Publisher: GoodKnight Books
Release Date: April 15, 2019
A Conversation with Robert Matzen
Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II is the culmination of years of painstaking research by Robert Matzen. He conducted new interviews with people who knew Audrey Hepburn in the Netherlands, unearthed secret diaries, gained access to previously classified archives, and combed through decades of her own infrequent but revealing reminiscences in interviews. The resulting text contains a wealth of substantive proof of holes, errors, and inventions in every previous Audrey Hepburn biography that’s touched on her life during the war years.
Hepburn’s younger son, Luca Dotti, has given the book his enthusiastic endorsement and even wrote the book’s forward:
“When my mother talked about herself and what life taught her, Hollywood was the missing guest. Instead of naming famed Beverly Hills locations, she gave us obscure and sometimes unpronounceable Dutch ones. Red carpet recollections were replaced by Second World War episodes that she was able to transform into children’s tales. We knew we were missing the complete story of her life in the war—until Robert Matzen wrote to me introducing himself and his book, Dutch Girl. I now understand why the words Good and Evil, and Love and Mercy were so fundamental in her own narrative. Why she was open about certain facts and why she kept so many others in a secluded area of her being. Thank you, Robert Matzen.” –Luca Dotti (Forward, Dutch Girl)
It is no wonder that he has granted the book his blessing as it paints the vivid picture of a shy but brave young ballerina who overcame loss and survived starvation even as wartime violence surrounded her and her family. Her active (if modest) role in the Dutch Resistance only adds to one’s admiration of the actress who seemed to radiate kindness and sophistication in equal measure.
Robert Matzen has graciously agreed to sit down to discuss his new book and the immense impact that the Second World War had on one of the most beloved film icons of all time.
CL: Could you describe Dutch Girl for our readers and what your intentions were in writing such a book? It obviously has a radically different focus than other books about the actress’s life. What can readers expect?
RM: Great first question because it gives me a platform! When I started to get a sense of what Audrey had experienced in the war, I realized this would need to be a book about World War II, and about Audrey inside that global drama. It’s subtitled Audrey Hepburn and World War II for a reason. Readers can expect a war book as much as a biography because she was one small figure on a big stage. I guess in general I would advise any prospective reader to also be prepared for surprises in terms of narrative structure. I like to take some chances and keep readers on their toes, and I managed some of that in Dutch Girl.
CL: Dutch Girl is the third book in a trilogy of books that you have written about Hollywood legends during the Second World War. Was it always your intention to write three books, or did it simply happen to work out this way? How did you come upon the idea?
RM: Fireball, about Carole Lombard, started out as a one-off, and it was after Fireball’s release that a friend recommended that I write a book about Jimmy Stewart’s combat experiences in the war—something Stewart would never talk about. While researching what became Mission, I was in Arnhem in the Netherlands. I learned that Audrey had spent the war there and I thought that was interesting. I wanted to know what the war was like for her and tried to read up on it, but there was surprisingly little documentation about this angle anywhere, including in previous biographies. It seemed that if ever there was a topic for a book, this was it. And here we are. So no, I didn’t start out with a plan to create a “Hollywood in World War II” trilogy. It evolved.
CL: How was researching and writing Dutch Girl different from your experience developing Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe and Fireball: Carole Lombard & The Mystery of Flight 3?
RM: Fireball and Mission were largely the results of archival research—federal government files and other sets of files in the U.S. were supplemented by interviews and with boots-on-the-ground events like climbing a mountain or riding in WWII bombers. Dutch Girl involved a total effort in the Netherlands, primarily interviewing Audrey’s contemporaries in Arnhem and Velp—people who had survived the war with her as children or young people. Without the oral histories they provided, there would be no book. Another problem was that the documents I accessed in various archives were all written in Dutch so I took a crash course in the language and also hired a Dutch researcher named Maddie van Leenders. Why an enterprising Dutch writer didn’t tackle this topic 20 or 30 years ago I’ll never know. I feel crazy-lucky that I got to be the one. I should mention that I just learned of the passing of one of the people who helped with the book, Ben van Griethuysen, which saddens me deeply. Ben and the others provided oral histories of the war in Velp that would have been lost if they hadn’t been asked the right questions—the Dutch just don’t go around volunteering information. You have to almost pry it out of them.
CL: Are there any other challenges that you had to overcome in the process of writing the book? Could you discuss your process?
RM: Another big challenge beyond the location, language, and nature of the Dutch people was the fact that Audrey’s mother, Ella van Heemstra, had covered her tracks about pro-Nazi activities after the war, obscuring attempts to define her character. Because she was so central to Audrey’s life, that was a challenge that I had to overcome—and did, with the help of Luca Dotti, Audrey’s son.
Phase 1 involved tracking down everything Audrey said about the war, which gave me a framework of about 5,000 words. Phase 2 included many interviews with the Dutch and repeated visits to the city of Arnhem and village of Velp, walking in Audrey’s footsteps. I saw the places she lived, explored inside of the theater where she danced as Arnhem’s most famous ballerina, and walked the streets of Velp that were once her streets. Phase 3 was the writing, about ten months of it, and phase 4 was working with Audrey’s son Luca Dotti, who reviewed the rough manuscript and made corrections, provided total access to his family historical archives, and sat for interviews with me where he related stories his mother had told him about the war.
