbridge man and RAF radio operator, who was on a plane shot down over Arnhem. Court parachuted onto “the estate of Baron van Heemstra” where he was directed to a 14-year-old girl (Audrey Hepburn Ruston) who spoke English. Court was then taken in by Audrey’s mother Ella Baroness van Heemstra, and sheltered for a day before the Germans captured him. Prior to arrest, Audrey suggested that Court give her his gold family signet ring because the Germans would confiscate it. She promised to return it to him after the war.

What a terrific story! The recent KentLive web page links to the original newspaper item that appeared in January 1947 long before Audrey was a star and in need of publicity, so it must be true, right?

Well, the story doesn’t appear in Dutch Girl for a reason. Actually several reasons.

I had come across the signet ring story, aspects of which didn’t ring true, and because I couldn’t determine its authenticity, I left it out of the narrative. In his book Audrey Hepburn, Barry Paris attributed a similar story to Audrey’s friend, reporter Anita Loos, who covered Audrey in biographical articles that appeared around the time of Roman Holiday. In the Loos version, a downed airman on the run passed to Audrey “a silver locket with the Lord’s Prayer engraved on it,” which she returned to him in England in 1947. It’s a wonder Audrey had any time for dance, with all these valuables to distribute around the UK!

Below I am going to put this newspaper story on the witness stand (it will appear in italics). As you read, I will be portraying a district attorney like Otto Count van Limburg Stirum. Taking it from the top:

Shot-Down Flyer Made Lifelong Friend

RING HIDDEN FROM NAZIS RETURNED

High over enemy-held Holland an RAF plane fell like a blazing torch, and from it parachuted a young Tonbridge man. As he drifted towards the pleasant countryside near Arnhem, Wireless Operator Max Court expected immediately to fall into German hands.

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

Audrey Hepburn-Ruston in 1943.

D.A.: No challenges, but I have a problem already. Since the countryside is described through the parachutist’s eyes as “pleasant,” it seems to mean this wireless operator is descending to earth in daytime. However, radio operators flew on bombers, and in 1943 the RAF flew its bombing missions targeting Germany at night. The missing detail of day or night raises suspicion. But yes, every flier parachuting to earth over enemy territory day or night expected to be seized the moment he hit the ground.

Instead, on the estate of Baron van Heemstra, he met a kindly peasant who told him he would fetch a girl living nearby who could speak English.

D.A.: Objection! At no point in the war did Baron van Heemstra have an estate. Until the beginning of May 1942 he rented rooms at an “estate,” but it wasn’t his estate. It was managed by a woman named van Zegwaart who had every reason in the world to stay on the good side of the ruling German government. Already the story is blazing like that poor aircraft on its way to earth.

Shortly afterwards the peasant returned with Audrey Hepburn Rutson [sic], 14-year-old daughter of Ella Baroness van Heemstra, who took Max to her home.

D.A.: Objection! Audrey Hepburn-Ruston was 14 from May 4, 1943 to May 3, 1944 and during that time she didn’t live in Arnhem; she lived about four miles east in the village of Velp. Ella lived with Audrey there. And as already established, there was no van Heemstra estate in Arnhem. For Audrey to take RAF man Court to the van Heemstra home, she would have been forced to lead a uniformed enemy combatant on a long trip through, at the very least, many blocks of houses and buildings because her home, Villa Beukenhof, was located in the heart of the occupied town of Velp. And civilians didn’t have automobiles by 1943; they had been confiscated or were hidden, and there was no petrol for them anyway.

For a day he stayed, enjoying the Dutch folk hospitality, and before he was taken prisoner by the Germans Audrey took his gold signet ring for safe keeping. “The Germans will only take it away from you,” she told him, “and I promise to give it back to you after the war.”

D.A.: Objection! I grant you two things: 1) many a downed flier enjoyed the hospitality of many a Dutch home, and 2), the Germans would have taken his gold ring. But any Dutch family risked arrest and a quick forwarding to the Westerbork Transit Camp for aiding the enemy. How did the Germans find Wireless Operator Court without arresting the van Heemstras? And how did Audrey know in 1943 that the war was going to end favorably for the Allies? I state to the jury that now we’ve entered the realm of pure fantasy.

For over three years she wore Max’s ring on a chain around her neck. Then, a few weeks ago she and her mother came to England to return it.

D.A.: Objection! The last place Audrey would place a gold ring for safekeeping was around her neck. This was war. The Germans coveted gold, and any civilian on the street would be arrested at any time for any offense, meaning the gold ring would have been a magnet for trouble. Plus imagine a gold ring on a chain jangling on a ballerina’s neck. If it had been in easy reach, that gold ring would likely not have survived the Hunger Winter of 1944 when it could have bought food from the black market for the baron, Ella, Meisje, and Audrey. I submit that if the van Heemstras had such a ring, it was hidden well out of sight and mind as the war raged, and perhaps not at Villa Beukenhof at all.

Audrey, whom Max describes as a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality,” is now 17 and in training to be a ballerina. In a year’s time she and the Baroness hope to come to England for good. She was educated for some time at a girls’ school near Folkestone, and went to Holland when she was ten.

D.A.: No challenges here. But there are two clues in this paragraph alone—and several in this piece—that I’ll come back to.

Max, now 24, went to Sussex-road School, and afterwards helped in his father’s High-street fruit shop. Joining the RAF at the age of 18, he was shot down three years later. A prisoner for two years, he returned to England in April 1945, and was demobilized last May. Now he has his own nursery in Higham-lane.

D.A.: No challenges. The math has him shot down in 1943, which matches Audrey’s stated age.

He and Audrey have maintained regular correspondence, but there is no romance, says Max. He has a girl friend, and on New Year’s Eve took both her and Audrey to a dance in Maidstone.

D.A.: No challenges, but imagine you’re Max’s girlfriend and he tells you he’s ringing in the new year with you on one arm and a “very beautiful girl with a lovely personality” on the other. Not sure I’m putting money on the longevity of Max’s relationship with his poor girlfriend.

Just before Christmas, Audrey was interviewed in the BBC programme “In-Town To-night” and when asked the reason for her visit, said, “I promised to give Max back his ring.”

D.A.: No challenges. At Christmas 1946 Audrey was on a mission to deliver a ring to a British airman and on a radio broadcast told the British nation about it. I believe her statement to be true.

So there’s the story, originally published in January 1947, that appeared on KentLive this past Friday as well as my reaction to the “facts” as presented. It’s an article from just after the war that you’d be inclined to believe if you hadn’t spent three years researching the van Heemstras and lots of time on the ground in Arnhem and Velp. In the next installment, I’m going to use the evidence collected during the Dutch Girl project to reveal how this story made it into print and the most likely scenario involving Max Court and Audrey Hepburn. Stay tuned!

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