Dutch girl Audrey Hepburn

It’s no surprise to anyone reading here that I love Audrey Hepburn. During the Second World War she lived with her Dutch mother in and around Arnhem here in The Netherlands and last year I even made a little pilgrimage to see where she had lived exactly during the war. I also learned then that a book had just been published about those years in Audrey’s life, called “Dutch Girl : Audrey Hepburn and World War II” written by Robert Matzen. I bought it and it’s been laying around here for months, waiting to be read. Last week I finally did.

Audrey is important to me and reading this book was important to me, hence this long post about the book that in the end left me with very mixed feelings. Let me start with what I liked about the book.

The book gave me answers to my timeline questions I had about when Audrey lived where. She moved to the Sickeszlaan in Arnhem in December of 1939 (that much I knew), then 3 months later moved to apartments in the center of Arnhem at the Jansbinnensingel and was living there when the German invasion of The Netherlands happened in May 1940. Soon after August of 1942 she moved to the nearby town of Velp, where her grandfather and aunt lived, and stayed there till the end of the war in May 1945.

I also liked that the book gave more of a background to Audrey’s family. Her father was out of her life when she was young, so it centers around her mother, her aunts and her grandfather, who is a baron but not rich. Her half brothers Alex and Ian, born to her mother during her first marriage, are also mentioned and how one was sent away for forced labour in Berlin and the other had to go into hiding to escape that same fate…

… and there’s a big section on her aunt’s husband, Otto van Limburg Stirum who had been a prosecuting attorney but wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazis and was fired. He was later arrested and shot to death as an example and in retalliation to resistance activities that he had been no part of.

Audrey’s mother’s Nazi sympathies were also examined and it turned out they weren’t just sympathies. She wrote glowingly in two newspaper articles in the mid 1930s about Nazism and these sympathies continued till at least 1941.

Even after reading this, I’m not sure whether Ella really turned away from Nazism or whether, because of the war, it was more prudent to become anti-Nazi. Maybe she turned away from Nazism after the execution of her brother-in-law in August of 1942, after which she and Audrey moved from Arnhem to Velp to be with Ella’s father and newly widowed sister. Fact is that she did have a Nazi boyfriend at the beginning of the invasion and that Audrey did do dance recitals in Arnhem for Nazi audiences organized by her mother.

Audrey’s own brief mentions in various interviews about working for the resistance are also examined. There was an exhibition in 2016 at the Airborne museum near Arnhem about Audrey and, leading up to that, research had been done about claims that Audrey had worked for the resistance. If you read Dutch (or you could put it through Google Translate if you’re interested), there’s an article from 2016 which says that “Audrey Hepburn was not a resistance hero” as no evidence whatsoever was found for that in documents and archives. This book refutes that, due to interviews held with the children of Dutch resistance workers in Velp, where her activities were said to have taken place. She did dance to raise money for resistance activites when she lived in Velp and she did run errands for the nearby hospital which housed the resistance and she was in especially close contact with Dr. Hendrik Visser ‘t Hooft, who ran many resistance operations, and his children. Or so the author says from interviews he held.

I also appreciated reading more about the shelling and fighting Velp experienced at the end of the war, how close to where Audrey lived everything happened, how during the Battle of Arnhem in 1944 (of a “bridge too far” fame) hopes for liberation were dashed, how everyone in Velp took in refugees from Arnhem as the city was evacuated including Audrey’s family, how for a short period an airman was hidden in Audrey’s house (according to an interview with Audrey’s younger son). The last winter of the war was described, the famous “Hunger Winter”, and in some descriptions I also recognized stories my mother has told me of that time. Of how cold it was, about using tulip bulbs for food, there being no heat and every scrap of wood that could be found would be used for heating, how the V1 bombs sounded overhead and when the noise stopped suddenly, you knew it was dropping. Some of these things were brief Audrey quotes, most of the descriptions were of other eyewitness accounts in Velp which I found valuable to read. So yes, I did get a much better picture of what Audrey’s life probably had been like during the war.

Next to the positives of the book there were also some huge downsides for me. In hindsight, reading the jacket text on the author should have warned me, where it said Robert Matzen combined “airtight research with spellbinding narrative.” While reading the book I often wondered whether he was trying to write a novel based on facts and interviews or whether this was a proper study he was publishing. I had hoped for the latter.

