Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

My Hero

Clem graduates Gunnery School in 1943.

When I began researching and writing about Jimmy Stewart in WWII, my friend Walt Powell referred me to Clem Leone, who had served in the same bomb group as Stewart and actually flew with him on a training flight. Walt warned me that Clem could be tough and did not suffer fools—after the war he had become a schoolteacher while also rising to the rank of major in the Maryland National Guard.

Clem agreed to meet with me at his home in Gettysburg, PA—that was in 2014 when he was a sprightly 90 and still bowling every week. He told me his incredible war stories, which included bailing out of two flaming B-24s. I took furious notes during our meetings and then wrote up the Leone storyline for inclusion in the book that became Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. During my first visit, he took me on a tour of a room in his house converted into a war museum, with beautiful scale models of a B-24 and an FW-190, which he pointed out with a certain pride as the German fighter that shot down his plane over Gotha in 1944. Also on display were his medals and uniforms and the ring from the parachute that had saved his life.

We met up again after I had sent him a printout of the narrative and he corrected key points. In those places where I had taken the wrong path (for example, had two characters looking at each other as they floated to earth after bailing out of the plane), he would point at me and say, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood!” The rigors of working with Clem led to a 100% accurate depiction of life in a bomb group stationed in the English countryside because Clem had no interest in self-aggrandizement. He was what they call a straight shooter.

I’ve written about Clem many times here because he’s simply the most remarkable person I ever met. I love the guy, and for whatever reason, he grew to love me. He considered seeing his war story captured in Mission to be, as he said, “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Clem and I shared the podium for a Mission book presentation in Gettysburg in November 2016, which ranks up there with the launch party for Dutch Girl in Velp as the most memorable, gratifying experience of my literary life. Seeing the outpouring of love and admiration from the entire town as he told his story, and then as we sat signing books together afterward, was an inspiration.

Clem tells his story to adoring friends and fans in Gettysburg.

I next saw Clem at his 95th birthday party in July 2019, an event so jam-packed with well wishers that Clem and I had to shout our happiness to see each other over the din. Since then, I would call him occasionally just to check in, and he was always sharp as a tack. He told me at one point he had dismantled his museum and donated it here and there, with some pieces going to the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Always the practical fellow, he told me all his funeral arrangements had been made, and chuckled while he said it.

On three or four occasions I heard that Clem was on his last legs and I would call up, full of concern, and there would be that ironic chuckle and he would sound exactly like his old self until I began to understand that any guy who could survive two bailouts, betrayal by a double agent, imprisonment in a German luft stalag, and a death march across Poland, was going to be hard to shove out of this world.

I always laugh when I think of the time he told me his daughters wanted to buy him a ride in a vintage B-24 at an air show sometime in the last 10 or 15 years. He barked in return, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new—I’m not going to get inside one that’s 70 years old!” That, my friends, is a survivor.

You know where I am going with this. My hero, Clement Francis Leone, died this past Tuesday after a fall in his home that led to a series of medical emergencies. Were it not for that mishap, I know he would still be with us. The world is a gray place without you in it, Clem. May you enjoy your reunion with Sylvia and the boys of your ship, Wacky Donald, who went on to their reward on February 24, 1944.

Clem and me.

The Pluses and Minuses of Time Travel

First seen through a windshield in 1973. (Hooker, looking at the bad guy: “He’s not so tough.” Gondorf (alarmed): “Neither are we.”)

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.

I managed to survive my youth without the Wolf Man tearing me apart in the dark.

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.

This and the accompanying music is all it takes to send me back in time.

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?

A Wonderful time for IAWL

World War II magazine, on newsstands now.

I first noticed the trend with a Google Alert December 2 for a Closer magazine article about Kelly Stewart Harcourt’s Christmas memories; holidays in the Stewart household included an annual viewing of her father’s most memorable picture, It’s a Wonderful Life.

On December 6, another ping from Google Alerts pointed me to a Looper piece on Jim’s crying scene in IAWL and its motivation. And four days after that, two pings, the first another story about Kelly Harcourt and Christmas in the Stewart house, and the second a Showbiz Cheat Sheet look at the make-or-break nature of IAWL for Jim and the fact this could have been his last picture.

