Dutch Girl Robert Matzen

“Good Luck, Dear Rose”

I have a Dutch family. None of my ancestors are Dutch, but I inherited a whole family in the Netherlands by researching and writing Dutch Girl, an effort that began in 2015 with our first visit to Arnhem. It was there I discovered Audrey Hepburn’s connection to that spot on the map, which intrigued me all the more when I tried to research her wartime years in Arnhem and found little available information, with much of that conflicting. What I did learn pretty quickly was that Audrey lived in Arnhem from December 1939 to sometime in the middle of the war, and then moved to the next village to the east, Velp.

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

In the spring of 2017, I contacted Velp’s leading historian, Gety Hengeveld, to request her help with information; at once she marshaled forces there and served as a point of contact for my upcoming research visit. Gety put together a luncheon so I could interview several wartime survivors at once, and there, in June 2017, I met my Dutch family, which included several names you’ll recognize if you have read Dutch Girl. I sat next to Rosemarie Kamphuisen that day, and we didn’t exactly hit it off because I believe trust didn’t come easily to her, and who was this American author and what were his intentions? Through lunch she held in her lap a published history of her family, including the war years, and she would refer to it to refresh her memory and conjure up dates related to the German occupation.

In the end she allowed me to photograph the relevant pages of her family history when lunch had concluded. Why? I guess she had judged me to be OK and beyond that, “You are our liberators!” she said to me with what I can only describe as awe and wonder in her voice. Just by being an American, I had qualified in her mind as one of the liberators, and I was honored and a little embarrassed to be lumped into the same group as the Allied troops that had attempted to liberate Velp in 1944 and succeeded a year later.

Mary and I saw Rosemarie on our next research trip in April 2018 during Velp’s solemn Liberation Day ceremony that takes place the Sunday closest to 16 April, the date everyone in the village, including Audrey Hepburn and her family, were freed from German occupation. Rosemarie greeted us like family and we sat and talked after the ceremony for a long time. We agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant a few days later and when Mary and I arrived at the restaurant, there was Rosemarie waiting for us, standing beside a bicycle that seemed much too big for her—she must have been at that time somewhere around 88 years old, and she had biked to our meeting! I will never quite get over that, but bicycles are the Dutch way of life and key to their sense of independence and health.

That day we learned all about Rosemarie and her family. She’d had a hard life including a bad marriage that forced her to start over from scratch while supporting five children. She had also become a force in the local community, a volunteer for senior citizens’ groups and historical preservationist.

Just for some perspective, Rosemarie was a bit younger than Audrey but also Audrey’s contemporary in Velp. She remembered the van Heemstras and was very fond of Dr. Henrik Visser ’t Hooft, the Velpsche doctor for whom Audrey volunteered and local Resistance leader.

Of this fascinating man she said, “I have known hard times in my life, and he supported me without many words, but by respecting me and giving a boost to my self-confidence. In one way or another he gave me the feeling that he loved me in the most decent way possible. At his farewell reception [in the 1970s] he hugged me with the words: “Good luck, dear Rose.” It was just what I needed.”

Rosemarie participated in the committee that placed a historical marker and statue at the site of Villa Beukenhof in Velp and staged their unveiling in September 2019. The committee invited Audrey’s son Luca Dotti and me to speak at the ceremony, which was simply spectacular, attended by about a thousand people, brass band, parade, and a lavish book signing of the Dutch version of Dutch Girl. Those events marked the last times we saw Rosemarie. Our planned 2020 return visit was canceled by Covid and we couldn’t provide in-person moral support when she suffered a debilitating heart attack about a year ago. The best we could do was speak to her on the phone and keep touch via email.

Rosemarie Kamphuisen passed away yesterday in hospice, but not without one last battle. She kept warning us that her heart was giving out, but we kept believing that nothing could really stop her. She came from good stock that had helped defeat the Nazis, and she’d beaten the odds and successfully raised her children and gone on to help me write Dutch Girl. I’m so happy to report she also provided important reminiscences that appear in my latest book, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, due September 28.

One of the hazards of writing books about World War II is that an author meets and works with wonderful, important people in the autumn of their lives and they become family and then they move on. It happens over and over and it hurts. But above the sense of loss is such gratitude that we met to establish new and loving relationships in the course of capturing stories important to history. These people live on in my books, and in my heart, forever.

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

In the Time of the Germ

A number of new subscribers have come aboard, which I very much appreciate. Thank you all! This fact reminds me how derelict I’ve been in posting new content of late. So, here’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to instead of writing columns for this blog.