I started to question the “airtight research” on page 3 where he referenced the 1935 Leni Riefenstahl Nazi Parteitag propaganda film as Triumph des Willen, without the ‘s’ at the end (it should be Willens). I figured maybe the editors had just missed a spelling mistake. A little further on he referenced the Dutch Heineken family (of the beer fame) as Heinekin. I mean, come on, the beer is so famous, can’t you even spell the name right? Such little mistakes started to annoy me. In an attempt to sound Dutch he said that Audrey had moved to “Arnhem Centraal”. That doesn’t sound right. Arnhem Centraal is what you would call the central train station. If he had said “Arnhem centrum”, that would have been correct. He references the Dutch beach town of Noordwijk as being “just north of Rotterdam”, which in US terms of distance might be OK, but in actuality it would have been far more accurate describing Noordwijk as just north of Leiden (or even north of The Hague if you want to reference a large city). Somewhere in the text he writes something about the Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas and conjugates the name as “Sinter’s bag of toys and candy.” I have never heard it conjugated as “Sinter’s” before, “Sint’s” would be accurate.

I also questioned the Dutch researcher he used. There is this section in the book about Audrey’s mother, Baroness van Heemstra, seeking lodging via an ad in a newspaper in The Hague in 1944. There is discussion on why she would pick The Hague, some possible old connections are mentioned and then this quote comes along from the Dutch researcher who helped with the book:

When you enter the name ‘Van Heemstra’ in the digital pedigree system of the [municipal] archive, about 157 results pop up. I don’t know how they are exactly related to the baron or Ella, but is shows there have always been some connections between the city and this noble family.

Just because there are Van Heemstras in Den Haag doesn’t mean there is a direct family connection and even if there is, it’s quite a jump to think Ella wanted to move there because of them. I have direct cousins with my surname that I do not know at all. If I were her, I would have put far more research into that. So, with this statement even the Dutch researcher’s credibility was weakened for me.

I know these are just tiny details and why get worked up over those? But then, if these small, common details aren’t correct, what liberties were taken with facts that I know nothing of? So, throughout the whole book I was questioning this so-called “airtight” research.

In addition to my qualms about details I also got annoyed with the huge amount of embellishment in the text. Each section of the book starts with a section in cursive. Those sections take a part of Audrey’s later life and reference back to her war years. The author uses quotes from interviews and newspaper articles to paint a certain picture and because of the cursive you take it as a fictionalized description based on actual events. I was fine with those. The author, however, does this in the whole text as well. He is constantly trying to put himself in Audrey’s place and writing from her viewpoint, embellishing what he thinks happened but presenting it as fact. I sometimes felt he was quick to jump to certain conclusions. It’s as if he’s writing a novel at times. For instance, during a bombing when the family hides in the cellar…

The air raid siren had fallen silent and no none so much as breathed. All that could be heard now were aircraft motors and the occasional purring of German-made Spandau machine guns pointed skyward. Did the men in the planes know about the radio station upstairs? Would they go after that? There! There! The whistle of falling bombs! The four van Heemstras could not but cover heads with arms and pray, Onze Vader die in de hemel zijt…

How does he know these thoughts and what they did or didn’t pray in the cellar? And in another section he writes this after a bombing:

“They stepped outside into daylight. While the Baron surveyed the latest bullet holes and shrapnel damage to the structure and property, Audrey looked about her. Down the street toward the center of the village. a building blazed. It was somewhere around Thiele’s book shopperhaps the shop itself. The other way, up the street toward the north, one house on each side of the street was burning, and farther up, somewhere around the intersection with Ringallee, a building was fully engulfed with black smoke billowing skyward.”

How, I wondered, did he know that Audrey and her grandfather saw all this at that exact point in time? I turned to the notes and there it said,

“The picture I painted on 14 April as Audrey and the baron ventured outside is drawn from what was known to be going on that day. I can’t say for certain that Audrey stood on the street and looked left and right, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that she did, and if she did, that is precisely what she would have seen – based also on my many visits to the spot.”

I guess that really sums up the book of me – it’s a book full of painted pictures and jumping to conclusions, based on facts and interviews, but with so many thoughts and feelings added by the author. These two quotes are just small examples of what the book does on every page! Admittedly, most of those thoughts and feelings could be true, and Audrey has often said how much the war affected her, but I wished that the author had distinguished within the text itself what was fact and what was his own embellishment. I guess making those distinctions would have made the text not as literary but I would have trusted it more.

