Dutch Girl : Audrey Hepburn and World War II
by Robert Matzen
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m borderline obsessed with anything related to Audrey Hepburn.
I’ve seen all the films. I’ve read all the books. I own a ton of the cool memorabilia.
My dog is named Gypsy Golightly for a reason, folks.
My love affair with Audrey began when I was a young girl. My grandmother was an import straight from Liverpool, having met my grandfather (an American solider) in a pub shortly after the war. She was a dainty woman with a fiery spirit. My grandmother could cut you down to size with a handful of well-placed words, and she could make you cackle with laughter in the breath after. I spent nearly all of my adolescent summers alternating between her house and my other grandmother’s house across the railroad tracks. Both were situated in the Louisiana countryside, where the humidity was high, the smell of wild honeysuckle abounded, and the mosquitos were thick. As a result, I spent a lot of those summer afternoons indoors, leaving my outside time to after the sun set when the only sounds keeping me company were those of the locusts and the train in the distance.
During those lazy and hazy afternoons, my grandmother used copious amounts of her peanut butter pie and her tiny television set to introduce me to men and women who would accompany me throughout my naive adolescence, my formidable teenage years, and into my adulthood. You know the ones: Dreamy Cary Grant. Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Lighthearted Sandra Dee. Jimmy Stewart and his penchant for emotional monologues. And of course, the incomparable Audrey Hepburn.
I was mesmerized by her from the moment her petite image filled up the screen. Roman Holiday, the first film I saw of hers … well, if you’ve seen it, then you know exactly what I mean. She was beyond beautiful. It wasn’t just her enormous eyes or her adorable hairstyles. It wasn’t just her tiny and enviable waist or her shy smile that could catch any number of men from across the room. It was her very essence. Audrey Hepburn had grace. She had style. She had an elegance that you cannot teach. I was a chubby and awkward adolescent and she was everything I’d always wanted to be. Still want to be, if I’m being honest.
I inhaled all of her films, summer after summer. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Funny Face. My Fair Lady. You name it, I’ve seen it. Multiple times.
As I grew steadily older, my love of Audrey in film transitioned into a love of Audrey in print, and I began to devour the biographies written about her and the style books dedicated to her impeccable way of dressing and simplistic design. I worked in a bookstore when Audrey Style came out and I saved my meager paycheck for a month to be able to work it in to my poor-highschool-kid budget. It was worth it, as I completely inhaled the book cover-to-cover on more than one occasion.
So when I saw an article online (you know, cause I have a Google Alert like a proper stalker) about a new Audrey book due to print called Dutch Girl, I clicked on it immediately and read it as hungrily as if it were my granny’s peanut butter pie. I recognized the girl staring out at me from the front cover, but was perplexed as to why the author/publisher would choose an image featuring such a young version of Audrey Hepburn instead of one of her more iconic looks. Then I read the blurb and realized … okay, so this book was different.
Boy, was it ever.
Every biography I have read about Audrey has skimmed over her childhood and beginnings, almost as if there is a lack of information. I’ve never read anything about her parents, other than it being noted that Audrey came from some sort of aristocracy. So when Dutch Girl virtually opens up with a scene set in the office of a very well-known Nazi and it’s a sequence starring Audrey Hepburn’s mother … okay, so my eyes were popping nearly out of my head. Whaaaaaat? Can’t be true. Can’t be real. EVERYONE can agree that Audrey is known as much for her altruistic and charitable qualities as she was her beauty. Audrey Hepburn was a pioneer in AIDS research, world hunger awareness, and all in all – just being a good human. So where do these Nazis come in, and why? The last words on earth I would ever pair together are Audrey Hepburn and Nazi.
I’m not going to spoil it for you, and in all honesty … it truly is a story that must be read to be believed. Author Robert Matzen not only tells the story of Audrey Hepburn’s early childhood, but also that of the people surrounding her … her wild and careless mother who seemed to embrace whatever was in front of her instead of being carefully discerning, her absentee father who was known in some circles to be a criminal, her beloved uncle and aunt who suffered a bizarre and unjust tragedy at the hands of Nazis, and her brother who chose to defy the odds for love.