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

FLASH BACK to autumn 2019, before Covid—if you can remember life before Covid. Dutch Girl had been a success in the U.S. and abroad, and I started to think about what I’d write next since it’s always a struggle finding something book-worthy. After Mission and before Dutch Girl I almost took on the task of attempting a biography of actor Basil Rathbone, but his relationship with narcissist wife Ouida was too f’ed up and although Rathbone wove his way into the fabric of Hollywood history, I refused to be locked in a room with an overt narcissist and her co-dependent husband through the course of 90,000 words. Because her toxicity poisoned too much of his career, I felt I had to throw that one back into the cosmic stream, which was OK because then Audrey came along.

After Dutch Girl I was poking around again and received a hot tip out of the blue about unexplored content in a university archive related to Dorothy Parker. You know, Algonquin Roundtable short story writer and renowned wit Dorothy Parker who ended up in Hollywood with her husband writing and fixing screenplays in the Golden Age. Well, she and I had a booze-soaked little fling and I read a lot of her stuff and it was an interesting life with lots of Hollywood ties and I thought, yeah, maybe Dorothy Parker. But then at 3 a.m. one morning—I wake up at 3 a.m. sometimes and start to process things and can’t stop—my eyes snapped open at the realization that if I thought Basil and Ouida Rathbone were unappealing as a subject, they’re child’s play compared to a mean drunk who drove not one but both husbands to kill themselves. I decided right then to not become a filler item for the newspaper, as in, “DID YOU KNOW that Dorothy Parker drove not only two husbands but also her biographer to commit suicide?” Dottie and I broke up the next morning.

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

I was back at square one when a friend heard me talking about my problem of not knowing what to do next and joked, “Why don’t you do a book on Audrey Hepburn?” I laughed along because I had addressed the only area of Audrey’s life that hadn’t already been squeezed dry like an orange at the Sunkist factory. Some days later I said on the phone in a ha-ha way to Luca, Audrey’s son, “Hey, wanna hear a good one? Somebody said I do another book about Audrey—isn’t that crazy?” And there was a pause, and Luca said, in effect, I was thinking the same thing!

It’s now more than a year later and here I sit with a completed manuscript in my lap titled, Warrior: Audrey Hepburn and the Fight for Children. It’s the other shoe to drop, the mate to Dutch Girl that completes the story and answers the question, “What did Audrey Hepburn do with the horrific wartime memories she kept locked inside?” If you think you know the answer to that question, I’ll bet you really don’t. I discovered in talking to her closest surviving friends and the many UNICEF field workers who accompanied her on Third World missions that the history of what she did and how she did it was about to be lost. And what this is as she charged into war zones and took on world leaders. I had no idea until Luca pointed me in the right direction just what a treasure chest waited to be opened. As it happened, with the world in lockdown for most of the time I spent researching and writing, no matter whom I called or where in the world they were located, guess what? They wanted to talk!

Granted only a few people have seen the resulting manuscript and maybe it sucks. Some of my favorite creative projects have inspired reactions like, “What were you thinking?” But the experience for me has been pure magic. I mean, really, I just spent another year locked in a room with Audrey Hepburn. That, my friends, is not a bad way to endure a pandemic. It certainly beats being sentenced to prison with Dorothy Parker or Basil and Ouida Rathbone.

Depending on a number of factors led by Covid and my publisher’s reaction, you may be seeing Warrior in about a year. Between now and then, I hope to turn my attention to this blog on a regular basis.

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

a + b = c, anyone?

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

Once in a while people ask me for recommendations for good WWII pictures. Obviously, Casablanca stands as the masterpiece of war-era romance and intrigue, but another Warner picture released exactly a year after Casablanca made an all-new impression on me when I watched it just last night.

I’d seen it before, but this time I cried at Edge of Darkness. I mean really cried in several scenes—which is funny because it had never affected me like that. In a nutshell, it’s autumn 1942 and Errol Flynn is the local resistance leader in a Nazi-occupied Norwegian fishing village of 800 as the Germans in charge ratchet up the pressure. They take food from the village and ship it off to Germany. They impose punitive sanctions against the citizenry, and the situation escalates to the point that all the resistance leaders in town are condemned and ordered to dig their own graves before they’re shot by firing squad.

For most of my life the story in Edge of Darkness seemed like just your usual wartime plot; a backdrop for Errol Flynn and crew to perform some onscreen heroics. Then I wrote Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (now in paperback–get your copy today!) which involved many trips to the Netherlands to learn about a town under Nazi occupation. I was able to see the building that served as SS headquarters—the place where locals were tortured to reveal information. I walked streets once German-held. I met many people who lived under German rule, including the children of Dutch resistance leaders. These are the people depicted in Edge of Darkness, and boy, do they now ring true. The resistance leader who resents German presence. His girlfriend who is raped by a German soldier. Her father the doctor who doesn’t favor fighting the Germans and her mother the dim and detached hausfrau. Many realistic characters are portrayed and they have one connecting purpose: They are ready to fight the Germans and they know that to do so, “We must be like steel.”