And finally, the source listing left much to be desired. Sure, there is a nice summing up of literature, but I would have liked more details on the interviews (who he spoke to, when, where, what was discussed?) and which archive sources he used. Were there no more details to be found as to what was happening with her brothers (maybe in letters or interviews with the brothers’ children) or even what their perspectives had been on their mother or baby sister Audrey? Did he have contact with the researchers from 2016 who said Audrey was not a documented resistance worker? I’m sure if I really took the time I could form a million more questions. So much was left open and not “airtight” to me.

The book has too many holes in it for me to be able to take it as the whole truth about Audrey’s life during the war. I’m sure large portions are accurate but I can’t unquestioningly trust it. The author completely emulates Audrey and thereby the book loses all sense of objectivity to me. I love Audrey Hepburn, I love seeing pictures of her youth…

… I love hearing about the context of her family, I love when positive and good things are said about her, but I also want the truth and I’m not sure I really get that here. In the end, this is an interesting book that writes in embellished fashion about what Audrey did and what Audrey possibly could have experienced during World War II.

I don’t regret reading the book but I did close it with a whole bag of mixed feelings. In the end I think I would have preferred just reading interview transcripts (from what Audrey has said herself in interviews, from what her sons said, from the interviews Robert Matzen held) with added known archival and literature references to give some context. For me that would have painted a far more accurate and trustworthy picture than this book did with all it’s embellishments

19 thoughts on “Dutch girl Audrey Hepburn

  1. So the book wasn’t a biography per se it sounds like to me a mixed bag of some research plus supposition and author’s POV
    I do love your passion and enthusiasm for all things Audrey and I take away from this post that you maybe gained a bit more insight into her formative years but still are asking questions about what made her tick. For me not knowing much at all about Audrey I gained much from your review of this book. 😘❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good. 🙂
      Everyone seems to ‘know’ Audrey, everyone knows how the war influenced her life, everyone knows that her gracefulness in movement stems from her passion for dance, everyone knows that it was family first and career second (after she had made enough money to be able to make that choice), everyone knows she suffered from her father abandoning her at a young age, everyone knows she sort of stumbled into acting and had little formal training on that front, everyone knows she had hang ups about her looks. And yet, apart from these bits and pieces, she also was a very private person and I just know there are many things we don’t know. So, yes, understanding what made her tick is part of the fascination for me. Her sons do everything to keep her positive legacy alive, as sons should, and this book fits right in with that (the younger son wrote a foreword to the book) but I always wonder what is not said or revealed. I really don’t need to know everything about a person but Audrey sometimes seems a little unreal. Every single person has their ambiguities and I like to also read the less perfect things about a person, about their struggles and about how they rationalize certain discrepancies and also about the wonderful things they really did. It would not make me love her less, because I am convinced she was such a dear soul at heart, it would make her seem more real. And so I search for the truth of her and this book can not prove unequivocally to me that I have found the truth about her war years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Esther I think genuine people are those that have wonderful admirable attributes but also are flawed that they have hang ups because that makes them real and at least for me relatable. I don’t really like when people feel the need to expouse their resumes (ie my coworker does this all the time) yet have no compassion or cannot admit when they make mistakes. We all do!
        Anyway I didn’t know some of your list you just mentioned either so thank you for mentioning them as well🤗❤️

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        1. One thing Audrey did have was a lot of compassion and she wasn’t a bragger either, so I hoped for other sources to give more clarity. I only got that partially from this book and not to the extent that I hoped. Oh well, despite all the negative residual feeling, there is also a lot I did like so I’ll try to remember that as well. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Servetus

    I read it in the fall and I had a similar reaction to you, perhaps with the exception that I really knew nothing at all about the subject beyond generalities about the Dutch WWII experience (resistance, deportations, hunger winter, etc.). I am also a sucker for those early pictures. But yeah — I was not at all secure after reading it that the author was a serious or critical researcher.

    Tangential, very weird, point about the hunger winter — I recently learned that the researcher who discovered the actual cause of celiac disease did so because of these events. Children with the disease received much less gluten and their health improved. After the war they were able to do controlled studies of what they’d observed during that winter.

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    1. Interesting that you, as a historian, had a similar reaction. I am by no means a historian or a researcher, but if I can poke through the holes in this book, I bet more specialist people can too. I have avoided reading reviews for this book because I wanted to make up my own mind, but I think I will go in search of them now, see what others think.

      Interesting about the celiac thing.The book also mentioned a research done in the US during the war emulating the Dutch hunger situation, that sounded interesting and I did not know that.