I was fascinated by the accounting of her mother in particular, and in how Audrey chose to silently stand by the woman no matter the bad choices she continually made throughout Audrey’s childhood. The story ebbs and flows between all of these people in young Audrey’s life, drawing to unfortunate conclusions for many of them. These people had a direct impact on who she would grow up to be and she was extremely close with her family throughout every high and low they went through together.
Everyone knows the actress Audrey Hepburn grew up to be. Everyone can quote a quip from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or throw on a pair of ballet flats in honor of her timeless style. But what I didn’t know about this iconic woman … well, it could fill a book – and Dutch Girl is that book.
I’d read in another biography that one reason Audrey was so slender was the lack of food she was able to obtain during the war. I also read that she was very conscious of her figure due to her career as a notable ballet dancer. But Robert Matzen’s book takes these assumptions so much deeper … speaking an honest account of Audrey’s personal suffering while living in an occupied city and how she coped with lack of food, lack of sunlight, lack of … anything, for that matter. It was unreal to think of the glamorous movie star so many have admired spending days underground as bombs fell around the city she loved and lived in. It was horrifying to think of the child Audrey going days without a single bite.
And as for her ballet career, how she must have felt to get on a stage and perform ballet for a room full of Nazis … to have virtually no choice in the matter … well, it is bone-chilling to think about. Dancing was such a large part of Audrey’s life, and it was heartbreaking to see how the Nazis found a way to infiltrate her every being, including the one thing she used as an escape. I was especially moved by an account of several people who said that Audrey used dance as a way to help children younger than her get through the war. She trained them in ballet out of the kindness of her heart, hoping to allow them a sense of peace and relief from the nightmare unfolding around them. It appears that Hepburn was a kind soul from birth, always eager to put herself and her own needs aside in the effort to help others even the slightest bit.
Audrey was one of the most famous ballerinas in the city where she resided. The young girl lived and breathed to dance and be high on her toes, finding a release en pointe. Nazi occupation stifled her most beloved passion, but it never snuffed it out entirely. Later in life, she found a path by falling in to movies. Her career in acting was an accident made mostly by her need for money after the war, and it was her uncanny ability to captivate others that allowed her to flourish and succeed. Audrey never took herself very seriously when it came to her career, excepting in the area of dance, and perhaps this is why so many were drawn to her. She had no airs about her and in fact seemed bemused and a bit embarrassed by her fame, and no matter that she had seen the horrors of one of the most dreadful wars the world has ever seen right on her doorstep, Audrey Hepburn never lost hope.
Another interesting fact featured in this book was the connection between Anne Frank and Audrey Hepburn. While she had been asked several times in her adult career to portray young Frank in the movies, Hepburn always turned it down. She could never bring herself to be put in Anne Frank’s shoes, their similarities being too close to home and too cutting a reminder. Both Audrey and Anne were born in the same year, and lived only 60 miles apart during the war. They both loved to dance and both spent much of their adolescence in hiding, in one way or another. While Audrey hid in plain sight on the stage dancing at the Nazi’s pleasure, Anne was doing her best to be as small and quiet as possible behind closed doors. Hepburn has noted many times that The Diary of Anne Frank was a manuscript that haunted her throughout adulthood, reminding her of just how easily it could have been her on the other side of that wheel of life.
Where most biographies can tend to be dry and overly factual, author Robert Matzen set this biography in the way of a story. It’s captivating and full of emotion and style, much like the woman the book is about. I had to knock points off just a little bit because the author tended to get very technical when it came to certain aspects of the war, losing my interest in favor of deep descriptions of battles and tactics that I felt were best left in a novel devoted to the war and not Audrey Hepburn. I was however fascinated by the clever way the storytelling unfolded in regards to the young subject, as well as the way the author took direct quotes from Audrey and worked to sew them together with historical facts about her life and her surrounding area. My hat goes off to him, as it seemed to be a very daunting task. The end result is a well-done biography full of fresh information that truly stands as a star in a sea of other Hepburn books.
All in all, I give Dutch Girl 3.5 stars, and I truly appreciate this other side of my idol’s life. It only makes me respect and appreciate the wonderful person that she was even more. It is so inspiring, to see a phoenix rise that way … truly out of the ashes, and full of elegant spirit and genuine goodness. Bravo, Audrey. Bravo.