I am so in awe of Robert Matzen’s latest biography, DUTCH GIRL: Audrey Hepburn and World War II (on shelves next month: April 15th / GoodKnight), I reached out and asked for an interview.
Matzen’s answers are as riveting as the book, itself. See for yourself:
“…a long lost brother.”
Q. I was touched by DUTCH GIRL’s genuine, heartfelt Foreword by Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti. What was it like connecting with him?
Matzen: I had refrained from contacting with either Sean Hepburn Ferrer or Luca Dotti during the research and writing of the narrative because I wanted to be free of any family influence. It’s the same process I followed with Carole Lombard (Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3) and Jim Stewart (Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe)–let the facts take me where they take me and then let the family in on it. So after the last trip to the Netherlands, when I had come up with the first rough draft, I emailed them both. Luca responded right away to say he’d been trying to find me for months! He’s the family historian and had heard about my work from his contacts in Arnhem. Well, from there it’s as if I had found a lost brother. We realized from the first instant that we were on the same wavelength, with similar beliefs and creative impulses, which led to some great conversations. When he reviewed the manuscript and made corrections and additions, it felt pretty tremendous, not only because it was validating for me as a writer, but because Audrey’s son had become my creative partner.
“…how was I going to get at the truth?”
Q. Without divulging any spoilers, what was one of the biggest “ah-hah” moments in your research/discoveries? How did it come about?
Matzen: My temptation was to paint Audrey’s mother Ella as a villain. She had been on the record as pro-Nazi. She had met Hitler, and ran around with a Nazi boyfriend. She was also a stage mother through Audrey’s ballet career. Immediately at war’s end she had covered her tracks about that Nazi past, as did so many, which made it impossible for me 70 years later to determine her true sympathies. Man did I sweat that for quite a while–how was I going to get at the truth. Then came the aha moment when I realized that she must have done a 180 in 1942–if you read the book you will know exactly when and why–and the reason I know she flipped was because two unimpeachable sources trusted her: My Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders had located Count van Limburg Stirum’s diary in which he talked about Ella, and I had stumbled upon the all-important Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft. They’re the two male heroes in the book and very smart men. Both put their trust in Ella van Heemstra, which meant that heading into 1942, she had turned on the Nazis and was A-OK after all.
“Total, true inner beauty to match what was visible, plus incredible strength and courage.”
Q. How did your perspective of Audrey change as you worked on this book?
Matzen: I wasn’t a fan of Audrey Hepburn’s. Like everyone else I recognized the timeless beauty in that face, and admired her work for UNICEF, and that’s as far as it went. The only picture I ever saw of hers on the big screen was Robin & Marian. I’d never seen Roman Holiday, or The Nun’s Story. I still haven’t forced my way through War & Peace. To me you can’t be a big fan of somebody and try to chronicle their lives because how are you going to be objective? But over the three years getting to know her, walking in her footsteps and learning what I learned, I became not a fan of hers, but an admirer. I understand her so very well, and to me there’s nothing not to like, and a great many things to marvel at. Total, true inner beauty to match what was visible, plus incredible strength and courage.
Q. Which of the following Hepburn film titles best describes the path (or your writing process) of this phenomenal project?
a. Roman Holiday ——— d. Charade
b. War and Peace ——— e. My Fair Lady
c. Two for the Road ——— f. Other:_________
Matzen: Other: Secret People, a crazy, dark melodrama that was Audrey’s big break, really. She was about 20 when she made it but still a teenager at heart. There’s intrigue and angst, which mirrors the research phase, struggling for sources, building alliances, seeking support, digging through Nazi documents–talk about groping through dark alleys hoping to come out alive at the other end. And of course writing about the SS, SD, the war, particularly that war, is dark stuff, just like Secret People.
Q. Besides WWII and Hollywood, are there any qualities or common ground that you feel –or you’ve discovered–Carole Lombard, Jimmy Stewart, and Audrey Hepburn share?
Matzen: They’re three smart people, one an extrovert (CL) and the other two passionate introverts, but I’ll tell you one thing they had in common that’s pretty great: Each had a killer sense of humor. Imagine the three of them alone in a room at the same time–if that ever happens on the Other Side, hijinx will ensue.
