Ah, there’s the Audrey we love—light and breezy, cycling around the set of Sabrina in capri pants and a ponytail.
But a scant eight years earlier, an Audrey we’ll grow to love even more was cycling through the darkened streets of her Nazi-occupied city, entrusted with urgent missives of the Dutch Resistance printed on sheets no bigger than paper napkins: “I stuffed them in my woolen socks in my wooden shoes, got on my bike and delivered them.”
This is the girl we meet in Robert Matzen’s extraordinary and deeply moving new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII (GoodKnight Books, 2019), gleaned from exhaustive research that includes family diaries, Dutch archival records, Audrey’s own recollections, and interviews with villagers who knew her during the war. It also features photographs from her personal collection, published for the first time.
Audrey didn’t come by her anti-Nazi fervor naturally: both her parents were fiercely pro-fascist. Her father, Joseph Ruston, peddled Nazi propaganda so hard that he wound up on the radar of British intelligence. And her mother, the Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, penned articles praising the Führer (“Well may Adolf Hitler be proud of the rebirth of this great country and of the rejuvenation of the German spirit!”)—and treasured the moment he kissed her hand during a personal audience in Munich.
Ruston abandoned his family when Adriaanjte (“little Audrey”) was only six—opening a wound that would never fully heal. (“I think it is hard sometimes for children who are dumped,” she recalled decades later, the pain still palpable. “I don’t care who they are. It tortures a child beyond measure. They don’t know what the problem was.”) Also undone by the sudden shock, Ella shuttled her two sons off to a boarding school in The Hague and Audrey to another near Dover, England, where she found refuge in music and dance. (“I fell in love with dancing,” she said later. “There was a young dancer who would come up from London once a week and give ballet lessons. I loved it, just loved it.”)
But in 1939, as the Nazis blighted ever more of Europe, the baroness, who had moved from Belgium to the Netherlands to be closer to family, reclaimed her children to a land she thought was safe. Astonishingly, she still trusted Hitler, and believed he wouldn’t invade a country that Germany had deemed off-limits during the Great War.
Ten-year-old Audrey made it safely out of England not a moment too soon. “There were still a few Dutch planes allowed to fly,” she later recalled. “They put me on this bright orange plane. You know, orange is the national color and it flew very low. It was really one of the last planes out.”
Ella’s peculiar trust in the Führer proved short-lived, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands the following spring. “We saw the grey uniforms of the German soldiers on foot,” Audrey would remember. “They all held machine guns and marched in looking spick and span and disciplined… then came the rumble of trucks… and the next thing we knew they had taken complete charge of the town.”
In Holland, she continued to find solace in the rigors of ballet, enrolling in a music school run by a celebrated local instructor. And she found warmth and comfort with her Uncle Otto and his wife Wilhelmina, who gave her the affection her mother brusquely withheld.
Even in the early years of the occupation, Ella remained on friendly terms with influential local Nazis, which helped her maintain a prominent—and to her, still important—role in the town’s cultural affairs. But she finally relented when the war took a monstrously personal toll.
In May 1942, Otto was one of hundreds rounded up, arrested and imprisoned for the acts of resistance across the Netherlands. Four months later, when critical a rail line was sabotaged, he was one of five hostages dragged from their beds and driven to the middle of a remote forest. There, they were forced to dig their own graves through the night, and executed by firing squad at dawn the next morning. Grief-stricken and terrified, Audrey’s family fled to Velp, where her grandfather lived.
After years of study which helped keep her sane, Audrey had become Arnhem’s most prominent young ballerina, grudgingly giving her first public performance in July 1941 for an audience of Nazi soldiers. But the heartbreak of losing her beloved uncle hardened her even further against the brutal occupiers—and soon, she would turn her talents to aiding the Resistance movement that Otto had given his life for. She started performing at secret, invitation-only fundraisers called zwarte avonden (black evenings), so named because the windows were blacked out to avoid Nazi detection. “Guards were posted outside to let us know when Germans approached,” Hepburn later recalled. “The best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
In the summer of 1944, a family friend introduced Audrey to Dr. Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft, whose hospital was the center of the local Resistance, where doctors and staff forged identity papers and set up communications with the Allies. Audrey helped treat the wounded during the bloody, protracted Battle of Arnhem, and, because she spoke fluent English, carried messages to downed American and British fliers, telling them where they might find food and safe haven.
One English pilot who was shot down found shelter with the Hepburns, who hid him until he could make his escape. “My mother told me it was thrilling for her—it was risky, he was a stranger in uniform, a savior, and therefore a knight and hero,” her son, Luca Dotti, recalls in Dutch Girl. “Then I learned about the German law that if you were caught hiding an enemy, the whole family would be taken away.”
Partly as a form of cruel vengeance against a people who clearly despised and resisted them, the Nazis began withholding food, fuel, coal, and other vital supplies; even water was in short supply. During the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, thousands succumbed to intense cold and starvation, while many who survived, including Audrey, suffered extreme malnutrition. She went for days at a time without eating, and meals, when they could be cobbled together, usually consisted of a potato or a slice of bread—often made from ground tulip bulbs—and a thin broth.
Finally in April 1945, Canadian forces, bearing gifts of cigarettes and candy bars, forced the last Nazis out of Velp. And Audrey celebrated by gorging on chocolate until she was too sick to eat any more.
Dutch Girl is Matzen’s third volume covering the war years of classic Hollywood stars, following Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. I love all three, not only for the meticulous research he devotes to them—by now he’s practically a grizzled war veteran himself—but because he pushes past the ordinary celebrity portraits to reveal aspects of their lives and characters we’d never known before.
In the case of Audrey Hepburn, this is especially welcome. It always bothers me when she’s portrayed merely as a meringue confection or style icon, when there was so much underneath, so much more going on behind her eyes. Now, thanks to Matzen’s book, we know what some of that was.
The horrors she witnessed, and those that shattered her family first-hand, would have hardened a lot people, or perhaps instilled a sense of entitlement. Audrey had literally looked pure evil in the face, and God knows she’d earned a safe, secure haven to hide away in. Instead, she reached out to a world still in pain, still battling hunger and disease, war and injustice. She could have looked away. With all her heart, she didn’t.
From almost the moment she gained a public platform, Audrey used it for good, urging the world to Look. See. Help. The phrase “worked tirelessly” is tossed around a lot, but she did—for the Red Cross and as an ambassador for UNICEF. All over the world, wherever a light needed to be shown. At fundraisers, she sometimes gave readings from the diary of Anne Frank, who was born the same year and whose family had also fled to Holland in a frantic search for safety, to find it only briefly. She knew many passages by heart.
“The war was very, very important to her,” says Dotti in Dutch Girl. “It made her who she was.” Or, just maybe, it revealed who Adriaantje was all along, from the very beginning.