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

After the rape of Gunnar’s girlfriend Karen by a German soldier, Norwegian resistance leaders must decide when and how to strike. Soon the decision will be taken out of their hands.

I cried because I now know people like this. I cried because I know their story, what they suffered with spirits unbroken, and how they fought the oppressor day by day, week by week as the war dragged on and their lives became ever more unbearable.

Edge of Darkness begins at the end of the story—a German patrol plane spies a Norwegian flag flying above a town inhabited only by masses of dead soldiers and civilians in what a German investigator arriving on scene assumes was a battle of annihilation for both sides. Then we flash back to witness the series of events that led to massacre. The picture unspools like a macabre whodunit, tension increasing with very little in the way of comic relief. The resistance movement solidifies under German oppression just as it did in the Dutch village of Velp that I investigated for Dutch Girl. The restrictions imposed on the Norwegian village of Trollnes were exactly the same as those imposed on the Dutch village of Velp. The reaction of locals—death over cooperation with the Nazis—mirrors what happened in Velp; in fact, Audrey was among those who participated in Dutch resistance activities, just as did pretty much everyone in the village portrayed in Edge of Darkness. And when the resistance leaders of Trollnes are seen digging their own graves, well, chills ran down my spine because of a key episode described in Dutch Girl involving a member of Audrey’s own family.

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

Villagers advance toward the final, probably fatal confrontation with occupying German troops.

There’s a subplot involving a Norwegian woman who falls in love with a German soldier, but given the film’s release date of 1943, she of course fights the urge because he’s an occupier. The only good German in 1943 was a dead German, and there are scores of them before long in Edge of Darkness.

I’ll leave it to others to talk about the crazy-strong cast and their performances. As directed by Hollywood veteran Lewis Milestone, Ukrainian-born and fluent in German, the climactic battle sequence pulls no punches for 1943. The Norwegians attack German machine gun nests with suicidal fury to match the ruthlessness of the oppressors. The body count is shockingly high on both sides and I can only wonder how those trying to escape wartime reality by going to an Errol Flynn picture—you know, the guy from Robin Hood—reacted at a story even grimmer than the day’s headlines.

I’d love to hear from people who a) read Dutch Girl and as a result b) cried at the courage and sacrifice in Edge of Darkness. If a + b were to equal c for any of you, that would make my day.

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.

 

Autumn

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

A nervous Audrey Hepburn arrives on location in Spain to be greeted by Sean Connery in costume; director Richard Lester looks on.

I only ever saw one Audrey Hepburn picture in a theater—Robin and Marian, in 1976. I remember the big fuss made by her return to the marquee back then. I remember she had a bigger-than-life screen presence that began for me the moment she shed her nun’s habit and fluffed a poofy 1970s hairdo courtesy of Sergio of Rome. I understood then: This is a movie star I should respect. Unfortunately, I found the goings-on around her to be a mixed bag, most of it disappointing, as the screenwriter (James Goldman) and director (Richard Lester) set out to turn legendary characters into simple aging mortals with psychological problems. Give me Errol Flynn in sequins over balding Sean Connery in grime any old day.

I love Richard Lester. His The Three Musketeers is the film that changed my life. Robin and Marian did not change my life, except to prove that Lester was every bit as human as his Robin Hood and Maid Marian; it also revealed that Lester has at least one psychological screw loose that made him need to myth-bust beloved heroes of legend.

We could argue all day about Robin and Marian, because I’m sure some of you out there like or love it, but I have the battle scars of first run that include ownership to this day of the souvenir program, not to mention some emotional residue from a picture about heroes that ends with (spoiler alert) a murder-suicide.

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

The advance once sheet with a hackwork tag line.

I’m here to talk about something mentioned in Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (Buy your copy today!), and that’s Audrey’s experience actually making this thing in the heat of Spain after eight full years away from turning cameras. She had last worked on Wait Until Dark at Warner Bros. of Burbank during Jack L. Warner’s final coherent days ruling the last, most productive old-style Hollywood studio. Because Audrey was a pro who always showed up on time and knew her lines, she would have been a darling to J.L. She was spun gold back then and treated as such. Total star turn, including the best dressing room available—maybe even Bette Davis’s old second-story suite.

