Strong historical women

I’ve been catching up on strong women in history movies of late, women I had heard of or only had rudimentary knowledge of but now I feel I know a little better. Of course I don’t see these movies as documentaries but they did give a nice little deepdive into who they were.

I started with On the Basis of Sex about supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) before she became a judge. It followed her early career and her groundbreaking win in a case where she argued to not discriminate against a man as a carer for his ailing mother on the basis of his sex. That laid the goundwork for later equal women’s rights laws. I also love how Ruth’s marriage is portrayed here, a real partnership between two equals, the way (for me) that a marriage should be, a give and take in equality.

I love how this is not about a superhero female lawyer but that it’s about a woman who quietly fights for justice in her own unique way. I know Felicity Jones is not for everyone but I have really liked her since I first saw her in Northanger Abbey quite a few years ago and she doesn’t disappoint here either.

Hannah Arendt focuses on (not surprisingly) Hannah Arendt as she follows the trial of Adolf Eichman, leading her to coin the famous term ‘the banality of evil’. It was a good and thought provoking film with a great performance by German actress Barbara Sukowa but it was also a very slow moving and sometimes tedious to get through story. Either that or I watched it too late at night when I was too tired to follow all of the thoughts laid out in the film, which meant I felt my eyes drooping on occasion. Even though it was slow, the movie did stick with me for a little while so I think I need to watch this one again, when I am feeling more alert.

I like that this is not about a woman battling and fighting for a place in a man’s world, it’s a movie about a strong and already respected woman in her own right who lives life on her own terms, a political theorist (I understand she didn’t see herself as a philosopher) trying to make sense of the evils of the Holocaust. It’s well worth a watch (even if a tad slow).

Harriet is about the life of Harriet Tubman, who in the mid 1800s escaped slavery in Maryland and went on to free 70 more slaves from the southern plantations after that. I know very little about Tubman and I really liked this movie which gave me more of an insight into who she had been. Cynthia Erivo was truly remarkable as Minty aka Harriet, I was surprised when afterwards I found out that Erivo is actually a British actress, she was so good!

The story was dramatically well told, Harriet was a strong and very determined character who wouldn’t let anyone sway her from her path. The music was good too, especially the spirituals in it made me want to listen to the soundtrack. I don’t get that urge often when I watch a movie.

Cynthia Erivo sings herself, what a gorgeous voice she has. The song “Stand up” that she co-wrote was nominated for an Oscar but lost out to Elton John…

I then saw Big Eyes, about painter Margaret Keane (played by Amy Adams, I watched the movie because of her), another woman I knew nothing about. She painted the famous big eyes paintings in the 1960s that were also turned into countless posters and postcards. Her husband (played by Christoph Waltz) marketed and took credit for all her work for many years and she let him out of fear.

It is depressing to see her become isolated from others, caught in a restricted world alone with her husband and lying to her daughter (from her first marriage). It is then a relief to see her subsequently emerge and come into her own at the end. I had no idea about any of this, so it was an interesting watch for me.

As usual, Amy Adams is brilliant in this, can someone please finally give her that Oscar?

Last but not least, I watched Misbehaviour, a movie about the 1970 Miss World competition, held in London, hosted by a quite sexist Bob Hope. Claiming that beauty competitions demeaned women, the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement achieved overnight fame by invading the stage of the Miss World show. At the same time, that show also became the first time a black woman from South Africa was allowed to compete and the first time a black woman (from Grenada) won.

Keira Knightley, Jessie Buckley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw starred in this movie (I especially love the latter two although Keira is really good in this one too), alongside a few other good names (Rhys Ifans, Keeley Hawes, Leslie Manville, Greg Kinnear). I like how this movie shows the point of view of the protesters as well as of the contestants, especially the two black women who use the competition to try and find emancipation. There is a conversation after the contest between the winner Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and protester Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) in the bathroom, both discussing their points of view and I just wish that scene had lasted longer. I enjoyed this movie too.

All of these movies are well worth seeing but my fave of these have been Harriet and On the Basis of Sex, the latter even leading me to watch the 2018 documentary RBG, which gave a fascinating insight into Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These are ‘just’ movies, so by nature dramatized and maybe not 100% accurate in the stories they tell, but I do love them and how they bring these stories to the awareness of people today. We’ve come a long way in many things but these movies also remind me that we have a way to go yet as we still fight many battles today against racism and sexism.

April 3rd

On this day in the year…

33: Christ was crucified (according to astronomer Humphreys & Waddington)

1043: Edward the Confessor crowned King of England

1312: 2nd council of Vienna, Knights Templars suppressed

1367: Henry IV of England, King of England and Lord of Ireland (1399-1413), born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, England (d. 1413)

1657: English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell refuses crown

1783: Washington Irving, American writer (Legend of Sleepy Hollow), born in NYC, New York (d. 1859)

1860: The Pony Express mail delivery system, which used continuous horse-and-rider relays along a 1,800-mile (2,900-km) route between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, was launched in the United States.