What interested me most (of course) was that my 2016 book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe turned up in every piece as journalists investigated the magic of IAWL and the stark and ravaged nature of the Stewart performance. Then journalist Rachael Scott of CNN.com interviewed me for what turned out to be an excellent look at Jim’s experiences in war and its impact on his performance in IAWL.

Then The Federalist took a look at Jim the war hero and his return to make IAWL and again, there was Mission. And World War II magazine released a solid piece of work by David Kindy, who has interviewed me a few times over the years. That feature is The Dark Place and explains how Jim’s mind-altering 20 combat missions influenced the second half of his acting career.

At this point a producer from MSNBC’s Morning Joe contacted me to come on-air along with my favorite historical biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin, to discuss Jim’s military career and return for IAWL. Hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, and Willie Guest asked insightful questions, and the resulting 10 minutes of television blew up Amazon’s orderly inventory system and Mission went out of stock. (Twitter blew up as well with often-hilarious criticism of the room in which my Skype interview took place, but that’s another story.)

Doris offered wonderful insight on Morning Joe about why IAWL resonates with such power this year—George Bailey considered himself to be “stuck” in Bedford Falls just as all of us have been “stuck” at home through the pandemic. George’s life is such a dark place and the walls press in on him until he’s nearly crushed, and who among us hasn’t felt that way in 2020? When I described Jim’s combat career and its inevitable impact on his brain and his acting style, wasn’t I also describing the impact of Covid on the psyche of people worldwide as the germ wages war on all of us? Jim experienced combat fatigue; we are getting a taste of Covid fatigue. The Germans aren’t shooting at us at 20,000 feet, but the strain is real and ongoing.

As per the plot of IAWL, just in time for Christmas, George Bailey experiences redemption and realizes he’s living, after all is said and done, a wonderful life. It’s the kind of miracle comeback we all want to experience after such a bleak time in the history of our still-pretty-new century.

I can only wonder if playing George Bailey made Jimmy Stewart see himself as one lucky guy. The former playboy settled down after the war, married a mature divorcee with two sons, saw the addition of twin girls, and lived on. He survived the war when so many of his “boys” hadn’t. He lost many fliers from his squadron and bomb group in combat and took personal responsibility for this fact—it was one of the wartime memories he kept locked inside, and one of the reasons he would sit in quiet solitude at times and just stare at nothing, as Kelly Harcourt described to me.

Stewart’s beloved classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, was already a crazy-complicated picture, so warm and bright at times, so dark and unsettling at others. This year you may find watching it to be a deeper and more rewarding experience, and if true, we must give a nod to director Frank Capra, who sought, against conventional wisdom, to bring this story to the screen. In 1946 Capra was considered too sentimental and old school for a cynical post-war Hollywood. Now, I admire his vision as never before. It’s as if he foresaw our 2020 reality and brewed up what vaccine he could, and that’s why this year in particular the world is riveted by It’s a Wonderful Life as never before.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen
Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George.

P.S. After this column went live, MSN’s The Wrap published a trivia slideshow with Mission content.

Day of Infamy

It’s December 7, a momentous date in history. I think back to what this date meant to a U.S. civilian population rocked by the Japanese surprise attack, and I think about those already serving in the military on Dec. 7, and what a declaration of war meant to them. As you know, the draft had begun, and thousands of 12-month draftees knew as soon as bombs fell at Pearl that their number was truly up, and they wouldn’t get out after just a year. But they would soon be joined by millions of enlistees outraged by what happened to the Pacific fleet and by Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States.

Mission_Cover_webHollywood’s beloved boy-next-door movie star Jimmy Stewart was one of those draftees and had entered the service in February 1941. As described in my book Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he was, as of Dec. 7, Corporal James Stewart, and in less that a month he would earn his wings as an Army flier with the rank of second lieutenant. (If you’re a WWII history lover, please explore this January 18 auction of an incredible military aviation collection in Plymouth, MA, which includes a complete Norden bombsight, pilot’s wings, very pistols, uniforms, plane parts, books, and so much more.)