Flash forward to 1975 when Audrey met avant-garde Lester, veteran of heady successes like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in addition to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and his latest hits, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers. Actually Lester was just past a total bomb of a picture called Royal Flash, the umpteenth spin on The Prisoner of Zenda and a career-killer for Malcolm McDowell and Alan Bates. Royal Flash hadn’t yet exploded in Lester’s face as he began principal photography of Robin and Marian; his ego rode as high as that of 007 Sean Connery when they initially greeted former Dutch girl-turned-Academy-Award-and-Tony-Award-winner Audrey Hepburn.

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

Audrey is photographed in Rome the same month as the Robin and Marian Radio City Music Hall premiere.

According to the Old School from which Audrey had graduated, a star was picked up in a car and delivered to an air-cooled dressing room. Food was anything requested; wardrobe by Givenchy crisp and tailored within a millimeter of its life; hair and makeup took as long as it took and she’d sit there and mark up her script and diligently go over her lines; all the while, the director patiently set up shots with the camera, conferring with his director of photography or DP. Gaffers ran cables; lighting men fussed with 8Ks and peppers. Retakes were the norm, as many as it took until the director and the stars thought: Yes! That’s the one!

For Audrey, Old School filmmaking felt like Europe, like her roots with her family in the last vestiges of a fading Dutch aristocracy. Manners, curtsies, head coverings and white gloves.

Then came Dick Lester. Lester considered the script to be a filming aid rather than a bible. The fact that he liked to work fast had attracted Audrey because her sons, Sean and Luca, could be towed along for a quick, starring shoot lasting six or eight weeks during the boys’ summer vacation from school. But she should have been careful what she wished for, because Lester achieved his rapid work style by rolling multiple cameras to capture the master shot and over-overs all at once. This was fine by Connery, who didn’t like to rehearse anyway; Audrey had been groomed in the classic studio system by the old masters—William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, etc.—and simply didn’t know where to focus her energy and spent the entire Lester production off-balance.

Lester shot most of Robin and Marian out-of-doors in natural light supplemented by Thomas Edison whenever possible, and it wasn’t always possible. Audrey Hepburn hadn’t benefitted from a lot of formal education in her life, but she knew the laws of gravity as they applied to her 46-year-old face. Sure, she would tell you she never liked her looks and mean every word of it, and yet she was as vain as the next girl about the face that had made the career. As a result she had developed a growing reliance as years passed on the DP of each of her pictures to shoot her with optimized lighting in the best, most attractive angles for the contours of that face. It was always better to charm the DP at the first opportunity, Audrey knew, because even in a bad picture you’d look good as a result.

Well, the only scene in which she was guaranteed not to look bad in Robin and Marian was a dusk exchange with Nicol Williamson’s Little John when DP David Watkin misjudged the fading available light and Audrey disappeared into the dark forest undergrowth of a scene that even in the theater as a kid I knew was a problem. “I can’t see them. I can’t see anything.”

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

How could you do this to Audrey Hepburn?

As early as the costume fitting, Audrey sensed trouble. There was just one costume: a potato sack of a nun’s robe and undergarments. There was no Givenchy in sight because Lester’s usual costumer, Yvonne Blake, had, according to Lester, “been at pains to give it [the robe] a medieval look, rather than a couture finish, by sewing it together with bone needles. I watched Audrey slip it on and stand in front of the mirror and then, with hope that it could be improved, ever so slightly, into something that a 12th-century Givenchy might have blessed with his scissors, she twitched and tugged and tucked it this way and that. She finally resigned herself to the unyielding form.”

This was just one of many indignities for Audrey on the production. Lester and Goldman had blown up the charming script that had nudged her out of retirement in the first place, and now it was time for Lester to encourage the ad lib. Oh sure, he would allow of Hepburn, “She really was a good sport,” which she was. But this flippant attitude, treating Audrey Hepburn like any old plow horse instead of the thoroughbred she’d become, earning four Best Actress Academy Award nominations to supplement her win, shows Lester’s arrogance and lack of empathy.

“After all,” he said blindly, “she had been away from the screen for eight years. Filmmaking had changed a lot in that time.” And yet he continued to horse-whip her through the Spanish fields and forests that doubled as Nottinghamshire.

The rushes became another issue. On past pictures, the director and stars would look at the rushes to gauge performances and tweak as needed. Lester didn’t work that way. The exposed film went straight from the cameras to the edit suite of Lester’s cutter, John Victor Smith, who was putting the picture together on the fly.

A mere nine months later, in March 1976, Robin and Marian premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The occasion as attended by Audrey must have felt like any other, but even though the calendar said spring was in the air, for Audrey it was autumn. If you look at Audrey Hepburn’s filmography, this was her last viable dramatic role. She knew now, looking at herself as captured by Richard Lester and David Watkin, that her career as a leading lady was over, that filmmaking had indeed passed her by.

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.