1882: American outlaw Jesse James is killed by Robert Ford at home in St Joseph

1886: Dooley Wilson [Arthur Wilson], American musician and actor (Beulah, Casablanca), born in Tyler, Texas (d. 1953)

1893: Leslie Howard [Stainer], British actor (Gone With the Wind, Of Human Bondage), born in London, (d. 1943)

1897: Johannes Brahms, German composer and conductor (Hungarian Dances; A German Requiem), dies at 63

1913: British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst sentenced to 3 years in jail

1919: Austria expels all Habsburgers and according to Mr Esther the use of coats of arms by families is banned

1920: Novelist and short story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (23) weds novelist Zelda Sayre (19) at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York

1922: Doris Day [Kappelhoff] , American singer, animal welfare activist and actress (Pillow Talk, The Man Who Knew Too Much), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (d. 2019)

1924: Marlon Brando, American actor (The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront), born in Omaha, Nebraska (d. 2004)

1930: Helmut Kohl, German chancellor (West Germany, 1982-90, unified Germany, 1990-98), born in Ludwigshafen, Weimar Republic (d. 2017)

1930: 2nd Academy Awards: “The Broadway Melody”, Warner Baxter & Mary Pickford win. First time Academy Awards are broadcast on the radio.

1933: 1st airplane flight over Mt Everest

1934: Jane Goodall, British ethologist (studied African chimps), born in London, England

1948: US President Harry Truman signs Marshall Plan ($5B aid to 16 European countries)

1952: Dutch Queen Juliana speaks to US Congress

1958: Fidel Castro’s rebels attacked Havana

1958: Alec Baldwin, American actor (Joshua-Knots Landing, Beetlejuice), born in Amityville, New York

1961: Eddie Murphy, American actor (SNL, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Raw), born in Brooklyn, New York

1968: Martin Luther King gave his last speech (“I’ve been to the mountaintop”) at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. The next day, King was assassinated.

1973: The first handheld mobile telephone call was made by an employee of Motorola, who called AT&T’s Bell Laboratories

1976: 21st Eurovision Song Contest: Brotherhood of Man for United Kingdom wins singing “Save Your Kisses for Me” in The Hague, The Netherlands

1977: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1st meeting with US President Jimmy Carter. I still remember the excitement at home (we lived just outside Jerusalem) when the Camp David Accords were signed two years later.

1978: Matthew Goode, English actor (Leap Year, A Single Man, A Discovery of Witches), born in Exeter, Devon, England

1982: Cobie Smulders, Canadian actress (How I Met Your Mother), born in Vancouver, British Columbia

1991: UN Security Council adopts Gulf War truce resolution

1996: Federal agents in Montana apprehend Ted Kaczynski, an American terrorist known as the “Unabomber,” who had killed 3 persons and injured more than 20 with explosives sent through the U.S. postal system.

2012: US President Barack Obama officially secures Democratic presidential nomination

2016: Panama Papers published – 11.5 million confidential documents from offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca expose widespread illegal activities including fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion and the violation of international sanctions by the world’s elite in the world’s largest ever data leak

2021: Esther turns 51, celebrating her second birthday in Covid 19 quarantine…

The text on the cake translates to “It’s Esther’s birthday. Happy birthday old cake (i.e. meaning ‘old bat’)!” and yes, there is a spelling mistake on the photo gift my son got me which I love (it is so him!). Unlike last year, this year my already vaccinated mother and aunt were able to visit. It’s been a nice, low-key day.

(MTA: most of the info above is sourced from

Natural history in Naturalis

We have a great natural history museum here in The Netherlands, called Naturalis, situated in the old university town of Leiden. They opened their new, much bigger, building last year and we’d been meaning to visit for a while. Especially mini-me was eager to go to see the new T-Rex they have there. So, yesterday we went. The building looks like this from the outside…

… and inside it is quite stunning (click on images to enlarge).

The collection too was stunning, all very nicely put together, but what I think I loved most is that in some parts they displayed the work they do alongside the collection itself. In the two following pictures you can see in the background of the room that researchers were actually busy doing their thing (in this case cleaning off dinosaur bones). The floating skeletons in the middle are of whales.

The assorted animals they had were impressive…

And the dinosaur exhibit was very cool. They were even working on assembling a dinosaur right in the exhibition space.

And I also loved the landscape model of The Netherlands as it was 30.000 years ago during the ice age, accompanied by a skeleton of a mammoth put together from hundreds of different mammoth bones finds.

The early humans exhibit was alas closed to visitors as apparently 1.5 meter distance measures could not be guaranteed there, so that means we just need to come back again another time when it is open again!

We walked into town in Leiden afterwards for drinks, which is always a bit nostalgic for me, as I once lived there for 8 years when I was a student.

Social distancing was doable throughout and judging from afar it was good that we didn’t head into the shopping street as that did look terribly busy. I always long to travel abroad on my holidays, get another perspective and see new things, but this day in Leiden really felt like a holiday as well.

Victorian tin

Rachel, over on her blog, was showing her readers some of the lovely tins she owns and asked about other people’s tins. We don’t have a whole lot of tins in our house but we do have a special one that I’d like to share. It used to belong to my grandmother and is very worn. I don’t know if it’s worn because she used it so much or whether she once purchased it that way. She loved collecting all sorts of knick knacks, her house was filled with them, as is my mother’s house, and our house is too – it’s a family thing, I guess. Anyway, back to the tin: it’s an old Victorian one with colonial British empire images and it’s fascinating to look at (click on images to enlarge)…

It’s a biscuit tin from a company called MacFarlane, Lang & Co. situated in Glasgow and London. I did a little googling and from other pictures I find that it was apparently made for the occasion of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Pretty cool!

I really like looking at old tins and if I didn’t already have a house full of stuff, I could totally see myself collecting some nice ones. For now, though, it’s best to just stick with my one Victorian tin that we have.

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