The Mission hardcover gets a fair amount of attention at this time of year. Right now it’s being featured in all Barnes & Noble locations across the U.S., face out in the Military History section. Mission describes all 20 combat missions flown by Stewart, some of them “milk runs” over the coast of France, but many others harrowing, seven- and eight-hour flights that took Jim deep into Germany for strikes at the industrial heart of the Reich on the run-up to D-Day.

Of course there’s another reason why a book about Jimmy Stewart and the war does well at the holidays; the first picture he made after the war, while still suffering PTSD from all those missions, was It’s a Wonderful Life. When he began making this one in the spring of 1946, life wasn’t so wonderful for James Maitland Stewart. He’d left the holy crusade against Hitler, which had been Jim’s great purpose in life. His mind had been shattered by a few missions too many and the relentless strain of command, necessitating visits to the “flak farm” to de-stress. He’d aged in the service and no longer felt he could land a job as a romantic idol. And in fact no studios came calling except Frank Capra with his risky idea for a picture about a suicidal man and an angel.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Turning darkness into gold.

Suffering nightmares and flashbacks, his hands shaking, his diet shot from anxiety and confidence gone due to the years-long break from moviemaking, Jim stepped onto RKO soundstages to begin this crazy picture with Capra. And the director, who had been a king of 1930s Hollywood, was battling his own demons. He’d been away doing war work too, and now a grittier Hollywood had emerged that rejected his notions about crafting sentimental pictures. There was this film noir thing that now suited a shell-shocked, post-war America. Nobody welcomed Capra back just like nobody had welcomed Stewart—“welcomed” as in offered work. The men were desperate, as noted by IAWL leading lady Donna Reed, who described Capra and Stewart on the set as tense second-guessers; it wasn’t the happy shoot you’d imagine as these two giants of pre-war cinema set about trying to reestablish themselves in a younger, reborn Hollywood that had passed them by.

I was neutral on Stewart when I began writing Mission, and he’s a tough character to know because he closed himself off in some regards. But he showed remarkable bravery in the war, and even more guts in the peace that followed, because he did nothing short of win the battle of Hollywood; this 38 year old with the shakes who looked 50 began a second career when the wags called him washed up. First, he used the darkness of war in his characters, many of whom were now haunted or seeking revenge. Second, he urged producers to gamble on him as he gambled on himself—he’d take a smaller salary upfront in exchange for a percentage of the profits on each picture.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is called “the richest man in town” for having friends. But in the 10 years after the war, Jim Stewart became the richest man in town for picking good pictures and banking a fortune in profit participation. By any measure this was a hero, and it’s fitting that every year we get around to celebrating him and the post-war venture of two down-and-out war veterans, which happened to become the most beloved movie in Hollywood history.

It-s-A-Wonderful-Life-its-a-wonderful-life-32920354-1920-1081.jpg

Death for Wacky Donald

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

Clem Leone, age 18, graduates gunnery school.

My friend Walt Powell reminded me that 75 years ago today—today, mind you—the most amazing thing happened that I’ve ever been even remotely connected to. On February 24, 1944, my friend Clement Leone escaped out the top hatch of a burning B-24 Liberator named Wacky Donald 20,000 feet above the frozen Netherlands. The formation of B-24s in which Clem was flying had been jumped by German fighters and an FW-190 hit Wacky Donald aft with incendiary rockets. The fire blazed forward toward wing tanks still nearly full as Clem clutched the barrels of the top turret machine gun in a 200-mile-per hour slipstream. Then his impossible situation was resolved in a flash; the wing tanks caught and the ship exploded.

The blast knocked Technical Sgt. Leone out cold and blew him clear of the ship to begin a free-fall to earth. He fell maybe 10,000 feet while unconscious, and it’s a miracle he didn’t just keep on going to hit the earth at terminal velocity. Not feisty Clem. Clem came to with a face wet from blood and managed to keep his wits, locate an orange metal ring on his chest, and give it a yank. His parachute opened and he managed a controlled descent that ended with fractured ribs on impact.