“Audrey Hepburn was up to her elbows in blood.”
Q. What “take-aways” would you like your readers to get from reading DUTCH GIRL?
Matzen: I’d like people to look at Audrey Hepburn with new respect and understanding, knowing now exactly why she was a hero. One of her biographers said basically, “She was only 14 or 15 in the war so she couldn’t have been in the Resistance.” Well guess what. That war made you grow up fast and the Resistance relied on young people down to kids as young as 9 or 10 as I document. Here’s the kind of war it was: Dr. Visser ‘t Hooft had dog tags made for his children–in case they were killed in the bombing or ground combat, he wanted to be able to tell whose body was whose so he had metal tags made for them to wear around their necks, each with a name stamped on it. The idea caught on and all the children of Velp had dog tags. There’s no surviving documentation that Audrey had dog tags, but I bet she did. They lived in one of the most beautiful villages in the Netherlands, a big-money place where people retired after making a fortune in the Dutch East Indies, but in 1944 and 1945, the war hit full force and oh brother did 15 year olds participate in it. Audrey Hepburn was up to her elbows in blood. Princess Ann went to war.
Q. What tips do you have for aspiring biographers?
Matzen: Two things: 1) In the field of biography, don’t trust what’s already been written about a person. I found so many errors in scholarship of Audrey resulting from one author trusting another author and repeating bad information. It’s really shocking in some cases. Always go back to primary sources as much as possible. Rudy Behlmer took me to the woodshed about that and I’ve never forgotten it. In the Errol & Olivia rough draft I stated that Lili Damita had been married to Michael Curtiz in Europe and Rudy flipped out. Where did I get that? he demanded. We were in the Smoke House in Burbank, sitting there, and I swallowed hard, looked him in the eye, and said I saw it on the internet. Word to the wise: Never say “I saw it on the internet” to Hollywood Historian Rudy Behlmer. He was as pissed as I was embarrassed and ever since that day at the Smoke House, I am careful. I’ve learned to deconstruct my subject and rebuild him or her from the ground up using primary sources. 2) My advice for anybody writing a book about anything is, write a thousand words a day. If you do that for 100 days, you have a book. Don’t worry if they’re good words or bad words, just corral all those words and worry about putting your brand on them later.
Q. What’s next? How do you follow a book like this?
Matzen: You know what, Erin? I have no idea. I have been working since 2011 pretty steadily on what has become my “Hollywood in World War II Trilogy” and it’s the strangest thing not to be working on something. I’m certain that I don’t want to settle on just any old thing as my next subject, which is a trap biographers can fall into. The publisher insists on an author keeping his name relevant. I want the next thing to come up and grab me. Back after Fireball I started to round up research on Basil Rathbone because Rathbone has never been done. I went out to Hollywood and poked around the places he lived and went to the Herrick Library nosing around trying to get myself into a Rathbone frame of mind, but it didn’t feel right. Baz and I just didn’t hit it off for whatever reason, so I let it go. Then my friend John McElwee–Greenbriar Picture Shows John McElwee–announced what I should do next: Jimmy Stewart in the war. We were sitting in a restaurant and he said that and I remember thinking, I can’t do that! Stewart refused to talk about the war, so where would the facts come from? But a few days later, after I’d slept on it, the idea snuck up and grabbed me. I thought, just because nobody’s ever done it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I relished the challenge of it and off I went chasing through the War Dept. records with Ann Trevor, my DC researcher. So now I’ll leave it to the cosmos to tell me what’s next. Some good story that’s never been told. Hopefully a WWII story because it’s the biggest, most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to the world. My wife sure wants to know what’s next because when I don’t have a book to work on I get restless and cranky.
Endless gratitude to Robert Matzen for sharing his insights and discoveries with us. For more about Matzen and his work, see RobertMatzen.com (I am hooked on his blog.), and follow him on Twitter at @RobertMatzen.
“I’ll leave it to the cosmos to tell me what’s next.”
I can’t wait to read what the cosmos has in mind for Matzen’s next book.