A while back I received an email from Brenda Janowitz, author of The Grace Kelly Dress, The Liz Taylor Ring, and six other books. Brenda explained that she had found inspiration for her new novel in part from my book Dutch Girl, which was nice to hear, although at the time I couldn’t imagine what she meant. Brenda sent along an advance reading copy of this new book, called The Audrey Hepburn Estate, and I wanted to pass along my thoughts about a reading experience that, for me, touched all the bases.
The story will be familiar to fans of Hepburn’s filmography: the parents of Emma Jansen worked for a family that owned a Long Island estate called Rolling Hill and Emma grew up living over its garage. Years later she returns to the grand house as it’s about to be torn down, setting off an adventure with childhood friends, including the grandson of the estate owners and the son of their driver. Dark memories are confronted and secrets revealed along the way and at various points, the plot evokes parallels to the life of Audrey Hepburn or characters she played.
As you can imagine, I’m all about historic preservation and loved the subplot about passionate attempts to save the crumbling Rolling Hill mansion. Just reading about the place and those dedicated to keeping it standing made me want to join the effort because who needs yet more luxury condos or another apartment building? Must we always bulldoze the past in the name of commerce? Oh, it’s in disrepair so we might as well flatten the old building. I’ve gotten involved in many efforts to preserve historic places, whether it’s a home or part of an old fort or a viewshed as once experienced by George Washington; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. To me this aspect of the plot really resonated.
But there were still more goodies in store—mysteries related to Rolling Hill connecting back to the Netherlands in World War II, and secret passages in the old mansion, and was the place in fact haunted? So, what do you get when you round all the bases; that’s right, you hit a home run, and that was the treat Brenda Janowitz gave me. She handed me a page-turner of a book inspired in many ways by Audrey Hepburn, cleverly so, with a satisfying result. Time and again I smiled at a subtle Audrey allusion and then realized at book’s end that Brenda had included a “Finding Audrey Hepburn in The Audrey Hepburn Estate” epilogue taking the reader chapter by chapter through Hepburn references, parallels, and Easter eggs. I thought to myself, what a great device—the reader ends up not only with an entertaining novel but also an Audrey Hepburn primer, and I have no doubt Audrey herself would have been enchanted by this story because she loved to read and loved a great mystery.
The Audrey Hepburn Estate by Brenda Janowitz will be released in the United States on April 18, 2023. Good luck with it, Brenda, and thank you for an evocative reading experience that will inspire a new generation to learn more about one of the most inspiring people of the twentieth century.
I was reminded how much I miss Audrey Hepburn the other day when The Nun’s Story played in the U.S. on TCM. As you probably know if you’re a Hepburn fan, she never considered herself an actress and always classified herself a dancer. If she’d had her druthers, she’d have been a Balanchine girl, or at the very least a choreographer, but fate had other plans and thrust her into the limelight as an actress who occasionally enjoyed opportunities to dance in her films.
I lived with Audrey Hepburn for five years writing first Dutch Girl and then Warrior, and that’s why I say I miss her. Any author will tell you that strong relationships are formed during the creation of a biography and you’re living with your subject, hearing her voice, walking in her footsteps, making sense of her decisions—and sometimes yelling at her, “You fool! Don’t do that!”
Audrey was one tough woman, hardened by all the trials of life smack-dab in the middle of a world war. She lived by instinct, and I can argue instinct was her superpower because she used her instincts to make a living as an actress and mold her own personality into whatever character she portrayed, even without formal stage training as an actress.
And there it all was in The Nun’s Story, where the non-Catholic Audrey portrayed long-suffering Sister Luke, a woman of passion and talent trying to live a life of humble obedience serving others in Europe and Africa. It’s a beautiful performance, always understated, with never a false step that I could see, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you know what Audrey endured in the war. The parallels in the plot of The Nun’s Story always startle me—in the last reel of the picture, World War II breaks out in Europe and Sister Luke is stationed in the Netherlands when the Germans march in. We hear that the Nazis have swept through Holland and forced a capitulation, and then that Sister Luke’s father has died in the fighting. When another nun starts to work for the Dutch Resistance, Sister Luke tries to look the other way but still sanctions the actions of her colleague. Finally, Sister Luke leaves the order so she can do her own fighting on the outside, and the last shot we see is this young woman walking out into the streets of the Netherlands toward an uncertain future.
