When my mother wanted to teach me a lesson about life she never used stories about her career. She always told stories about the war. The war was very, very important to her. It made her who she was.
Luca Dotti, youngest son of Audrey Hepburn
Breaking out at the height of the studio era, World War II indelibly impacted Hollywood’s stars as much as it did the movie going public. Author Robert Matzen has highlighted three dynamic instances of this in a WWII trilogy that began with Carole Lombard and her tragic death, continued with Jimmy Stewart’s service as a bomber pilot and concludes with his latest book Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II.
Dutch Girl is a somber and rich book, filled with meticulous detail and compassion. Matzen does a superb job of weaving together an exploration of the searing impact of the war upon the adolescent Audrey, or Adriaantje as she was endearingly known to her family, and the history of the German occupation and subsequent Allied advancement into Holland. The onslaught the country endured is chronologically depicted yet always brought back to the story of this particular girl, in this time. Throughout, the actor remains a lilting, inspirational presence.
Hepburn descended from an aristocratic family of relatively insubstantial means but of some influence. The result was privilege but also targeting, to the point of familial assassination, and a heightened sense of responsibility to embody strength and courage. The regal bearing that the actor brought to her film roles, most strikingly in Roman Holiday, resulted as much from the perseverance and self-discipline that saw her through hardship as the expectations foisted upon her as a member of the aristocracy. Her years of training in ballet only enhanced these qualities and in turn, her charismatic poise.
Her mother and father, in each their own way, initially embraced fascism as the start of a new order, bringing prestige and discipline to a WWI ravaged continent. Both later regretted these impulses on a personal level; initial nationalistic stirrings did little to provide food, shelter and safety as the war raged on. It is little wonder that Hepburn chose to abandon her aristocratic roots and any claim to titles in her adult years. These conflictual forces left indelible scars upon the teen-age Audrey that persisted long after the war’s resolution and permanently forged her character.
The book is graced with an introduction by Hepburn’s son Luca Dotti, who also agreed to a sit-down interview with the author, provided photos and in essence his blessing to the project. His enthusiastic endorsement brings heightened legitimacy, a sense even further solidified by conversational chapter notes. In these there is the sense of a different story, one of the author’s own travels, personal communications and experiences in discovering his book. His respect and deference for those who endured through the war years is palpable. The breadth of his research admirable and awe-inspiring. If anything, there are times when in the aim of sharing as many personal stories as possible, there is a bit of bogging down in the narrative, with various eye-witness accounts bolstering the exhaustive detail and breathing life into an interminable war. Yet the book is never dry nor disinterested in the tale of its dual subjects, that of the battering of the Netherlands and its brave people during WWII, and the young Audrey who later became its most cherished and famous celebrity.
Matzen avoids some of the pitfalls of his earlier work Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 where his attempts to bring individuals to life resulted in some jarring instances of speculation as to personal thoughts, motives and remorse. Here his personalization attains the level of sympathetic renderings while allowing a respectful amount of breathing room. The narrative flows smoothly and almost entirely, except for a few italicized initial passages within chapters, chronologically. This works well given the complexity of the material shared regarding the war itself. The air raids, invasions and movements of troops and the complexities of occupation can become overwhelming but are certainly imperative in understanding the devastating impacts upon a creative, impressionable child. Most telling are the passages that relate Hepburn’s struggles with hunger during the final year:
The last winter, the so-called ‘hunger winter’ was the nearest I could come to saying I’ve seen starvation… Children were always rummaging in the dust bins and people were dying of hunger and cold.
These experiences led to a deep empathy for children suffering in some of the most devastated regions of the world, those tossed about by political movements, military initiatives and starvation. Hepburn infused not only her acting but her boots-on-the-ground work as an ambassador for UNICEF, work that took her to Ethiopia, the Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere, with the compassion resultant from her life experiences. Her empathy ran so deep that her slight frame became more fragile as she traveled and matured. Eventually she would die of cancer at the age of 63. Matzen is able to follow this thread too, from its roots in the deprivation of war to her sad, premature succumbing.
Dutch Girl is a stirring and remarkable read, thoroughly researched, compelling and certainly overdue. It is highly recommended for Audrey Hepburn admirers, classic film fans and history lovers, who are so often one and the same.
Many thanks to Smith Publicity Inc, the author and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to review it. Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen (GoodKnight Books 2018) may be pre-ordered in Hardcover or Audiobook from Barnes and Noble, Amazon or your favorite bookseller. It will be available April 15, 2019.