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      1. Servetus

        Oral history is always such a “thing” — people will say all kinds of things. That doesn’t mean it’s unreliable, but in order to conduct and use oral histories you need to dig into the context of the person interviewed and why they are saying something (cui bono is the big question, but also things like where people had the information from originally, what point are they trying to make, what emotional need is satisfied by them providing it, etc., etc.). It’s not as simple as just going somewhere and asking people questions. In the case of a celebrity there are complicating problems as people will “want to remember” things that may or may not be true. They need their heroes to be heroic in every aspect and that always complicates what they will say.

        In the case of a celebrity like this who was certainly full aware that surviving life in a military occupation is a complex problem and that people are searching for moral clarity afterwards that might not have been available at the time, it was certainly wise to focus her activities and her words forward, toward the many charities that she could usefully support and the good work that she could do, rather than getting involved in any discussion of her mother’s sympathies or what she might or might not have done as (frankly) a child and a teen during the war, who might not have understood the full implications of what she or her family members did at the time. As much as there’s no evidence she was a resistance participant there also seems to be no significant evidence that she supported the regime either (beyond the dancing stuff, which one can’t really call a full-throated allegiance) and that makes her a fairly typical individual.

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        1. That’s just it – to me Audrey is glorified here (despite Nazi sympathies of her parents) and not shown as a fairly typical individual, which I suspect she was and to which I can relate more. He refers to one line in an interview where someone says Audrey helped her father in the resistance and extrapolates a whole active resistance life from that. I don’t doubt that Audrey did help but I do wonder what basis he has in the claims of the extensiveness of her help. And I don’t blame her dancing for the Nazis either, she was just a kid – things weren’t necessarily so black and white and people did what they felt was best to survive and get through everything as well as possible. Even the mother’s seduction by the glory and promise of the Nazis I can sort of understand and she maybe never even have considered what Hitler said about Jews and “Untermenschen” as anything other than a minor detail.

          Somewhere the author referenced how the Dutch after the war vehemently categorized everyone’s actions during the war into “goed” (good or right) or “fout” (wrong) and that no one wanted to be branded “fout” if that could be avoided in any way. I find that to be very true of the post-war attitude in The Netherlands. My mother still speaks of people she knew and family members who had been “fout” during the war. There was no room or excuse for a grey area and there still isn’t and if you are in that grey area, you are still regarded with a bit of scepticism. Matzen does give Audrey’s mother a grey area, and the research into her after the war apparently concluded that she had been naive but had done nothing criminal. In my reading of the book, I don’t feel the author treats Audrey with that same objectivity. She may not have been strictly “goed” (as is suggested) or “fout”. I think she was just a girl making the best of a situation she was thrown into and who moved with whatever place, opportunity and the times she was in threw at her. I wish that had become clearer in the book, the ambiguity of the times for the regular population and of Audrey’s life then.

          Audrey herself only spoke in general terms of the war, with some specific memories mentioned, and I always wonder whether it was because she wanted to protect her mother from public scrutiny or herself. I hoped for an answer to that with this book and I didn’t get it. I don’t buy the “she was just modest” and “because of her mother’s Nazi sympathies” excuse. Yes, she was modest and her mother did have those sympathies, but I think there was a whole array of other reasons why she didn’t want to go into it as well and I would’ve been curious to find out more about that as well.

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          1. Servetus

            “there was a whole array of other reasons” — I think that’s more likely than not. It’s really frustrating that the postwar has almost actively conspired to erase these contexts from our view, and now it’s getting late to find them.

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  3. I read your review of the book with great interest, Esther. While I am nowhere near as big a fan as you are of Audrey Hepburns, I have always appreciated her as an actor and later as a Unicef ambassador, and I was keen to know more about her. At first I thought that your biography was the source material for an audio book about Audrey that I listened to some time last year. A complete waste of time, as it turned out to be narrated almost like a fairy tale book for young girls that romanticised and glorified Audrey and also depicted her as a death-defying resistance fighter. Well, the atrocious quality was to be expected from a free-of-charge Audible offering, I guess. (I know you won’t listen to it, but just for reference, the audio was called ‘Audrey: The girl before the girl’ by Adam Roche.) In any case, just to say it feels absolutely infuriating when authors treat readers like dumb children. Some fictionalised accounts of historic figures are useful and interesting, but when it weaves silly guesswork into the narrative, it taints the whole experience. Such a pity that your book did that – despite getting the seal of approval from Audrey’s son. At least your book had the advantage of also including source material that the author could *not* trivialise. The pictures you included here were great to look at and also tell a story.