Imagine what she was thinking as she made this picture. Imagine her motivations for these scenes, as when German soldiers swarm onto the set. She had seen that uniform every day for years. Her uncle and cousin and many friends had been executed by men in that uniform. German soldiers had caused so much pain and hardship that the sight of those costumed extras, and the plot of invasion and death, could only have produced visceral reactions.
In preparation for making the picture, Audrey met with the author of the book The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme, and through Hulme formed a friendship with Marie-Louise Habets, whose story was fictionalized by Hulme. Like Hepburn, Habets was born in Belgium and lived through the war in Europe. After leaving the convent, Habets did indeed join the Dutch Resistance, as did Audrey Hepburn. Until publication of Dutch Girl, the world didn’t fully grasp Audrey’s role in the war—after all, she was only 15 so what could she have done? Well, she did a lot, as it turned out, displaying toughness and discipline that would serve her through a variety of situations over a lifetime, including her work in The Nun’s Story. This was my third viewing of The Nun’s Story and I appreciate it now more than ever for reminding me of my very dear friend Audrey. We had some times together, you and I. They are with me always and I’ll cherish them, and you, forever.
Watching Roman Holiday this past Friday evening, I was blindsided. I hadn’t seen this picture since the release of Dutch Girl, and for me the experience was much like rounding a corner on a city street and running into a long-lost friend. Here was young Audrey just seven years removed from the wartime Audrey I had sat with for three years, in whose footsteps I had walked in the Netherlands. That was the first and strangest experience the other evening—seeing this Audrey put me in a time warp and in my mind flashed scenes of the war from Dutch Girl and then memories from the ceremony in Velp in September 2019 when Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and I attended the unveiling of a historical marker and statue of Audrey at the site of her wartime home. I came out of the viewing of Roman Holiday thinking to myself, I’ve had an interesting life intersecting with interesting lives.
Other things really hit me during what must have been my fourth or fifth viewing of this classic picture.
I thought about Audrey during a long, demanding location shoot in Rome, her first interaction with a city that seems on celluloid to be friendly and welcoming. She wanders the streets alone, a princess nobody recognizes, and people are nice to her and she is nice to people. A couple of ironies hit me—of all the places in the world, she would end up living here in Rome with her second husband. And maybe because of the profound experience of making this first Hollywood film here, she naturally assumed she was already a member of the club, citizens of Rome. But real life, real Rome, would be cruel to Audrey. The marriage became an unhappy one, and as documented in my book Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, Romans never warmed to a movie star turned wife and mother.
Audrey’s inner circle as well as Luca revealed that she was treated badly by the locals. Her friend, writer Anna Cataldi of Milan, told me, “People in Rome, they were not nice to Audrey. They were absolutely not nice. She needed desperately to have friends and warmth. People were awful to her.” Luca said, “I believe that, for certain Roman social circles, the fact that she was too much a housewife, too ‘square,’ took its toll more than her celebrity.” He described the city as a sea of clannish neighborhoods with no appetite for outsiders.
I’ve never asked Luca, who lives in Rome, if he talked with his mother about various spots in the city where Roman Holiday was shot. If it were my mom, I might just be a little haunted by the Spanish Steps where Anya sat eating gelato, or the other familiar locations where ingenuous Audrey Hepburn made her first important picture. Luca sometimes checks in on this blog so maybe he’ll provide the answer.