Finally the manuscript was vetted to a panel that included top historians and Dutch people I had interviewed. I feel the result is pretty water-tight in terms of accuracy.
CL: It was interesting (and surprising) to learn that Hepburn’s parents were both Nazi sympathizers before war broke out in Europe. How did this influence Hepburn, and what problems did this create for her?
RM: Her father Joseph Ruston was much more than a Nazi sympathizer—he was a full-fledged Nazi agent who spent the latter half of the 1930s gathering information and intelligence for the Germans in Western Europe and England. Audrey’s mother Ella was the true “sympathizer” and remained one for the first 18 months that Germany occupied the Netherlands. After the war when it came time for retribution against anything Nazi, Ella had a tough time during a long police investigation of her activities. Audrey never forgave her parents for their actions and it became a tremendous burden for her to keep her mother’s secrets about the war at a time when everyone wanted to know everything about Audrey Hepburn.
CL: Do you have a favorite Audrey Hepburn’s film?
RM: Full disclosure: I did not start out as an Audrey Hepburn fan, so I hadn’t seen many of her pictures. That said, Roman Holiday, no question. Audrey is so young and so fresh and natural, using those instincts she would always talk about because she hadn’t developed her acting career on the stage and learned classical style. She had survived the war by her wits and instincts and kept right on surviving in her Hollywood career. In Roman Holiday she’s just plain charming, with this innocence and goofy sense of humor she would always have. I could watch that sequence where she wakes up in Joe’s bed any time, and the conclusion where the princess has to give up the commoner of her dreams. It’s beautiful and heartfelt. I usually gravitate to upbeat pictures anyway, and Roman Holiday radiates pure charm and pure romance. My runner up would be her most important British picture from the pre-Hollywood days, Secret People. Her role is big and she also performs ballet. She looks so young in that picture, which was shot at the beginning of 1951, that it’s easy to imagine her on the stage in Arnhem during the war.
CL: The book discusses how the war left its mark on Hepburn. Do you feel like these experiences had any effect on her film performances?
RM: Wow, that’s another great question, and one I’ve been asked about Stewart but not about Hepburn. You look at the impact of the war on Jim and it directly translates to his rage-roles in It’s a Wonderful Life, Winchester 73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, and others. But Audrey didn’t channel energy the same way. I know she experienced deep sadness in the war and afterward but I believe she kept it locked away. I think her rawest performance was in the one closest to the war chronologically—Secret People, the one I just mentioned. It’s a tense, dark picture anyway and she’s excellent in it and it’s possible that she used her memories as motivation. I think some of the sadness can be seen in The Nun’s Story from 1959 and Robin and Marian, her comeback picture in 1976. But with Audrey, private was private and she refused to let anyone in to see what was locked away.
CL: Which of Hepburn’s unique qualities do you feel was the result of her experiences the war?
RM: Color-blind compassion. The war gave her a child’s-eye-view of things like suffering and hopelessness, and how to combat them. She saw refugees up close and the idea of a refugee didn’t harden her heart—it opened her heart. Up until the very end, that horrific Somalia trip, she felt there was nothing she couldn’t beat. She could find a silver lining in the blackest of clouds and rejoice in the smallest victories because she knew how important it was to maintain hope no matter how bad things were. That frail body kept moving forward until her dying day to combat the evils of war and its devastating impact on children.
CL: Dutch Girl discusses Hepburn’s deep personal reaction to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Is it a coincidence that the cover of Dutch Girl reminds me of some of the covers that I have seen of Anne Frank? They don’t physically resemble one another, but there is something undefinable that is quite similar.
RM: Actually, I could write a book about that cover design and what it took to arrive at it. What a soap opera! I was told early on as merely the author to stay the heck out of the design process and that was a good move. The final design still blows me away when I see it and it wasn’t until you brought up the similarity with Anne Frank photos and cover designs that I stopped and thought, boy, yeah, there are similarities in look and feel. Audrey and Anne really were two peas in a pod in some ways, which is why I maintain Audrey felt no small amount of survivor’s guilt where Anne was concerned. The Green Police captured both of them during the war, but Audrey managed to escape, so one died in horrendous conditions, and the other lived to raise two sons and experience a glamorous and luxury-filled life. But then I wonder if that survivor’s guilt Audrey felt is what drove her to a dozen impoverished countries and war zones in the last five years of her life.
CL: Is there any chance that you might make your Hollywood in World War II trilogy into a tetralogy? For example, Alfred Hitchcock left Hollywood during the war to produce a pair of French propaganda shorts for the British Ministry of Information and also had a hand in a documentary about the concentration camps. Frank Capra also made a series of celebrated propaganda documentaries. I’m sure that the possibilities are endless. Are there more of these books gestating in your mind? If so, could you tell us about them?
RM: I had to go look up “tetralogy.” I know there are other stories I could tell with a Hollywood war theme. Leslie Howard, Glenn Miller, Ty Power in the Pacific, or I could explore the flip side and talk about the ones who didn’t serve. I guess anything’s possible. I do have one idea for a next book that would be dynamite—so much so that it’d be an easy idea to steal so I better keep it quiet. And this one, if it comes to fruition, would have little to do with World War II.
Interview by: Devon Powell