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    1. That audiobook sounds quite awful! I don’t expect the romanticising and glorifying in a biography and I did feel there was that for Audrey in this. The death-defying resistance fighter image is a dangerous one because I really don’t believe she was that! She may have done some things for the resistance and that would always have been dangerous, but I don’t believe she was full on involved in resistance activities all the time. I also suspect she sort of happened upon it and didn’t necessarily go in out of conviction. Nowhere in the book does it become clear how she really got into resistance activities in the first place and, again, her being part of the resistance is not documented anywhere and there is only the word of one person quoting something her father said as real evidence. Audrey does mention some activities herself (like the dancing to raise money) and running some errands but I suspect that only happened on occasion. Anyway, there is enough to question.

      I’ve been reading reviews and most of them are quite glowing and I wonder, am I really that unusual for the book having bothered me so much? Some reviews are behind paywalls, so maybe I’m missing the more critical ones because of that. So far I’ve only come across one really critical review in Dutch calling it “pijnlijke halve waarheden” (“painful half truths”), which I think describes it quite accurately (especially an Anne Frank comparison which is made and which I could have mentioned above as well, as that bothered me too).

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      1. I kind of understand why people like to “big up” their favourite actor or somebody else they look up to, but for a biographer to do that, it is dangerous, as you say. And it’s just weird that AH’s son kind of signed off on that.
        Funny that the reviews are mostly positive. May I ask where the reviews came from? Book blogs by any chance? I recently looked up reviews for a book I had recently listened to, and all reviews were glowing – but written by book bloggers who receive a copy of the book “in return for an honest review”. 😬 Nothing against book bloggers. There are a couple among our own acquaintance here within the fandom, who actually do write honest reviews – including some criticism when they dislike the books they have read. But the majority sounded more like marketing blogs than review blogs… Maybe it depends on the genre (the book I was looking up can probably be classed as romance)…

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  4. I haven’t read up on her but I have admired her for awhile. So when I heard about this release I got excited briefly until I read a review months ago. It might have been NPR (I do like their book reviews) or NYT I can’t remember but it made me decide it wasn’t worth my time because of the embellishments. And I would cringe over those details too because I do understand the Dutch references and shouldn’t an editor catch those errors?
    I think I would have stopped reading once he messed up Sinterklaas 🤣
    It seems to me if he had been a good writer it would have been better to write a fictionalized story inspired by her over this quasi biography.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh man, I’d love to read a good critical review because so far I only see summaries of the book that double as reviews or people are over the moon with how detailed and revealing the info is (while not questioning anything the writer says).

      Yes, I wondered too about the editor but I don’t think it was edited by anyone with deeper knowledge of the Dutch… Halfway through the book (before Sinterklaas!) I did give up for a few days but then wanted to see it through to the bitter end (close to which Sinterklaas happens. 🙂 )

      In the book’s defense, if you read past the embellishments, it did give me far more background info about Audrey’s family and also locations and timelines within the story were helpful. It fleshed out a lot of things I didn’t know, I just wonder how plausible parts of it are and especially how plausible the explanations and conclusions are. I’d have different conclusions – for instance, I suspect she did do some activities for the underground but was not a full-fledged participant as was suggested here. Which would be fine! Audrey resistance hero makes for a good story, but I really wonder to what extent that is accurate. Oh man, I have a whole theory, including a ‘survivor’s guilt’ theory, but unfounded and different from Matzen’s theories…

      About your little comment about understanding Dutch references – are you Dutch and/or have you lived in The Netherlands? Just wondering. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ah I gave myself away on an old post talking about books. I’m originally from Antwerp 🇧🇪. Since I went looking for a review and couldn’t find any, I suspect it was via goodreads that I was aware of the flaws of this book. So I have to correct myself, the fact that it’s NOT on NPR & NYT or other reliable book sources tells me something too. Thanks for that article you linked. Ans I guess you’re reading it in English because there’s no Dutch translation yet? I was discussing another book ‘t Hooge Nest by Roxanne Van Iperen with a German friend (she pointed it out to me) which sounds interesting too but then also has flaws.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Antwerp is a very nice city! I’ve been there several times. 🙂

      Yes, I didn’t find reviews in those papers either, so that indeed says something. What I find in the good Dutch papers were articles and interviews but no reviews there either, but maybe I just couldn’t find them during my quick searches.

      There is a Dutch translation of the book, my mother has read it in Dutch, but I always prefer reading in English if I can.

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