A couple of other aspects of Roman Holiday struck me this time. One was the “guy code” on full display. When a princess on the lam falls into their lap, press men Joe and Irving are out to get a hot story, complete with pictures. But when Joe falls in love with said princess, his principles intervene and he can’t cash in, which would betray her. Fair enough. But the guy code comes into play when Joe leaves it up to Irving whether he sells the Pulitzer-level photos he had taken of Ann’s Roman adventures. And for Irving there’s no decision. He does the honorable thing and foregoes the money and fame that would surely result and instead, gives the photos to the princess. Irving isn’t in love with her, his friend is, but that’s good enough for Irving. Boom—guy code. I honestly don’t know how many Irvings remain in the world today, this narcissistic gladiatorial arena of TikTok and Instagram where the number of clicks and the number of followers have become the raison d’être of…everyone? Surely not, but it seems that way sometimes.
The story itself impressed me on this viewing for the fact that boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and girl eschews a happy life with boy because of a commitment to duty and country. It’s such a bittersweet twist and not what one would expect walking into the theater in 1953 to watch a romantic comedy. The ending is downright somber as Gregory Peck walks away with hands in pockets, alone and heartbroken. They have both done the noble thing, which may have been expected in 1953 but not so much today (see previous paragraph). This conclusion packs a punch because of its real-life aspect; so often, great love stories don’t result in the predictable happy ending, with 50 years of marital bliss. It doesn’t make such romances less real, valid, or momentous.
One final irony that hit me this time: Ann’s coming of age, represented by her voluntary return to royal duty after a 24-hour escape and holiday, sees her take control of her personal space from “the Countess,” her stone-faced lady in waiting. At this time in her life, Audrey was beginning a lifetime project of taking control of her personal space from “the baroness,” Audrey’s mother, Ella, Baroness van Heemstra. So very many ironies in this aspect of the story. Ella’s younger sister Marianne, Baroness van Heemstra (Audrey’s aunt), served as lady in waiting to Princess Juliana of the Netherlands before and during the war. Indeed, Audrey had grown up amidst a noble Dutch family set apart from the common people, which gave a young actress character insights to offset a decided lack of acting experience. In that regard, 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn served as a technical advisor on the production of her own first major motion picture.
When in the final sequence Princess Ann demands that the Countess retire from the royal chamber, it made me smile—in her lifetime Audrey would never experience such a symbolic moment with her own oppressor. Yes, the tables would turn late in Ella’s life when she became ill and dependent on her daughter’s good graces, but Audrey would remain oppressed and bitter until her own passing. Never did she dare to say, “You may retire, Baroness.”
I have no problem admitting I cried my eyes out at the ending this time, probably more than at any past viewing, because of all the intersections, emotions, realizations, and memories. I didn’t see any of it coming; I just sat down to watch a romantic comedy on a typical Friday evening.
Did you ever notice that some movies are like a time machine? And I mean very much like Rod Taylor’s contraption. You step into the movie, and it transports you instantly to another place and time—where you were when you saw it and how old you were, and you reconnect with your sensibilities back then and can feel who was sitting next to you at the theater. You can see the room if you were watching it on TV and remember your self back then. Who you were and what the world was like.
As the years pass this happens to me more and more. For example, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a Universal horror B-picture released in 1943, isn’t very good. In fact, it’s downright bad, with plot inconsistencies to give you a headache and some questionable casting. But it’s my favorite because every time I see the Universal logo and hear the fanfare, I’m 10 again and staying up late to watch Chiller Theatre on WIIC in Pittsburgh Saturday night at 11:30, after the news. What a struggle it was to stay awake back then after marauding through town all day and playing hours of baseball in any pick-up game I could find.
I never did get to see House of Frankenstein as a kid because I’d always manage to fall asleep. What I remember about House of Frankenstein is imagining how spooky it was as my friends (made of sterner stuff) stayed awake all the way through and described the horrific goings-on. But I must have made it through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man at least once for the memories it evokes of the living room in the house where I grew up, a place long ago demolished. The living room and being alone in the dark watching the TV and wondering if the Wolf Man was going to bound down the stairs and tear me apart.