You’d think that was enough adventure for a lifetime let alone one February morning, but it was just the beginning. Dutch people ran to him from the surrounding countryside, and he drew his .45 thinking they were Germans and would kill him. Instead they fed him and helped dress his wounded face and ribs. Then a member of the Nazi Green Police tried to arrest Clem, the Dutch intervened, and he took off into woodlands under the protection of the Dutch Resistance.

For historical context, Sgt. Leone was a participant in Operation Argument, which the flyboys dubbed “Big Week.” From February 20–26, 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated on bombing aviation-related targets in Germany. They had to take out the German Air Force before D-Day could be staged. That February week, spectacular aerial battles took place across Dutch and German skies, the Luftwaffe launching maximum effort to repel the American maximum effort bomber stream. I’ll let you read Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe to find out what happened next to Clem, but it just kept getting more incredible. The man was simply meant to survive and make it home to marry his sweetheart, raise four children, become a major in the Maryland National Guard, and shape thousands of young minds as a schoolteacher.

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

Clem (lower left) with his crew. Top center is Lt. Robert Blomberg, an up and comer with the 445th Bomb Group who died at the controls when his ship blew up. Others in the crew were also KIA. Notable in this team photo is the small man next to Blomberg, Lt. Donald Widmark, co-pilot and brother of future actor Richard Widmark. The co-pilot would grab a parachute and leave Blomberg behind 75 years ago today. Clem’s personal rule was to stay with the ship as long as the officers did, but when he saw Widmark bail out, he said, “It was time for this guy to go.”

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

The ring on his parachute became a wall decoration for Clem.

I met Clem in 2014 when he was a spring chicken of 90 and spent many hours on the phone and in his living room learning about the air war, B-24s, combat missions in the European Theater, his time with Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group, and his adventures with the Dutch and Germans. In November 2016, Clem and I played a double bill in his hometown of Gettysburg, PA—before a packed house I lectured about Stewart and introduced Clem, who with humor and humility told his story. Afterward, we sat and autographed books side by side for an hour and a half, and I doubt either of us ever had a better time.

So let’s take a moment to thank Clement Francis Leone for his service, and marvel at an incredible life that barrels full steam ahead toward birthday number 95. Another wacky thing: B-24s were always catching fire, and Clem had bailed out of another one on a training mission in England and broken his leg. It hadn’t even healed before he was bailing out again, this time over Holland. So 70 years later his daughters decided it would be fun to buy their dad a ride in a vintage B-24 that was touring in an air show. When he heard about it, he said, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new! I’m sure as hell not getting into one that’s 70 years old!”

That, my friends, is the working mind of a survivor.

And oh, by the way, without Clem Leone, there would be no Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, because it was while following Clem’s trail south from the Dutch town of Gramsbergen that I made a stop in Arnhem, and the rest is history. So, thank you for the gift of Dutch Girl, Clem. If I ever grow up, I want to be just like you.

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

We each signed more than a book a minute for 90 minutes as Gettysburg paid tribute to its hero.

Heroes

Buster Keaton, every inch a hero in The General.

I came upon a piece of writing the other week that moved me, a column on my colleague Sister Celluloid’s blog. It turns out this piece was written in 2015 and re-posted last month, which is when I had the good fortune to cross its path.

In a few hundred words Sister C. captured my professional admiration, and I know this piece is going to stick with me and become a touchstone, a thing that other things remind me of. Reading it took me back to my own childhood, to fears and phobias, to school and not being able to keep up, to the tricks that get a child through another day or difficult situation. When I was a little kid of 6 or 7 and had to do something scary out in the world, usually in school, my mom would hand me a button or a hair clip and say, “Here, put this in your pocket. When you get scared, hold onto this and everything will be OK.” Son of a gun, it always worked. Mom imbued inanimate objects with magical powers that managed to keep me safe.

Errol Flynn at age 30 as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, a character and picture that made a big impression on Gertrud Siepmann.

