There’s a new book about Audrey Hepburn in bookstores but this one shines a light on a part of the actress’ life many people don’t talk about. In Dutch Girl, author Robert Matzen chronicles the five years she lived during Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. I’ve read countless biographies on Hepburn and many of them discuss this but not in the scope and detail you’ll find in Dutch Girl. Hepburn was only 11-years-old when the Germans began their occupation in the Netherlands. The film delves deep into her daily life during this time, how the war impacted her family and her work in the Dutch resistance movement. It is harrowing but not exploitative, written with empathy and respect for its subject. It’s a must-read for Hepburn fans and fans of history and classic film.
I had the honor of interviewing Matzen about the book and his research. I’d like to thank him for his time to answer my questions and for writing such a riveting book.
This is the final book in your trilogy about Hollywood and WWII, what drew you to this theme?
Fireball began as a one-off–a book about perhaps the most dramatic weekend in Hollywood history, when Carole Lombard went down in a plane crash and her husband Clark Gable raced to Las Vegas on the thought he could save her. Mission, about Jimmy Stewart’s combat career in the war, hung out there as another great untold Hollywood story because Stewart refused to talk about his war record. Audrey’s story was similar–there were things she simply would not discuss about World War II and that proved to be an irresistible challenge to me. So here were three stories about the war years, each previously untold, each with a leading Hollywood celebrity as the focus. I feel incredibly fortunate that I got to be the one to tell these stories, and other authors can kick themselves for missing the opportunity.
I’m so grateful you decided to dig into Audrey Hepburn’s story. It’s something overlooked when it comes to her image. What do you think readers will be most surprised by when they read this book?
What I’m already hearing is that readers are unprepared for the horrors that Audrey witnessed–the agony of life under the Nazis and the personal, day-to-day fear instilled by that regime; the dire situation Audrey faced personally when the Nazis cut off food from the Dutch people at the end of 1944; and then the sheer terror when the battle came to Audrey’s backyard not just for days but for months on end. Readers will be reorienting themselves to the fact that the young woman from Roman Holiday had been inches away from death by bullet or bomb eight years earlier. And more than once.
Hepburn’s family has been supportive of the book, contributing to the forward. These were painful memories for their mother, how was it like connecting with them on this difficult subject? Why do you think now is the time that this part of her story is told?
I intentionally withheld the manuscript from the family until all research was completed and a draft was finished. I didn’t want family interference until I had built my case, and so it was with some trepidation I approached Audrey’s sons, Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti. So imagine my surprise when Luca wrote back immediately and enthusiastically. He had heard there was an author working in the Netherlands for abook about his mother in the war, but he couldn’t track down who it was. We became fast friends and collaborators at that point because he’s the family historian and was eager to read my manuscript to help him “connect the dots” on his mother’s past. Then he started feeding me information from the family archives that helped meconnect some dots, and magic happened at that point.
As for why now, Audrey remains as popular as ever, with timeless appeal and a message of peace, of hope, of selflessness, and of acceptance of people of all skin colors that resonates in these troubled times. Dutch Girl explains why she became this person; it was because of the war she experienced and her personal determination to do what she could to not let history repeat itself. As Luca said, “The war made my mother who she was.”
How did your perspective on Hepburn change during the writing of this book?
I was like everyone–I was aware of Audrey Hepburn and thought she was a beautiful woman, and her work for UNICEF was praiseworthy. But I wasn’t what you’d call a fan. After living with her for going on three years, my admiration has grown to be boundless because of what she survived, how she conducted herself in the war and afterward, and how she surmounted the memories, pain, and trauma to become a champion for peace.
What do you hope readers will walk away with after reading this book?
I think readers will know Audrey a lot better. They will marvel at her secrets and why she was determined to keep them. They’ll understand her personal courage, and what made this very private person tick. Above all, maybe a few readers will look at their own past hardships or traumas, things that have caused pain–maybe bitterness, and use Audrey as an example of turning those negatives into positives to make the world a better place.
Dutch Girl is now available wherever books are sold.