Watching The Sting takes me back to Cuppies Drive-In and watching the screen over my dad’s right shoulder and my mom’s left and through a windshield, with the tinny sound of a speaker attached to the driver’s-side window. The Sting shoots me into their world, and I feel my parents as they absorb the time and place—the 1930s during the Depression when they were young. I have to credit the accuracy of the time period recreated during production of The Sting in 1972 because my parents never had the spell broken by something inappropriate to the 1930s. They loved The Sting. In fact, they loved the movies, which is where I caught the bug. That fact makes the time machine experience of particular movies bittersweet because for fleeting minutes they’re alive again and in their prime and then, poof, gone. And here you are, alone, murmuring, “Damn.” For a little while it’s as if you could reach out and touch them as we all sat at the drive-in watching The Sting. The time machine is that powerful a piece of mental machinery.
I still can’t watch JFK because I saw it with my friend Tom during a dark time in my life, as a relationship was falling apart. Those were black, black days and seeing any reference to JFK picks me up and tosses me back into the pit of despair; better to walk a wide circle around that one. I remember my good friend John telling me a similar story about breaking up with his girlfriend at the time Gray Lady Down was released. He told me this a couple of decades ago, but I bet he still can’t stand to watch Gray Lady Down, and I get it.
Why is it that those long-ago movie experiences made such an impression? I can remember more recent pictures seen in theater settings that don’t result in the same time transport. I guess it all ended with Star Wars—every time I see that distinctive title screen and hear the first note of John Williams’ fanfare, it’s 1977 all over again and a new world of adventure opens. I’ve got goosebumps just writing about it. I was right there at the vanguard and saw Star Wars in first run six times in the spring and summer of 1977, and every time I’ve seen it since, that’s where I am, at the Showcase East in Monroeville queueing up. Just a kid. I remember reading about Star Wars and this evil character named Darth Vader and thinking, “No, he’s too scary. What if I can’t handle it?” I could imagine myself running screaming from the theater. But I hung tough and made it all the way through Star Wars and can reconnect with my youthful self by sitting down and popping in a Blu-Ray. It’s pretty cool to be able to do that.
I can’t be alone, right? So what are your time-machine movies and where do they take you?
At age 58, Audrey Hepburn had no reason to leave an idyllic life of retirement in a Swiss village overlooking Lake Geneva to go campaigning for UNICEF. She lived in a beautiful home, family all around, a world-class fruit and vegetable garden she loved tending, and her best friend just up the hill. Audrey lived with Robert Wolders, the love of her life, third time being the charm after two tough marriages.
But there were nightmares, memories of World War II that ate at her many nights. Living in the Netherlands as a pre-teen and then a teenager, she had existed through every day of Nazi terror. She had watched the Germans march in and five years later endured the last days when the Allies drove them out again house by house, grenade by grenade. In between she experienced all the indignities of life under occupation, all the deprivation, all the outrages. Yes, the war had left quite an impression.
A convergence of issues prevented Audrey from living out her days in the seclusion of Tolochenaz, Switzerland. First, she was a van Heemstra, Dutch nobility that had for centuries felt the noble obligation of helping those less fortunate. “It’s just what one did,” as she expressed it. Second, she was an empath imprinted with memories of that war and out there in remote corners of the world were people suffering as she once had suffered. Their wars weren’t global; they were armed regional conflicts between political groups, religious groups, tribes, or clans within a country. She detested the term “civil war” but technically, that’s what they were and caught in the middle sat entire populations.
Audrey began her UNICEF career by accident. She was invited to emcee a benefit concert in Asia and then a second concert in a different country. Her participation was minimal—just a few minutes at the podium—and in each case UNICEF officials witnessed a mob of reporters desperate to cover the latest from this elusive celebrity. The top blew off the fundraising thermometer when Audrey Hepburn participated, which meant UNICEF must get Audrey to participate more often.
It’s an overlooked fact that Audrey attempted to dodge this commitment because she knew what it would mean for her partner, her family, and her own well-being. Nobody on her side of the fence wanted to see the brand known as Audrey Hepburn become a UNICEF representative because all sensed what it would mean. She knew, too. She knew her own nature and how totally she had always pledged herself once she made any promise. For a couple of months she backed away, listened to a drumbeat of entreaties from inside the family, and then finally, when she couldn’t back-peddle any further, she announced a decision. In so doing, she gave UNICEF a lot more than it bargained for.