Sister C.’s magic came from Buster Keaton. As I read her column I imagined how Keaton would have felt if he had had the opportunity to read it himself. I’m not going to cheapen this slice of genius by giving it Spark Notes treatment. In my mind Sister C.’s work already hangs in the Louvre with stanchions and velvet ropes keeping it safe for posterity. What came to mind as I read it was Errol Flynn, who could never come to grips with being anyone’s hero. He knew what he was, and it wasn’t a knight in shining armor. Except, in a way he was because he entertained uncounted millions, and for some, adoring Errol Flynn became a reason to go on living. I think of my friend Gertrud Siepmann, who I wrote about in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Gertrud survived World War II and its aftermath in Germany in part by being in love with Errol Flynn and keeping Flynn front-of-mind as a shining light in the blackness of those times. There he’d be every day, at Gertrud’s side, a square-shouldered protector, sword in hand to fend off any dangers she faced. As related in Errol & Olivia, Gertrud finally got to see Errol Flynn with his wife Patrice Wymore in the lobby of a hotel in Bad Soden, Germany, in the 1950s. Gertrud waited for hours, flowers in hand, for what she imagined would be a magical meeting. By then her Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, protector of German maidens, was a bitter 45 and at first she didn’t recognize the real thing because “he was taller than I imagined, and much thinner—almost frail looking. His face was still beautiful, but so unexpectedly sad and weary that it shocked me—and broke my heart.” As he passed, he gave her a smile and she managed to smile back and then he was gone. She remained for a while rooted to the spot, still holding the flowers she’d intended to give him, and she wept at the sadness of the real Errol Flynn.

Gertrud Siepmann is known in today’s United States as Trudy McVicker, and if you asked Trudy if Errol was a real-life hero she would say an enthusiastic yes! That’s what came to mind when I read Sister C.’s ode to her protector and inspiration, Buster Keaton. That and the powerful, clear and clean craftsmanship of the piece.

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Coming Soon: Columns about the research and writing of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II.

Friends

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

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

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

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.

Spy vs. Spy

Kasteel Zijpendaal tricked out as Nazi headquarters for the film Betrayed in 1954. It had indeed been taken over by German command in 1943 and must have looked pretty much just like this.

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

There was a high body count of Germans for the run of Betrayed. Here members of the beret-clad Dutch underground shoot their way out after rescuing Gable and take off.

One more, 2015 again, showing the side of the house scaled by “the Scarf” as he rescued Deventer. In real life, 11-year-old Audrey Hepburn loved to explore these grounds in 1941. She would read here on the lawn and play with the animals, which she preferred to people.

 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a hankering to watch Betrayed the other night, Clark Gable’s last picture for MGM, made in 1954 and about the Dutch underground in WWII. I never much cared for later Gable pictures—he didn’t seem to care so why should I? But these days everything Dutch is important so there I was, watching Gable as Deventer, code-named “Rembrandt,” a Dutch CIA-type fighting the Nazis in his home country, which had been invaded and occupied by the Germans in May 1940. The first sequence in the picture was shot at Kasteel Zijpendaal—a locally famous Dutch castle built in the 18th century on a little lake at the edge of the city of Arnhem. It was “the ancestral home of the Baron van Heemstra,” Audrey Hepburn’s maternal grandfather who was once Arnhem’s mayor.  As a girl of 10 and 11, shy Audrey communed with nature in the lush grounds surrounding the castle.

So there right in front of me was Kasteel Zijpendaal dressed up as Nazi headquarters, and there was Victor Mature as the notorious Dutch underground leader “the Scarf” rowing across the little lake and climbing in a window and helping Clark Gable to escape right before Deventer was about to be tortured and made to talk. There were fake hand grenade explosions inside, Germans mowed down by the machine guns of the Scarf and his men, and then Mature burst out the front door with Gable on his back, stole a Nazi staff car, and escaped. I was dumbfounded because Mary and I had been to this castle multiple times. The rest of the picture played out almost entirely in the Netherlands with Lana Turner parachuting onto Dutch soil as a spy planted by the Allies. She is in love with Gable but quickly gets mixed up with Mature amidst spy vs. spy shenanigans. And so on and so forth.