I believe I’ve made a case that what she did with the next five years of her life altered the course of history, but you can decide for yourself. Warrior: Audrey Hepburn will be released by GoodKnight Books in hardcover, audiobook, and all ebook formats on September 28.
I have a Dutch family. None of my ancestors are Dutch, but I inherited a whole family in the Netherlands by researching and writing Dutch Girl, an effort that began in 2015 with our first visit to Arnhem. It was there I discovered Audrey Hepburn’s connection to that spot on the map, which intrigued me all the more when I tried to research her wartime years in Arnhem and found little available information, with much of that conflicting. What I did learn pretty quickly was that Audrey lived in Arnhem from December 1939 to sometime in the middle of the war, and then moved to the next village to the east, Velp.
In the spring of 2017, I contacted Velp’s leading historian, Gety Hengeveld, to request her help with information; at once she marshaled forces there and served as a point of contact for my upcoming research visit. Gety put together a luncheon so I could interview several wartime survivors at once, and there, in June 2017, I met my Dutch family, which included several names you’ll recognize if you have read Dutch Girl. I sat next to Rosemarie Kamphuisen that day, and we didn’t exactly hit it off because I believe trust didn’t come easily to her, and who was this American author and what were his intentions? Through lunch she held in her lap a published history of her family, including the war years, and she would refer to it to refresh her memory and conjure up dates related to the German occupation.
In the end she allowed me to photograph the relevant pages of her family history when lunch had concluded. Why? I guess she had judged me to be OK and beyond that, “You are our liberators!” she said to me with what I can only describe as awe and wonder in her voice. Just by being an American, I had qualified in her mind as one of the liberators, and I was honored and a little embarrassed to be lumped into the same group as the Allied troops that had attempted to liberate Velp in 1944 and succeeded a year later.
Mary and I saw Rosemarie on our next research trip in April 2018 during Velp’s solemn Liberation Day ceremony that takes place the Sunday closest to 16 April, the date everyone in the village, including Audrey Hepburn and her family, were freed from German occupation. Rosemarie greeted us like family and we sat and talked after the ceremony for a long time. We agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant a few days later and when Mary and I arrived at the restaurant, there was Rosemarie waiting for us, standing beside a bicycle that seemed much too big for her—she must have been at that time somewhere around 88 years old, and she had biked to our meeting! I will never quite get over that, but bicycles are the Dutch way of life and key to their sense of independence and health.
That day we learned all about Rosemarie and her family. She’d had a hard life including a bad marriage that forced her to start over from scratch while supporting five children. She had also become a force in the local community, a volunteer for senior citizens’ groups and historical preservationist.
Just for some perspective, Rosemarie was a bit younger than Audrey but also Audrey’s contemporary in Velp. She remembered the van Heemstras and was very fond of Dr. Henrik Visser ’t Hooft, the Velpsche doctor for whom Audrey volunteered and local Resistance leader.
Of this fascinating man she said, “I have known hard times in my life, and he supported me without many words, but by respecting me and giving a boost to my self-confidence. In one way or another he gave me the feeling that he loved me in the most decent way possible. At his farewell reception [in the 1970s] he hugged me with the words: “Good luck, dear Rose.” It was just what I needed.”
Rosemarie participated in the committee that placed a historical marker and statue at the site of Villa Beukenhof in Velp and staged their unveiling in September 2019. The committee invited Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and me to speak at the ceremony, which was simply spectacular, attended by about a thousand people, brass band, parade, and a lavish book signing of the Dutch version of Dutch Girl. Those events marked the last times we saw Rosemarie. Our planned 2020 return visit was canceled by Covid and we couldn’t provide in-person moral support when she suffered a debilitating heart attack about a year ago. The best we could do was speak to her on the phone and keep touch via email.
Rosemarie Kamphuisen passed away yesterday in hospice, but not without one last battle. She kept warning us that her heart was giving out, but we kept believing that nothing could really stop her. She came from good stock that had helped defeat the Nazis, and she’d beaten the odds and successfully raised her children and gone on to help me write Dutch Girl. I’m so happy to report she also provided important reminiscences that appear in my latest book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, due September 28.
One of the hazards of writing books about World War II is that an author meets and works with wonderful, important people in the autumn of their lives and they become family and then they move on. It happens over and over and it hurts. But above the sense of loss is such gratitude that we met to establish new and loving relationships in the course of capturing stories important to history. These people live on in my books, and in my heart, forever.
A number of new subscribers have come aboard, which I very much appreciate. Thank you all! This fact reminds me how derelict I’ve been in posting new content of late. So, here’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to instead of writing columns for this blog.
FLASH BACK to autumn 2019, before Covid—if you can remember life before Covid. Dutch Girl had been a success in the U.S. and abroad, and I started to think about what I’d write next since it’s always a struggle finding something book-worthy. After Mission and before Dutch Girl I almost took on the task of attempting a biography of actor Basil Rathbone, but his relationship with narcissist wife Ouida was too f’ed up and although Rathbone wove his way into the fabric of Hollywood history, I refused to be locked in a room with an overt narcissist and her co-dependent husband through the course of 90,000 words. Because her toxicity poisoned too much of his career, I felt I had to throw that one back into the cosmic stream, which was OK because then Audrey came along.
After Dutch Girl I was poking around again and received a hot tip out of the blue about unexplored content in a university archive related to Dorothy Parker. You know, Algonquin Roundtable short story writer and renowned wit Dorothy Parker who ended up in Hollywood with her husband writing and fixing screenplays in the Golden Age. Well, she and I had a booze-soaked little fling and I read a lot of her stuff and it was an interesting life with lots of Hollywood ties and I thought, yeah, maybe Dorothy Parker. But then at 3 a.m. one morning—I wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes and start to process things and can’t stop—my eyes snapped open at the realization that if I thought Basil and Ouida Rathbone were unappealing as a subject, they’re child’s play compared to a mean drunk who drove not one but both husbands to kill themselves. I decided right then to not become a filler item for the newspaper, as in, “DID YOU KNOW that Dorothy Parker drove not only two husbands but also her biographer to commit suicide?” Dottie and I broke up the next morning.
I was back at square one when a friend heard me talking about my problem of not knowing what to do next and joked, “Why don’t you do a book on Audrey Hepburn?” I laughed along because I had addressed the only area of Audrey’s life that hadn’t already been squeezed dry like an orange at the Sunkist factory. Some days later I said on the phone in a ha-ha way to Luca, Audrey’s son, “Hey, wanna hear a good one? Somebody said I do another book about Audrey—isn’t that crazy?” And there was a pause, and Luca said, in effect, I was thinking the same thing!
It’s now more than a year later and here I sit with a completed manuscript in my lap titled, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and the Fight for Children. It’s the other shoe to drop, the mate to Dutch Girl that completes the story and answers the question, “What did Audrey Hepburn do with the horrific wartime memories she kept locked inside?” If you think you know the answer to that question, I’ll bet you really don’t. I discovered in talking to her closest surviving friends and the many UNICEF field workers who accompanied her on Third World missions that the history of what she did and how she did it was about to be lost. And what this is as she charged into war zones and took on world leaders. I had no idea until Luca pointed me in the right direction just what a treasure chest waited to be opened. As it happened, with the world in lockdown for most of the time I spent researching and writing, no matter whom I called or where in the world they were located, guess what? They wanted to talk!
Granted only a few people have seen the resulting manuscript and maybe it sucks. Some of my favorite creative projects have inspired reactions like, “What were you thinking?” But the experience for me has been pure magic. I mean, really, I just spent another year locked in a room with Audrey Hepburn. That, my friends, is not a bad way to endure a pandemic. It certainly beats being sentenced to prison with Dorothy Parker or Basil and Ouida Rathbone.