Something you don’t see every day: Lana Turner parachuting into hostile territory. To lessen your concern, I can report that she didn’t break a nail, let alone an ankle.

The depiction of Mature and the Dutch underground is hilarious. They were bumping off Nazis right and left in all these raids that never happened. At one point he and his men barge into a Luftwaffe base and annihilate a great number of Germans having a party. In truth, I love you dearly, Dutch people, but I terms of violence, you were only good at blowing off an occasional hand or foot—usually your own. When you outwitted a German, which you did all the time, it was by making an illegal radio the size of a matchbook or sending your kids out to steal dinner from the soldiers or hiding forbidden leaflets in the fake tummy of a fake pregnant lady. That was the way you won the war. One woman told me that when she was a little girl, a German officer came to their house and while he was in another room, she picked up his hat and spat in it. Classic Dutch mischief.

But they also did deadly serious stuff, like hiding thousands of Jews just before they would have been sent to Auschwitz, along with American and British fliers who fell from the skies after their bombers and fighters were shot down. One of these was Clem Leone, a friend of mine whose incredible story is chronicled in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Thanks to many courageous Dutch people across the country, Clem evaded capture for four months as he made his way south through the Netherlands–it was a lousy Belgian that turned him over to the Nazis in Antwerp.

I did some reading in Lyn Tornabene’s Long Live the King and Jean Garceau’s Dear Mr. G. after finishing my viewing of Betrayed. Gable spent a month in the Netherlands shooting at various locations and was treated like his royal self everywhere he went. He was mobbed and it made all the Dutch newspapers. The location work was fantastic and everything you’d expect—lots of windmills, and dikes, and water, water everywhere. You just can’t replicate that stuff on a soundstage, and the lushness of the production, in Eastman Color no less, really surprised me given the dire straits of MGM at that time—TV drowning the studio’s books in red ink and most of its stars cut loose as a result. ‘Mr. G.’ went freelance at the end of production and never again walked through the gates of the studio that made him famous over the course of more than 20 years.

In a very cool finish, survivors of British Airborne shuffle past our beleaguered heroes.

The ingenious payoff to the plot of the picture is that Gable provides information allowing 3,000 besieged British Airborne paratroopers to escape after the September 1944 “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem. The title Betrayed refers to one of the three leads leaking the plans for Operation Market Garden to the Germans, which causes them to roll in two panzer divisions in anticipation of the Allies dropping 10,000 paratroopers behind Nazi lines to capture the Arnhem Road Bridge. The whole thing was a real-life disaster for the British and 7,000 of their boys ended up dead, wounded, or captured. The very last shot in the picture shows the Airborne survivors limping out of the fog after they had crossed the Rhine along an escape route mapped by heroes Gable and Turner.

If you know the history of this battle, the plot of Betrayed is a perfect fictional backstory that fits hand in glove with real-life events. Another surprise is that there’s very little explanation for what’s going on, meaning that Hollywood expected everyone in the 1954 audience to have the facts of Market Garden top of mind. It’s a level of sophistication that would never be anticipated by movie producers today.

I had no idea I was going to get to go back to Holland on a frozen Friday night in Pennsylvania and watch my Dutch friends do a whole bunch of crazy-heroic stuff to a whole bunch of hapless Germans. Oh, the Dutch were heroic in World War II all right. Much more heroic than simply wielding a machine gun. Come to think of it, Clark Gable had Dutch roots and his character in Betrayed is very Dutch indeed. He’s not a gun toter; he uses his brains at every step to outwit the thugs who hijacked the 20th century on their way to a thousand-year Reich. “Not on my watch,” was the response of the crafty, and ultimately liberated, Dutch.

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

2021 author’s note: In honor of the holidays, I’m re-posting this piece on a picture I just watched yesterday (again). I wrote this about 17 months before the release of Dutch Girl.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent imposters). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner (one for Gwenn and two for the writing). I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.