Depending on a number of factors led by Covid and my publisher’s reaction, you may be seeing Warrior in about a year. Between now and then, I hope to turn my attention to this blog on a regular basis.
Once in a while people ask me for recommendations for good WWII pictures. Obviously, Casablanca stands as the masterpiece of war-era romance and intrigue, but another Warner picture released exactly a year after Casablanca made an all-new impression on me when I watched it just last night.
I’d seen it before, but this time I cried at Edge of Darkness. I mean really cried in several scenes—which is funny because it had never affected me like that. In a nutshell, it’s autumn 1942 and Errol Flynn is the local resistance leader in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village of 800 as the Germans in charge ratchet up the pressure. They take food from the village and ship it off to Germany. They impose punitive sanctions against the citizenry, and the situation escalates to the point that all the resistance leaders in town are condemned and ordered to dig their own graves before they’re shot by firing squad.
For most of my life the story in Edge of Darkness seemed like just your usual wartime plot; a backdrop for Errol Flynn and crew to perform some onscreen heroics. Then I wrote Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II(now in paperback–get your copy today!) which involved many trips to the Netherlands to learn about a town under Nazi occupation. I was able to see the building that served as SS headquarters—the place where locals were tortured to reveal information. I walked streets once German-held. I met many people who lived under German rule, including the children of Dutch resistance leaders. These are the people depicted in Edge of Darkness, and boy, do they now ring true. The resistance leader who resents German presence. His girlfriend who is raped by a German soldier. Her father the doctor who doesn’t favor fighting the Germans and her mother the dim and detached hausfrau. Many realistic characters are portrayed and they have one connecting purpose: They are ready to fight the Germans and they know that to do so, “We must be like steel.”
After the rape of Gunnar’s girlfriend Karen by a German soldier, Norwegian resistance leaders must decide when and how to strike. Soon the decision will be taken out of their hands.
I cried because I now know people like this. I cried because I know their story, what they suffered with spirits unbroken, and how they fought the oppressor day by day, week by week as the war dragged on and their lives became ever more unbearable.
Edge of Darkness begins at the end of the story—a German patrol plane spies a Norwegian flag flying above a town inhabited only by masses of dead soldiers and civilians in what a German investigator arriving on scene assumes was a battle of annihilation for both sides. Then we flash back to witness the series of events that led to massacre. The picture unspools like a macabre whodunit, tension increasing with very little in the way of comic relief. The resistance movement solidifies under German oppression just as it did in the Dutch village of Velp that I investigated for Dutch Girl. The restrictions imposed on the Norwegian village of Trollnes were exactly the same as those imposed on the Dutch village of Velp. The reaction of locals—death over cooperation with the Nazis—mirrors what happened in Velp; in fact, Audrey was among those who participated in Dutch resistance activities, just as did pretty much everyone in the village portrayed in Edge of Darkness. And when the resistance leaders of Trollnes are seen digging their own graves, well, chills ran down my spine because of a key episode described in Dutch Girl involving a member of Audrey’s own family.
Villagers advance toward the final, probably fatal confrontation with occupying German troops.
There’s a subplot involving a Norwegian woman who falls in love with a German soldier, but given the film’s release date of 1943, she of course fights the urge because he’s an occupier. The only good German in 1943 was a dead German, and there are scores of them before long in Edge of Darkness.
I’ll leave it to others to talk about the crazy-strong cast and their performances. As directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Milestone, Ukrainian-born and fluent in German, the climactic battle sequence pulls no punches for 1943. The Norwegians attack German machine gun nests with suicidal fury to match the ruthlessness of the oppressors. The body count is shockingly high on both sides and I can only wonder how those trying to escape wartime reality by going to an Errol Flynn picture—you know, the guy from Robin Hood—reacted at a story even grimmer than the day’s headlines.
I’d love to hear from people who a) read Dutch Girl and as a result b) cried at the courage and sacrifice in Edge of Darkness. If a + b were to equal c for any of you, that would make my day.
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.
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.
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.
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.